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Is Terrence Jones playing himself out of Houston?

It’s early, but 2014 has already been an incredible year for Terrence Jones. Since Jan. 1 (eight games) he’s averaging 16.9 points and 11.4 rebounds. He’s already attempted more free-throws than in the entire month of December (twice as many games), bumped his usage rate to 21.9%, and made 53.3% of his field goal attempts.

Jones has also notched a double-double in four of his last five games, scoring 25 points to go along with eight rebounds and six blocks in the one that missed out. He’s an omnipotent, versatile, athletic compliment who’s been asked to back up Dwight Howard at center and guard some larger power forwards in the post. He hardly ever turns the ball over and never complains about anything. The natural follow up question here would of course be: Is Jones playing himself out of Houston?

Earlier this season it felt like Jones was more a product of his environment than a beastly, developing individual talent. And as a scorer some of that’s still true. He scored 36 points against the Milwaukee Bucks last Saturday, but according to mySynergySports, 11 of his 14 made field goals came via a cut into open space, a put back off an offensive rebound, or in transition.

He’s far from the stage where Kevin McHale is calling plays to get him open, but that’s perfectly fine. As the fourth option in a starting lineup that already has two All-Stars and a budding third, right now the Rockets need Jones to be efficient in opportunities others create for him. Not the other way around.

And efficient he has been. Only seven players in the entire league average more points per possession in transition, and he’s shooting 65.1% on cuts. He might be the most athletic player on the team—it’s tough to name 10 guys who’re able to do more with their body, especially above the rim, in the entire league.

Jones has fallen back to earth after starting the season on flames from behind the three-point line. He’s now down to 28.3% after shooting 47.6% in November. But this hasn’t been to much of an issue so far.

Jones makes up for it with fantastic timing away from the ball; he does a wonderful job flashing into open space off Howard post-ups and high pick-and-rolls that draw his man’s attention (which is a vast majority of Houston’s offense).

Here’s his shot chart.

The more he plays the better he gets, opening the possibility for two different futures Daryl Morey will choose from.

He can either acknowledge Houston probably isn’t winning a title as currently constructed this season, stay the course, hold onto Jones and let this Rockets core grow together, take their postseason lumps and improve around the margins. (This scenario is independent of whatever the Rockets get for Omer Asik, who remains the number one trade asset on the roster, if they trade him.)

Or he can do Daryl Morey things and package Jones in a deal to upgrade some other part of the roster. This is the less patient option, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. If you’re of the thought that Houston should “go all in” and try to win a championship every year until James Harden and/or Howard are no longer elite players, then moving the second most attractive asset to get better wouldn’t be that much of a sacrifice.

The decision is ultimately based on two things: how well Jones fits beside Houston’s franchise center, and how high his new-ish ceiling stands. So far, so good on issue number one. The offense has scored 1.6 more points per 100 possessions than their average in the 818 minutes Jones has shared the court with Howard. (Interestingly enough, Jones’ field goal percentage is actually 4% higher when Howard’s on the bench.)

The Rockets’ defense has stayed the same with both out there, which is to say they’re a top-10 outfit. Jones isn’t perfect on defense (he can’t protect the rim—yet—and tends to get bullied in the post) but he’s improving as a pick-and-roll defender, finally learning how to use his speed and length as an advantage.

At the rate Jones is getting better, even if Houston fails this postseason they could come back next year with Howard, Harden, Chandler Parsons, their 2014 first round pick, whatever can be had for Omer Asik (again, if he’s not dealt before the deadline), and be a better basketball team.

They’re incredibly young, have spent this season battling myriad injuries, and are still 29-15. They’ll be better next year even if no trades are made. But “better” doesn’t mean they’ll be good enough to win a title.

Trading Jones would be an interesting proposition. If the Rockets really wanted to, they could package him with Asik and their 2014 draft pick to create an incredibly enticing bundle. I’m just not sure anyone out there is willing to offer anything substantial in return.

The good news is that there’s no pressure to do anything. Jones is on a cheap rookie scale deal for the next two seasons. He’s very good, with a skill-set that fits inside Houston’s scheme on both ends.

Jones could very well be on his way to making the same developmental leap Parsons did. Who knows. He’s been Houston’s most pleasant surprise either way.

Michael Pina has written for Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth, and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.

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