A conversation on Terrence Jones

Terrence Jones is an interesting basketball player. Really talented. Really exciting. Really young. He not-so-coincidentally plays extremely well in wins and not so great in losses—dumb but true: Jones shoots nearly 60% from the floor when Houston wins, and just above 40% when they lose—but symbolizes a brighter tomorrow. Is the hope valid? Or is Jones an overreaching product of his environment? Rahat and I talked it over via e-mail this week, discussing Jones’s value, productivity, future, and more. Enjoy.

Pina: Let’s start by gauging Jones’s public perception. In your opinion, is he overrated, underrated, or properly rated?

Rahat: I’d say he might be a little bit overrated.  He’s performed magnificently beyond anyone’s expectations this season, filling the team’s biggest void, and his insertion into the starting lineup may perhaps have been the catalyst for their turnaround. All of that has led many people to project him into a better player in the future than he may ever become.

I think there’s an assumption that due to his production this year, he’ll continue along a similar growth trajectory and blossom into a bonafide fringe-star. I don’t think that’s warranted because in a vacuum he’s a far lesser player than what he’s seemed this year playing next to Dwight Howard. Now, one might say that won’t matter because Dwight will always be around, but I’d counter that a problem lies with the fact that Jones struggles against teams that find a way to limit Howard without too much attention. Jones has to be able to do things on his own or we’re going to keep getting killed by the Thunder and Clippers.

Pina: Television broadcasters look at Jones’s production, and the incredible athleticism he displays on both ends, and think he’ll be an All-Star someday. I believe it’s more a case of Houston maximizing his talent right now, playing a system that suits his skills perfectly. Jones flashes open-court brilliance from time to time, but that stuff is more indicative of a superior athlete than a well-rounded player able to hold his own in a more controlled environment.

About half his field goal attempts take place within three feet of the rim, and he’s fantastic finishing so close. But Jones isn’t much of a shooter (this can improve, but not in time for the playoffs), and struggles to create offense off the dribble on his own. As a rebounder, he’s tremendous. As a defender, he’s actually not that bad (except in the post).
But is there any part of his game that could improve over the next few weeks? Can you picture him single-handedly turning a close playoff game with consecutive impact plays in the fourth quarter? It’s possible, right?

Rahat: No, I can’t see him turning a close game. In fact, I don’t think I recall him making consecutive impact plays against anyone of note all year, except the crappier teams in the league. When the going gets tough, in the second round, Jones will be on the bench late in the fourth.

Can his shooting improve? Sure. Will it improve? With that form, it’s highly unlikely, and it’s even less likely he changes his form (given the historical data on players doing that). It’s just too slow and awkward of a release to expect any type of consistency from the midrange. If he’s bringing it back over his head for the release from 10-15 feet out, the defender will have already closed in by the time he’s let it go. Think of all the classic midrange jump-shooting power forwards in NBA history. The Charles Oakleys and Horace Grants. Conventional form.

I sound real down on Jones. Don’t get me wrong. Like I said, he has been maybe THE catalyst to the team’s turnaround this year. No one has done more towards exceeding expectations and seizing the opportunity in front of him, maybe in the entire league (?). But we’re talking about future projections here and I don’t see anything that indicates he’ll be ready to hang with the big boys unless serious structural advancements are made.

Pina: It’s funny. Jones’s entire game plays like a Ferrari, but he looks underwater when it’s time to shoot a jumper. That beings said, even if he never improves I don’t think shooting will make or break his career. He’s active in so may other ways and the fourth quarter data is actually not the worst thing in the world. (Rockets units that include Jones, James Harden, and Dwight Howard outscore opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter—though the trio’s only played 30 fourth quarter minutes together since the All-Star break.)

This brings up the potential of some real interesting trade talk this summer, pending how Houston does in the playoffs. Jones has two more years on his rookie deal before he hits restricted free agency. That’s also the same summer Howard can opt out of a $23.2 million player option, and the year before Harden’s contract expires. Does it make sense for Daryl Morey to actively shop Jones now, i.e. this July?
Rival general managers will assume that two HUGE reasons for Jones’s offensive success are a) having Howard and Harden consume the defense’s focus every night, and b) him playing in an unrestrictive system. That second point is true, but Jones’s productivity doesn’t really drop by much when on the floor without those two stars.
Trades are fun, and the Rockets make a ton of them. But could you honestly imagine Morey moving Jones this summer? And if yes, for what?

Rahat: The problem with that fourth quarter data is that it’s not against the West’s best teams because against the West’s best teams Jones is sitting next to J.B Bickerstaff late in the game. And you can bet that will continue come playoff time. We saw Jones get feasted on by David Lee. He wasn’t in the game down the stretch against Portland, Ibaka regularly eats his lunch, and he has no chance against Blake Griffin. It’s just how it is: Kevin McHale feels more comfortable going small, and I don’t blame him. And that’s a problem because the Rockets really don’t have that many good small players.

Would I trade Jones in the summer? Of course. I wouldn’t actively shop him because he’s a terrific value and a perfect complement to the team on a cheap price tag. But is he anything even remotely close to a deal breaker? No chance. Absolutely zero chance. I wouldn’t even blink if he was included in a deal for someone like Carmelo Anthony.
Given how hard it is to acquire true stud fours, I actually think the Rockets would behoove themselves structuring their team to where James Harden was the ’4′ man, acquiring another good small player to close out games.
Pina: That I’d very much like to see. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if Morey takes the current roster in a different direction next season, and Jones could easily be the odd man out.
Michael Pina covers the NBA for ESPN’s TrueHoop Network, Sports On Earth, FOX Sports, Bleacher Report, and The Classical. His writing can be found here. Follow him @MichaelVPina

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