Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Rebels assistant coach Andre LaFleur had spent the previous five years at Providence, so he was familiar with Jones, who had played his first four years at Big East rival St. John’s. The last time Providence and St. John’s matched up in 2015-16, LaFleur had a courtside seat as Jones posted 14 points and 12 rebounds in 29 minutes.
When the 6-foot-7 forward became available over the summer as a fifth-year eligible grad transfer, LaFleur’s scouting report doubled as a glowing recommendation: Fast, strong, athletic and skilled with an aggressive attitude on the court. Jones was a sure thing.
But through the first half of this season, the Rebels hadn’t seen that Christian Jones. Hampered by separate heel and ankle injuries, Jones missed eight of UNLV's first 12 games. And when he did play, he wasn’t particularly productive — in the first two contests after returning from his most recent injury, Jones averaged just 8.5 points and 6.5 rebounds.
Something was missing.
In desperate need of frontcourt production, Menzies felt it was time for Jones to step up. Before Saturday’s home game against Wyoming, LaFleur was tasked with delivering that message.
LaFleur pulled Jones aside after practice and told him that he had to raise his level of play — immediately.
“We talked about the reality that as a fifth-year senior, the window of opportunity is closing,” LaFleur said. “The seasons go by really fast. Once you complete your non-conference schedule and get into conference play, you’re in the meat and potatoes of your season. So he had to pick up the urgency. It’s time. It’s now.”
LaFleur explained that the coaches wanted to see the version of Jones they thought they were getting — the Jones who impressed at St. John’s by flashing an intriguing combination of power, quickness and attitude.
“They wanted me to get back to where I was before,” Jones said, “just being that aggressive person that they recruited. Getting back in my rhythm and feeling more comfortable with everybody. It wasn’t about X’s and O’s or not being in the right spot, it was about getting back to how I was playing before.”
Jones took the conversation to heart. He went out against Wyoming and played his best game of the year, registering his first double-double since the season opener with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
He defended well, he rebounded and he scored inside, twice running pick-and-rolls and finishing through contact at the rim. The aggression LaFleur remembered from previous seasons had returned, and UNLV benefitted.
Despite the potentially stinging nature of their talk, LaFleur wasn’t worried about whether Jones would take it the wrong way.
“I would hope that the up-front, raw honesty is something they can handle and understand,” LaFleur said. “We were very frank in our conversation. It’s based on productivity. It’s nothing personal. Everybody has a job, and everybody has to do their job. For us to be successful, his job is he has a lot of responsibility as part of our inside attack and making us competitive there on a night-in, night-out basis. Either you rise to that responsibility, or maybe we have to look in a different direction.”
Jones received the message, loud and clear.
“You can’t let it get you down,” he said. “[The coaches] only want the best for you, so you just have to take it and try to get better.”
Jones made the Rebels better against Wyoming and showed how competitive UNLV can be when he plays well. Coming into the game, UNLV had been outscored by 13.2 points per 40 minutes with Jones on the court; against Wyoming, UNLV was +7 with Jones on the floor.
Before Tuesday’s practice, Jones said he’s back at 100 percent health, and though he’s still lagging behind a bit in terms of conditioning, he feels he’ll get back up to speed in that department quickly.
The Rebels could use more of the new Jones (same as the old Jones) today against Boise State. The Broncos (9-4) rank 322nd in the nation in block rate at 3.3 percent, so there should be plenty of opportunities for Jones to score around the basket.
“He has so many advantages, even being undersized at center, because he’s a very explosive athlete,” LaFleur said. “He’s able to use quickness as a mismatch against other guys that are bigger. We’ve just got to encourage him to keep his motor up. When he keeps his motor up and he’s out there utilizing his physical advantages, he can be a nightmare for opposing guys because of his explosiveness and his quickness.”
Now that he’s back on track, Jones is ready to make the most of the final 16 games of his college basketball career. Starting now.
“I’m willing to put in everything I’ve got for these last college games,” Jones said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone, so I just want to win. I want to win the Mountain West Conference. I’m willing to give everything I’ve got for it.”
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