One thing that has become clear this season is that Derrick Jones is a unique weapon. His athleticism places him in the upper, upper 99th percentile of Mountain West players, and his body control around the rim makes him a devastating finisher. But he’s not perfect. Jones still has trouble creating offense for himself, and like most freshmen, his production varies from game to game.
So one of the most impressive aspects of Todd Simon’s performance during his short stint as interim head coach has been his ability to capitalize on what Jones does well.
Before Simon took over, Jones had never attempted more than 10 shots in a game against a Division I opponent (against Southern Utah on Nov. 18 and South Dakota on Dec. 22). Since the coaching change, Jones has had back-to-back games of 15 attempts against Air Force and Utah State. Jones was UNLV’s leading scorer in each contest, shooting 63.3 percent from the field, and the Rebels won both games by double digits.
Take a look at Jones’ shot chart for the last three games he played under Dave Rice (all losses):
And look at what he’s done in the three games since the coaching change (all wins):
It appears Simon and offensive assistant Ryan Miller have installed some halfcourt concepts that play to Jones’ strengths. The freakishly bouncy 6-foot-7 forward is one of the most efficient players in the country when shooting around the basket (among players with 75 such attempts, only 13 convert at a better rate than Jones’ 1.571 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports), so Simon has made it a point to get Jones more paint touches. The Rebels have done that by setting screens for Jones on the blocks and letting him curl off the catch, which allows him to pull up for a short jumper or take one or two power dribbles to get within range of a finish at the rim.
Here’s an example of Jones running the baseline, curling off a screen and powering to the rim. He misses the initial shot, but he’s so athletic that he’s able to beat everyone off the floor and tip in his own miss:
A few minutes later, the Rebels run the same set again. This time, Jones catches and pulls up for the short jumper. Mid-range shooting isn’t his greatest strength yet, but he makes this one:
Against Utah State we see the same set again. Jones curls off a baseline screen from Stephen Zimmerman, receives the pass from Patrick McCaw and uses one power dribble to get to the rim. This play is a good example of how Jones will grow with experience—Zimmerman is open on the roll, and Jones could have slipped an extra pass (or a lob) to the 7-footer for an even easier shot. That will come with time. As it stands now, Jones converts on his own:
Later against Utah State, they run a variation of the same concept. Instead of running Jones off baseline screens, the Rebels stagger two screens to bring him across the free throw line. Once Ben Carter directs everyone into proper position, Jones cuts across and receives the pass at the opposite elbow, and the screens have given him enough separation to turn the corner and head to the rim:
It’s a simple concept made hyper-efficient because Jones is such an amazing finisher around the basket. The Rebels have run that set multiple times in each of the past two games, and Jones has used his length, leaping ability and soft touch to deliver positive results. Utilizing that skill set more often should benefit UNLV in the long run, as the Rebels have largely had trouble finishing at the rim as a team this season. While Jones has made 36 of his 49 attempts around the rim in halfcourt situations (73.5 percent), the rest of the team is just 151 of 305 (49.5 percent). Funneling more of those chances to Jones is a smart play.
It’s an extremely small sample size—just three games, including a nonexistent performance against New Mexico, when foul trouble limited Jones to nine minutes and just one shot attempt—but it looks as though Simon is committed to getting the ball in Jones’ hands and putting him in position to succeed.