TrueHoop: Terrence Jones

Has Houston found its missing piece?

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
9:46
AM ET
Huq By Rahat Huq
Special to ESPN.com
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Terrence JonesAP Photo/David J. PhillipOnce an afterthought, Terrence Jones may be just what the Houston Rockets have been looking for.
On draft night 2012, in the media workroom deep in the bowels of Toyota Center, a collective groan evinced upon the announcement of the No. 18 pick. Most present were content with the Houston Rockets’ earlier selections of Jeremy Lamb and Royce White. They were both tantalizing prospects with some of the most unique skill sets in the entire draft – a prototypical shooting guard and a powerful 4 with the playmaking ability of a point guard. But Terrence Jones? With Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson already on board, were the Rockets attempting to corner the market on unimpressive, undersized power forwards?

A year and a half later, the tune in Houston has changed. After a rookie season in which Jones often rode the pine, the Rockets entered training camp for the 2013-14 season with no veteran power forwards on the roster. That made Jones the default option next to Dwight Howard in the starting unit. With Houston desperate to make an Omer Asik-Howard “Twin Towers” lineup work, Jones remained chained to the bench to start the season. But when that experiment failed, Jones was sent back out with the starters to start the second half on Nov. 11 against the Toronto Raptors. He hasn’t given up the spot since, and as result, the Rockets’ offense has taken off.
[+] EnlargeRockets
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsAfter a lengthy search, the Rockets' first unit has fit together quite well in Terrence Jones' 18 starts.

The quintet of Jones, Howard, Patrick Beverley, James Harden and Chandler Parsons has posted an offensive rating of 115.3 in 228 minutes played. They’ve posted a net rating of plus-17.9 per 100 possessions and accumulated a true shooting percentage of 60 percent. By comparison, that same lineup with Asik in for Jones scored 82.6 points per 100 possessions, with a net rating of minus-26.5. Their true shooting percentage was 45.7 percent. While Houston’s 17-9 record to start the season is worse than one might have expected, Jones was the antidote to its early-season offensive woes. With Asik out and Jones in his place, the offense has worked exactly as Daryl Morey had envisioned.

Jones, a former Kentucky standout once projected to be drafted in the top five, doesn’t have any elite indicators: average size; no post game to speak of; and while athletic, you wouldn’t pin the “freakish” label on him. But what he can do fits the Houston lineup.

A former point guard, Jones’ best attribute is his handle. The 6-foot-9, 252-pounder gets low on the dribble, a fundamental ballhandling habit ingrained into young children but a trait rare for NBA big men. Setting out on the perimeter almost exclusively during his court time, Jones attacks off the catch either with a pump fake or a hesitation dribble.

One of the more entertaining spectacles from each Rockets game involves Jones corralling the rebound and leading the break on his own. In these moments, Houston’s guards stroll the other way, confident Jones will finish the play. And with a surprisingly accurate shooting stroke, Jones can spread the floor and give Houston’s stars the space they need to operate inside. He is always moving, either in transition or in the half court, finishing the passes off cuts to the rim that Asik couldn't handle.

After attempts to honor Asik’s long-standing trade request, reports surfaced on Thursday that the Rockets had backed away from the negotiation table and planned to hold onto the big man for the time being. Undoubtedly, they weren't too thrilled by the available offers. But it's fair to assume that the urgency over filling the power forward spot has also diminished.

Still in just the infancy of his development, Jones’ next assignment will be developing the ability to create on his own out of nothing. As this face-up game evolves, a midrange jumper and some varied finishing moves would also be of use.

Jones will also have to improve on defense. While he averaged 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes last season (by comparison, Serge Ibaka averaged 2.6 per 36 his rookie year), too often he gets lost in rotations, not reacting quickly enough to help out his teammates in the scheme of the team’s defense. For the Rockets to seriously contend, this will have to change. The good news is that he is only 21 years old and will get better with each opening tip.

It’s unclear how and when the Asik situation will be resolved. The team will probably look to deal him again closer to the trade deadline. It will surely try to get him back out on the court in the meantime. But one thing is already clear: In Jones, the Rockets have their power forward.

Killer Lineup: Houston's rim squad

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
11:14
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Memphis GrizzliesLineup: Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Dwight Howard
Minutes Played: 180
Offensive Rating: 114.6 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 97.8 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
For years, the Rockets worked toward a day when they could employ elite talent to create an offense around basketball’s most efficient shots. With the acquisition of Dwight Howard, that day has arrived in Houston.

