The Rockets came into the season not knowing who their starting power forward would be. 15 games in, they just might have found their answer in Terrence Jones.
“He’s the X-Factor going into every single night,” said James Harden.
The four spot has been in flux for the Rockets since last season when they traded the steady production of Patrick Patterson and backup Marcus Morris right before the trade deadline. Early in the preseason they experimented with all of their options, with Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Greg Smith and Omri Casspi all seeing time at the position as coach McHale tried to see who might emerge from the crowd as the front runner.
The Failed Twin Towers Experiment
With no clear preseason solution, McHale threw a bit of a curveball by starting Omer Asik alongside Dwight Howard in a so-called “Twin Towers” lineup. The move was done for two reasons – to see how much havoc a defense of two of the league’s best rim protectors could create together and to appease the disgruntled Asik who had already requested a trade over the summer and was concerned over his minutes.
The results were less than stellar and Asik and Howard reminded few of the famous famous Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon pairing of the 1980’s. The Asik-Howard lineup was poor offensively — player spacing was off, the offense was clunky and the previously “go-go” Rockets were plodding.
The Beverley/Lin-Harden-Parsons-Howard-Asik lineup mustered a measly 0.87 points-per-possession (PPP), while giving up 1.06PPP on the defensive end, so playing the two bigs together was a net negative for the team as a whole.
In fact, in the first eight games, the Rockets finished the first quarter behind their opponents in five of them – against the Bobcats, Jazz, Clippers, Trail Blazers and Lakers. McHale and the Rockets finally decided to make a change against the Sixers, inserting Jones into the starting lineup to replace Asik. Jones has more than answered the call, playing the best week of basketball of his career and propelling the Rockets out of the starting gates offensively.
A Natural Fit with the Starting Group
Despite sporadic early season minutes off the bench, Jones has looked like a natural fit as a starter, meshing beautifully with the Rockets’ fast break and pick-and-roll heavy offense and living up to much of the potential that Rockets scouts saw when he was drafted out of Kentucky with the 18th pick last year. So far in 7 games as a starter, he’s averaged 14.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2 assists in 31.6 minutes per game while running the floor and providing energy at both ends. Jones’ PER of 19.5 for the season is the third highest on the team after Harden and Howard and it’s no wonder he’s scoring so efficiently: he’s played within himself, taking high percentage shots that fit within the flow of the offense.
An End to the First Quarter Woes
Inserting Jones into the lineup has thankfully seemed to solve the Rockets’ first quarter futility: in the 7 games since T-Jones has been a starter, they have “won” the quarter six out of seven times, suffering their only first quarter deficit in Monday night’s disjointed start against the Grizzlies. Whereas the Asik-Howard tandem was a net negative for the Rockets, the offensive potency of the new first quarter Jones-Howard is a positive. The Rockets are scoring 1.17PPP overall with Jones in the lineup, a 35% increase from the Asik-Howard lineup. While Jones isn’t known as the defender that Asik is, there has been only a negligible difference on that end of the floor with him starting.
Much-Needed Floor Spacing
Jones’ individual production has been nice but his “stretch 4” qualities have had a synergistic effect on the rest of the team too, opening up space on the interior for the likes of Dwight Howard to operate and creating room for the perimeter players to drive to the basket.
Teammates and coaches alike have understandably gushed about his recent play.
“Rebounding, defense, the ability to make plays, float game, finish around the rim, cut right, spacing, hit threes… He’s been doing it all for us,” said Jeremy Lin. “I don’t know if anyone has been playing better than he has over the last week.”
While his shooting has been questioned in the past, Jones has shown range all the way out to the three-point line this year where he’s connecting at a smoking 47% of his attempts (7/15). Of course, that percentage is going to come down over time but his high arcing trajectory and soft hands suggest he has the mechanics to be a consistently good long range shooter for the rest of his career.
Versatility is his biggest weapon
Jones has an array of offensive weapons and so far this season, he’s shown glimpses of all of them, highlighting his ability both with and without the ball, in the halfcourt and in transition. While the term “tweener” is usually a negative, in Jones’ case, the versatility that his small forward skillset in a power forward’s body is starting to look like it could be a deadly combination.
Athletically gifted, Jones is gazelle-like in transition, often out-sprinting the other team’s defense to collect the pass and finish the break, whether it be taking a quick dribble around a defender first or just slamming home a dunk. He’s already one of the best fast break finishers for the Rockets (converting 80% of his attempts so far) and has the potential to be one of the best in the league, too.
Not just an athletic lefty with a nice J, he’s also effective in the pick-and-roll, capable of popping out for the mid-range jumper or rolling to the hoop and getting an easy basket. We’ve even seen him handle the ball in the pick-and-roll a couple of times, using a screen from a Rockets guard to create a mismatch that he can easily take advantage of to dribble to the hole against a smaller defender. Not bad for a 6’9” power forward.
Jones has underrated smarts too. He loves to hide on the weak side wing until his defender falls asleep before cutting to the basket and receiving the pass from a posting Dwight Howard, a sequence that most often leads to an easy dunk or layup. If his defender sags into the paint, he’ll simply find some open space and wait for an opportunity to spot up.
Jones is still developing as a defender. His one-on-one defense and weakside help have been good, but he can get lost in pick-and-roll defense and rotating matchups. His back-to-the-basket game is also an area where he can improve.
Apart from those things, Terrence Jones, at just 21 years of age, has the tools to be one of the more complete offensive players in the game, reminding me of a better-scoring version of Lamar Odom in his championship-winning Laker days.
Jones’ Play Opens Options For Rockets
Much of the early season trade speculation (and in some cases wishful thinking) on Clutchfans has centered around the idea of trading for a proven starting four along the lines of a Paul Millsap or Ryan Anderson, or for the super optimistic, LaMarcus Aldridge. While Daryl Morey would love (no pun intended) to get All-Star level output from the power forward position, Jones’ recent play makes the need to upgrade the four less of a pressing need. Logging solid production from Jones, the Rockets can now look to trade Asik for the best player (or future asset) available, regardless of position. I tend to leave the trade speculation to others, but a blockbuster deal for an All-Star on a non-contending team (Rajon Rondo, anyone?) becomes more of a feasible concept now.
Of course, it may be that trading Asik isn’t the foregone conclusion that we all think. As Monday’s Memphis game showed, there is tremendous value in having a starting caliber center on the bench. Asik provides a high quality alternative to Dwight in case he’s having a bad game, is injured or needs a rest. But Asik has asked for a trade twice now and the smart money still says that he’s eventually moved for a player that can help them get even closer to becoming a contender.
Now, The Hard Part
Can Jones keep this up?
While Jones has been a great addition to the starting lineup, it has only been seven games and Rockets fans can’t get too carried away just yet. But there is no reason why any of the positive things Jones has brought to the Rockets – especially his ability to run the floor, spot up and score off cuts and pick-and-rolls – should drop off too significantly. If he can keep up his recent fine form, it both helps Houston’s performance on the court now and allows them to trade from a position of strength should the opportunity to move for a special player present itself.