Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. And Derrick Jones Jr. alley-oop passes.
“I don’t think the Air Force one was a good pass,” sophomore guard Jordan Cornish said, “but he’s a freak so he can do whatever.”
In the first half of what was already a blowout last week, Cornish lobbed a pass a foot or more to the right of the backboard. Jones’ momentum was taking him past that point but he was able to pause long enough to snatch the pass with two hands behind his head and whip it through for two of his game-high 22 points.
Plays like that were expected from the bouncy 6-foot-7 freshman out of Chester, Pa. His overall production, though, especially in the past week, is a surprise to many outside of the program, but to those around him it’s just a sign of things to come.
“He honestly should have been doing this from the beginning, just because that’s what type of player he is,” said fellow freshman and roommate Stephen Zimmerman Jr. “I think that we’ll be seeing a lot more of it going into the future.”
UNLV (12-7, 3-3) is back in action tonight at 7 against UNR (11-7, 3-3) in the Lawlor Events Center. The game will air on ESPNU.
The Rebels enter the game on a three-game winning streak during which Jones was the team’s leading scorer despite going scoreless against New Mexico. That’s the game when he committed two fouls in the first 29 seconds, which did more to slow him down than any defense could.
It didn’t take long after Jones stepped on campus to see that he was more than just a dunker. But how complete of a game could he put together as a freshman?
Early on he was dominant against inferior competition, averaging 18.3 points per game in four blowout wins, and then disappeared against better foes, scoring a total of 10 points against UCLA, Indiana and Oregon. Part of what limited Jones then is the same thing that he’s struggled with all year: foul trouble.
Jones has the second-highest foul rate (5.6 fouls committed per 40 minutes) on the team but he has never fouled out in part because he tends to commit them in bunches that force him to sit for long periods of time. For example, sophomore forward Dwayne Morgan commits 1.1 more fouls per 40 minutes than Jones but their minutes per game are nearly identical (18.9 for Jones, 18.4 for Morgan) because Morgan has been able to spread his out and consistently play through them.
UNLV played great in interim coach Todd Simon's first two games, and if that continues on the road this week the Rebels (11-7, 2-3) could really be in business. Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer and reporters Case Keefer and Taylor Bern discuss what this UNLV team could do now that the pressure is off.
Basically, the fouls have become built into Morgan’s game in a way that Jones hasn’t yet figured out, and the Rebels really want him to because they don’t think Jones is anywhere close to his ceiling. This season, Morgan has never played less than 10 minutes or more than 27, while Jones has played less than 10 three times and 27 or more three times, including in Tuesday’s victory at Utah State.
Jones was dialed in from the start of that one and proved quickly that his 22 points against Air Force were no fluke, finishing with 21 points on 10-of-15 shooting.
“We’ve kind of put him into positions to attack and he’s done an excellent job of taking advantage of those situations,” said interim coach Todd Simon. “A lot of it is mismatches where we’re doing a pretty good job of exploiting certain mismatches that we see through scouting and finding the right player the right shot on a given possession.”
There’s almost no shot within 10 feet that isn’t a good one for Jones, because with one step he can turn anything that close into a shot at the rim. Aesthetically, he’s the best- and worst-looking finisher on the team.
Jones’ dunks are pieces of art that deserve their own wing at the Smithsonian while many of his close-range shots are closer to something found on a National Geographic special about baby giraffes or deer learning to walk. That’s mostly the result of Jones using his elastic arms and legs to get around opponents and create angles that they didn’t know they needed to or couldn’t defend.
What’s most important no matter how the shot looks is that it goes in, and Jones is hitting 69.3 percent at the rim, according to hoop-math.com. That’s the highest from a Rebel since former No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett.
“I tell him every day, ‘You just go hard every day and you play like you’ve been playing, there’s no reason you can’t be the top scorer on our team, easy,’ ” said Cornish, who first met Jones at a Reebok camp a few years ago.
The surge in offensive production is obvious, and the added bonus of Jones being able to stay on the court is that he’s a complete mismatch at the other end, too.
“The day that he decides he wants to be the best defender in the nation, he will be,” Simon said.
According to Synergy Sports, opponents are scoring 0.543 points per possession against Jones. That leads the team and ranks in the top four percent nationally.
Jones moved into the starting lineup five games ago, and as the New Mexico game showed that comes with a risk of early foul trouble. But it’s a risk the Rebels have been more willing to take lately because they see the potential reward.
Fans see it, too, because as much as Jones’ value to the team is in all of the different things he can do, it doesn’t hurt that he’s also good for one or two plays that are worth the price of admission.
“You can throw he ball anywhere and he’ll go get it,” Cornish said. “It makes it fun.”