The university released a statement on Wednesday afternoon:
Bad news for UNLV, as Derrick Jones has been declared academically ineligible by the NCAA. UNLV’s statement: pic.twitter.com/AGlvALA0x6
— Mike Grimala (@MikeGrimala) March 2, 2016
Jones, a 6-foot-7 freshman, has been one of the Rebels’ most effective players this season, leading the team in total plus/minus and plus/minus per 40 minutes. His 11.5 points per game ranks second on the team to Patrick McCaw’s 13.7, and his shooting percentage of 58.9 is by far the most efficient mark among Rebels.
Mark Anderson of the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported via Twitter that the NCAA has concerns over Jones’ ACT score and made the decision to revoke his eligibility, even though the organization had previously cleared him before the season:
— Mark Anderson (@markanderson65) March 2, 2016
According to an article in The Sporting News, the NCAA’s ACT Security Division has been investigating Jones’ score since September. Jones’ lawyer, Don Jackson, told The Sporting News that the NCAA tried to force Jones to retake the test or submit to an arbitration hearing and questioned the timing of the decision to rescind his eligibility:
Jackson said the ACT Test Security division had been provided evidence of Jones’ successful academic work at UNLV — Jones is said to be an honor-roll level student — and in high school as well as of his work in two test preparation courses.
Jones was offered three options by the ACT, none of which included verification of his successful score: volunteer to cancel his own score, retake the test or submit to arbitration, for which the testing service demanded a $200 filing fee. Jones and his representation deemed these unacceptable.
“The recent actions appear to be a blatant, calculated effort to impact post-season play and to assure that UNLV plays without an important player in next week’s post season tournament,” Jackson said. “This ‘investigation’ has been ongoing for almost a year; there can be no other explanation for the timing.”
Given the pace at which the NCAA works to settle eligibility issues, there’s a real chance this setback means Jones is finished for 2015-16.
A look at what this means for UNLV:
Quite simply, there is no single player on the UNLV roster (or really, any combination of players) who can replicate Jones’ skill set. He is unique in his ability to impact the game with his athleticism, especially around the rim at both ends of the court.
According to Hoop-Math.com, more than two-thirds of all Jones’ shot attempts come near the rim (the highest rate on the team), and he converts an otherworldly 72.7 percent of them. No other Rebel shoots better than 60.9 percent around the basket. That ability to put the ball in the basket has helped Jones score 1.085 points per possession, also the best mark on the team. Losing such an impact finisher is going to make the offense less efficient, and there is no way UNLV can replace that production.
Jones has also evolved into a game-changing defensive player throughout the course of his freshman year. He’s second on the team in block rate (6.2 percent) and steal rate (2.3 percent), showing his versatility on that end of the court. According to Synergy Sports data, opponents shoot just 25.4 percent when being guarded by Jones, which makes him the Rebels’ most effective defensive player (Patrick McCaw is second, holding opponents to 31.4 percent shooting).
Throw in Jones’ energy and ability to bring the team to life with his highlight dunks, and it’s clear what kind of player the Rebels are losing. And Jones’ recent play (25 points, seven rebounds, four blocks against Boise State, 23 points, nine rebounds, four steals against Wyoming) suggested that he was peaking at the right time, which only makes the timing of the NCAA’s ruling more painful for UNLV.
Jones was the only frontcourt player to escape the injury epidemic this year, so I guess it was only a matter of time before something forced him out of the lineup. Now the Rebels are back to one big man surrounded by four guards, and unless Dwayne Morgan returns from his separated shoulder ahead of schedule, that’s likely how they’ll finish the season.
The good news for UNLV is that Stephen Zimmerman is well suited to playing as a lone big. He’s a good enough rebounder (team-high 27.1 defensive rebounding percentage) to control the boards, and his shot blocking ability (team-best 8.0 percent block rate) will deter opponents around the rim.
Offensively, however, the Rebels will suffer. Jones was a beast in transition and in the paint, and Zimmerman doesn’t replicate those strengths. Less than half of Zimmerman’s shots come around the basket, and he’s not nearly the finisher Jones is, as he makes just 58.5 percent of those attempts.
The Rebels are back to being perilously thin, and that is going to be a fatal flaw if Zimmerman gets into foul trouble, gets hurt, or is otherwise ineffective during a game. There is no Plan B.
Derrick Jones hasn’t been popping up in mock drafts, but that might be because no one expected such a raw prospect to leave school after his freshman year. But now that the NCAA is forcing his hand, there’s a possibility Jones has no choice but to make the leap to the professional ranks.
It’s too early to peg his draft stock accurately, but there are reasons to believe Jones has a chance to be selected in this year’s draft. He’s had a productive season at the college level (11.5 points, 58.9 FG%, 4.5 rebounds, 1.3 blocks), and his physical profile is tailor-made for the NBA—he’s got ideal height and length for a swingman, and his athleticism is on another level. He can’t shoot or create his own offense at this point, and he’ll need to add strength, but some team will look at him and see the potential for a defender in the Shawn Marion, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson mold. That has value, even if it will take a few years to realize that potential.
Depending on how the NCAA investigation goes and how Jones performs at the NBA combine (I’d expect him to attend, now that prospects can participate and still retain college eligibility), there’s a chance he has played his last game at UNLV.