AP FILE PHOTO
Sunday, May 22, 2011 | 2:15 a.m.
Ever since his official visit to UNLV in late March, it was speculated that the Rebels were the consistent frontrunner to land USC transfer Bryce Jones.
Even after a coaching change that altered the program's landscape and future, that held true, and on Saturday, the pledge finally came.
Jones, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, will join the Rebels, sit out next season per NCAA transfer rules and be eligible to play as a redshirt sophomore in the 2012-13 season.
"I just felt comfortable with the coaching staff, comfortable with the guys on the team and the program is headed for big things — I wanted to be a part of it," Jones said. "It just feels like a big relief. Now I can use the summer to keep getting better."
Jones said he hasn't decided yet whether he'll be spending the summer in Las Vegas or at home in Los Angeles.
A former teammate of current UNLV guard Justin Hawkins at Woodland Hills (Calif.) Taft High, Jones headed to Southern Cal last year as the No. 97 overall prospect in the 2010 class according to Rivals.com.
He started the Trojans' first 10 games, averaging 28.1 minutes and 11.2 points per outing over that stretch. When highly-touted Fordham transfer Jio Fontan became eligible after the fall semester, Jones turned into a reserve and averaged only 11.1 minutes over the next eight games before deciding to transfer in January.
Stories of a locker room altercation with teammate Garrett Jackson and another run-in with a resident adviser in his dorm leaked not long after, though Jones provided his versions of both stories after an overall positive visit to UNLV two months ago. It was also pretty well known that he and USC coach Kevin O'Neill never quite saw eye-to-eye on a consistent basis.
He wanted a fresh start and took his time to make sure the right choice was made.
Less than a week after his visit, coach Lon Kruger surprised many by leaving for the vacant Oklahoma job, but Jones never ruled UNLV out.
Not long after Dave Rice was hired to replace Kruger in April, he continued the program's recruitment of Jones. Naming San Diego State's Justin Hutson as his associate head coach didn't hurt in that effort, either, as Hutson was recruiting Jones to SDSU before taking the new gig.
"I was developing a relationship with him while he was over there," Jones said. "I felt comfortable enough to stay in touch with him after he moved on."
The other top potential suitor for Jones was Gonzaga, who had pursued him during the entire spring semester while he was still attending classes at USC. However, he never wound up taking an official visit to Spokane, as it was postponed three times for a variety of reasons.
"It just kind of fell apart," he said.
In the meantime, he got to know Rice better and also familiarized himself with new UNLV assistants Heath Schroyer and Stacey Augmon.
Now, he's the first piece in place in a crucial group of newcomers for the 2012-13 season, as the program will lose four scholarship players — Chace Stanback, Oscar Bellfield, Kendall Wallace and Brice Massamba — after this season and still has one open scholarship heading into the 2011 fall semester. That vacancy could end up being filled by Utah transfer J.J. O'Brien, who is expected to decide soon between UNLV, San Diego State, Colorado State and a few others.
Jones said that after playing his last game at USC at 195 pounds, a semester's worth of working out has him currently at a still-lean 210. He'll continue to try and bulk up over the next year and said one area needing the most improvement before he sets foot on the floor at UNLV is his ballhandling. Conditioning will also be a focal point, preparing to thrive as a primary scorer in Rice's uptempo system.
He'll also be doing a bit of light recruiting on the side.
Jones is longtime friends with current Bishop Gorman star Shabazz Muhammad, who is regarded as one of the truly elite recruits in the 2012 senior crop. Along with being pursued by the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and every other upper crust program in the country, UNLV is pushing hard and squarely in the hunt.
"I'll be in touch with him," Jones said. "I'll try to get him to come join me."