LOS ANGELES -- Lazeric Jones picked a heck of a season to be UCLA’s captain.
From a floundering 2-5 start to the season, to the dismissal of all-conference forward Reeves Nelson to center Joshua Smith’s ineffectiveness and last week’s Sports Illustrated article portraying the team as a program in disarray, this has been a season filled with one bit of adversity after another for the Bruins.
But to find the Bruins playing their best basketball at the end of such a difficult season is a testament to the heart and character of the players, led by their captain.
Jones, a 6-foot-1 senior guard, has been the steadying influence who helped keep off-court issues off the court. He has been the hard-nosed player who brought a brand of Chicago toughness in a season when the Bruins needed it most.
And he has been the leader on the court, too, coming up with Pac-12 Player of the Week honors last week as UCLA defeated Washington State and conference regular-season champion Washington to give the team momentum heading into the Pac-12 tournament.
The No. 5-seeded Bruins (18-13, 11-7) play No. 12 USC (6-25, 1-17) in a first-round game Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. at Staples Center and must win four games in four days if they want to make the NCAA tournament. To do so, they will look to Jones, their leader on and off the court, to guide the way.
“He’s done a great job for us and has really been a pillar of stability and a very good role model in terms of on and off the floor,” coach Ben Howland said. “He is really, really a good person and a good kid. You can’t say enough about that and that ties into why he is a good player. Very focused. He loves the game.”
Jones leads the Bruins in scoring with 13.4 points per game, assists with 4.2 per game and steals with 1.8 per game. But more than his stats, his leadership and constant presence have been a unifying force for the team. He is the only player who started every game this season and was the only player to start every game last season as well.
Jones also leads the team in minutes with 33.4 per game so he always seems to be involved when UCLA needs him most.
“He’s always talking about staying together and playing for each other as a team,” guard Jerime Anderson said. “That’s something that he really believes in and you can see it out on the court. He’s all about his team and he’s willing to fight for us. That’s the attitude that all teammates and all team members should have.”
It’s an attitude that has come in handy this season, when off-court distraction easily could have crumbled the team. Instead, Jones’ steadying influence helped keep the team focused during trying times and even though the win-loss record might not be as good as expected at UCLA, it’s pretty remarkable considering all the Bruins went through this season.
The Bruins played every game off campus this season, splitting home games between the Sports Arena and the Honda Center as Pauley Pavilion has been under renovation. That alone was enough to throw the season out of whack, but when Smith showed up out of condition and Nelson couldn’t control his disruptive behavior, it appeared the season would spiral out of control.
Instead, Jones helped fuel a surge, averaging 15.8 points and 4.6 assists as the Bruins went from 2-5 to 7-5 with a five-game win streak. But true to his leadership personality, Jones is not satisfied. He remembers more of the poor performances, such as starting the season in a slump.
He was 12-for-49 (24.5 percent) through the first five games this season and take away a 19-point effort against Division II Chaminade and he was shooting 12.9 percent and averaging 6.5 points at Thanksgiving.
“I haven’t lived up to my own expectations at all,” Jones said. “I feel like I’ve done OK, but I feel like I could have done better. I feel like if I played better earlier this season, we’d have a few more wins under our belt and we would be in a better situation right now rather than being in a win or go home for good situation.”
That Jones is even in the position he’s in is a minor miracle in itself. He transferred in from John A. Logan College last season, becoming only the third junior college transfer to play for UCLA over the last 30 years. Jack Haley, from Golden West College, and Stephen Brumbach, a walk-on from Santa Barbara college, were the others.
Jones played behind NBA MVP Derrick Rose in high school, so he didn’t get a lot of attention on the recruiting scene. When UCLA came knocking and offered him a scholarship, Jones knew he had to take advantage of the opportunity.
“This is the last school I would think I would be at to be honest,” he said. “It definitely has been a dream come true to come to UCLA is like going to Duke or North Carolina and hopefully everybody else feels like that. I feel pretty blessed.”
Not only has he played at UCLA, but he became the team captain after playing only one season. It’s a testament to his maturity and to the respect he commands from his coaches and teammates.
“Without him I don’t know where we’d be,” forward Travis Wear said. “Zeek has been a big player for us whether it’s scoring or distributing the ball, being a leader. He’s done some really great things for this team. I don’t know what else you could ask of him. He’s played well and he’s done all the right things.”
That includes keeping the team together during the trying times this season.
“He’s a good example of what to do on and off the court,” Anderson said. “I thank Zeek for that just helping the team out during the tough year that we’ve had.”
For Jones, nicknamed Zeek because his father was an Isiah "Zeke" Thomas fan but wanted to spell the nickname differently, leadership came naturally. He has been a point guard all his life, running the team on the floor from the time he started playing basketball.
“As a point guard, I feel like regardless of you being named the captain, it’s your role to be the captain,” he said. “You have to be stable not only on the court but off the court. You have to be someone that the coach can go to and your teammates can go to.”
Jones had to make the transition to shooting guard this season, however, as the Bruins went to a three-guard lineup. It was a difficult adjustment and one that Jones said he was still getting used to, but earlier this week was named second-team all-conference, an honor that humbled him.
“There are a lot of good players in this league so me being in the same sentence as some of these guys and for the coaches to think I’m good enough to be on these teams is pretty cool,” he said.
It’s an honor that is well-deserved, not only because of his statistical output, but for keeping the Bruins together. UCLA may not be favored to with the Pac-12 tournament, but there are few who would be surprised if they did.
The Bruins are playing as well as they have all season while favorites Washington, California and Arizona are all coming off losses as the tournament begins. Not only that, but UCLA has been within three points of winning four of the conference games they lost meaning they feel as if they can play with anyone.
But most of all, the Bruins are playing together and with the type of chemistry that has only grown stronger by sailing through some rough waters together.
“We may have had some ups and downs as far as wins and losses, but to see all the adversity and see that we’re still together and not going at each other’s throats or anything like that is pretty good,” Jones said. “We still love each other and we’re still fighting for each other.”
And that is a testament to their captain.