Of all the scattered puzzle pieces Marvin Menzies has culled from the recruiting trail this offseason, Christian Jones may fit the best. As an experienced and versatile frontcourt performer, the grad transfer from St. John’s seems to match exactly what the Rebels need, and therefore could find himself in line for a ton of playing time next season.
It’s a role in which Jones should be comfortable. He played in every game for St. John’s last year (25.2 minutes per game) and started 19 contests, and by the end of the season he was one of the Red Storm’s top performers. He finished the campaign with modest averages of 8.4 points and 5.2 rebounds, but those numbers don’t reflect the impact he could have for UNLV.
What exactly makes Jones such a potentially good fit with this collection of Rebels? First off, he rounds out a rotation of big men that was dangerously thin. Before Jones signed, Dwayne Morgan was the only forward on the roster who had any Division I experience. Now, Jones and Morgan can team up to patrol the lane while giving incoming freshmen Djordjije Sljivancanin and Cheickna Dembele some much needed time to develop. Secondly—and most importantly—Jones will bring a strong defensive mindset to his short time in Las Vegas.
At 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, Jones can defend multiple positions, and he takes that part of the game seriously. He was the best defender for St. John’s last year, holding opponents to a team-best 0.741 points per possession and a 31.2 field goal percentage, and after going back and watching a couple of his games from last season, I believe he’s versatile enough to perform at a similar level with the Rebels.
Jones’ greatest strength comes from that versatility. He’s an excellent on-ball defender, as his strength allows him to body up to bigger post players, and he’s also very comfortable defending quicker, smaller players on the perimeter. He has a natural feel for switching—he knows when to execute a switch and when to slip back to his original man, and he’s usually vocal throughout the process, directing his teammates and helping them stick with their assignments.
In the games I watched, Jones played power forward and center but often found himself switched out onto the perimeter, and he was excellent in that role. He hedged ball screens and usually forced the ball-handler to pull back out, which allowed the defense to reset. He also played with a high motor, closing out hard on 3-point shooters and often running them off the arc:
It wasn’t glamorous, but it was extremely effective. Jones impacted just about every defensive possession in a positive way just by switching and corralling ball-handlers. UNLV should be able to use him in a similar capacity.
Jones’ instincts extend to his help defense. He recognition skills allow him to decipher offensive plays and anticipate ball movement, and he hustles to slide into driving lanes and cut off penetration. Once he establishes position, he’s willing to sacrifice his body by taking charges, which he did multiple times in the games I watched:
Because he has such a great feel for team defense, Jones should allow the Rebels to play small with he and Dwayne Morgan serving as the only bigs on the floor. What they lack in size, they can make up for with quickness. And Jones may even be able to man the middle by himself in super small lineups surrounded by four guards, should Menzies choose to try that strategy. Jones allowed a miniscule 0.457 points per possession on post-ups last year, so he’s capable of locking down the painted area.
Rebounding would be an issue with a Jones/Morgan frontcourt—Jones grabbed a pedestrian 16.7 percent of available defensive rebounds last year, virtually the same rate as Morgan (16.5 percent)—but Jones and Morgan could switch all screens and give the Rebels the ability to match up against just about any offense in the Mountain West. And hey, maybe Jones’ experience will rub off on Morgan, too. Jones committed just 3.3 fouls per 40 minutes last year, so in the best-case scenario, he can give Morgan (7.1 fouls per 40) some pointers on how to defend without fouling.
I think it’s a safe bet that Jones will bring a lot of defensive value to the Rebels. Offensively, he’s less of a lock. He’s a big man who struggles to convert around the basket (he made just 52.1 percent of his shots at the rim last year), and he doesn’t really stretch the floor at all (he took just three 3-point attempts last year and only hit at 35.9 percent on all catch-and-shoot attempts). He relies mostly on isolation mid-range jumpers, which is statistically the least efficient type of offense. Almost 60 percent of all of his field goal attempts were 2-point jumpers, and he predictably did not convert at a high rate (39.8 percent).
In the games I watched, Jones wasn’t particularly active within the St. John’s offense. When he caught the ball in the mid-post, he was decisive about whether to drive or pass. When he drove, it was usually one or two dribbles into the middle of the floor, where he would either pull up for a mid-range jumper, or a spin move toward the basket:
Jones also showed a good eye for passing. Most of the time, once he puts the ball on the floor he’s committed to shooting it. But when he did spot an open man, he did a good job of finding them for uncontested shots. There was one sequence where he turned the ball over twice on consecutive possessions against a full-court press, but other than that, he was careful but opportunistic with the ball:
But as I said earlier, Jones just wasn’t very connected within the Red Storm offense. He spent most possessions setting ball screens around the top of the key and on the wings, but he wasn’t really used as a roll option heading toward the basket. And his lack of range ruled him out as a pick-and-pop outlet. That often left Jones setting screens and then wandering in the wilderness:
He’s also not much of a factor on the offensive glass, as Jones’ offensive rebounding rate of 5.8 percent was way behind Morgan’s 9.2 percent. That number was confirmed by the eye test; In the games I watched, Jones rarely went after offensive rebounds, even when he had superior position and a chance to battle for a putback opportunity:
Put it together, and Jones’ offensive package doesn’t look like it’s going to move the needle for UNLV. He doesn’t generate high-efficiency looks, he doesn’t space the floor and he doesn’t make a dent on the offensive glass. For a team that could struggle to score, he’s not going to create offense on his own.
But defensively, Jones can absolutely help the Rebels win games. Paired with Morgan, he gives Menzies a frontcourt with two forwards capable of defending across multiple positions. I think Jones will start for the Rebels, and between Jones, Morgan and incoming swingman Kris Clyburn, UNLV should have three really effective, versatile defenders in the starting lineup.
Will that be enough to make UNLV a good team in 2016-17? We’ll have to wait to see how all the pieces fit together on the court before we can make that judgment. But it’s safe to say Jones’ addition gives Menzies another quality piece to work with.