The numbers are outrageous: 53 percent of the starting unit’s shot attempts have been taken in the basket area, and another 26.3 percent of them come from beyond the arc. That means nearly four out of every five shots for this unit originate from one of the sweetest spots on the floor -- almost unheard of. Per 48 minutes, this lineup has scored 14.7 points more than its opponents just at the rim, coming into Thursday night.

James Harden, Howard & Co. generate these premium shots by adhering to two basic objectives: Don't let the defense get set, and find the quickest, best shot off the first action. There's an assumption that the Rockets' starters have appropriated the offense of Howard’s Orlando Magic teams from a few years back: “Surround Howard with shooters, and go from there.”

Yes and no.

Howard’s Orlando teams launched from long range, but those shots were products of more deliberate half-court sets. The Rockets are a little less orderly, though the starters are hardly their most frenzied unit.

All five guys can do positive things in transition. They also initiate a lot of possessions with early drag screens on a controlled break, with the intention of maintaining that break long enough for the ball to find an open guy. Unlike the Magic, with their four proficient outside shooters fanned out in spatial perfection around Howard, his Houston quartet is involved in a more jagged, improvisational production.

A good number of these early screens are built around Harden, who lords over the chaos. He loves to attack a defense that’s still getting organized, barreling into contact, maneuvering his way to the rim, stepping back for a jumper or generally creating mischief. He manufactures these points at will. If the defense sinks, he’ll kick the ball out -- often with the intention of getting it back.
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Cameron Browne/NBAE/Getty ImagesJames Harden thrives in the chaos created by the Rockets' offense.

Lately, defenses have been giving Harden a bit more cushion to shoot. One coach recently privately conceded that given Harden’s knack for drawing fouls, and his middling numbers from long range, yielding a little space to Harden isn't the worst strategy.

But Harden isn't the only option early. On the weak side, Terrence Jones might make a basket cut, or Chandler Parsons will trail, pick up the ball on the move or catch a pass in stride before stepping into a 3-pointer. Parsons has exceptional court vision, so he can move the Rockets into their next action if the shot isn't there. Patrick Beverley isn't much of a spot-up threat but isn't a bad place to have the ball early because that allows Harden to get on the move against a discombobulated defense.

This unit's slower half-court stuff isn't all that systematic, much of it designed around post feeds for Howard. He has more vision down low than we give him credit for, and gathers information as he backs a guy in. When Howard is on the left block with the ball, he spins low and finishes with his left if he doesn’t see help coming along the baseline. If he does, he turns middle and moves into his running hook. This isn’t anywhere close to the Rockets’ most efficient offense, but if Howard on the block is the gristle on the steak, the team is in good shape.

Naturally, Harden gets plenty of opportunities to isolate when the game slows down. He knows where the vacant spots and empty lanes are on the floor. Harden makes a handful of bad decisions per night, but the volume of creativity more than compensates for it. The aesthetics leave something to be desired -- the constant head-jerks and flailing are like bad miming -- but it’s hard to argue with the production.

The Rockets now have increasing faith in Beverley to get them into a half-court possession, but his first two imperatives are still to get the ball into the hands of Harden (off a pin-down, curl, etc.) and Howard (simple entry pass). Beverley is the weak link offensively but doesn't cost this unit a lot. He’s just passable enough from 3 to require some monitoring, and he’s not a bad distributor even if he doesn’t rise to the level of playmaker. All in all, Beverley plays a smart game. In parts of two seasons now with Houston, he’s put up some of the team’s best overall on-off ratings.

Kevin McHale has some old-school sensibilities and likes to hunt for a specific matchup advantage and call that number. Against the Warriors recently, Terrence Jones got a bunch of opportunities to work one-on-one opposite David Lee, and torched him. Two nights later, the Rockets looked for Howard against Glen Davis, with Howard raising his hand on the block like a guy trying to get a server’s attention.

This extends beyond individual matchups. The Houston starters are quick to recognize when they have a tactical edge. Up against the paint-packing Spurs in that nutty game a couple of weeks back, they drove at sagging defenders then looked outside and generated a couple dozen good looks from long distance. Against an interior-minded defense, they’ll also run a dribble handoff with Howard and either Parsons or Harden way, way up top. If the small defender can’t get over Howard, the shot is going up without hesitation.

That might be the defining characteristic of this unit -- decisiveness. The ball doesn't always pop around the half court, not with Harden and Howard taking their fair shares of touches for one-on-one situations. But even those possessions are characterized by a clear purpose.

 




How it works defensively
With Howard situated in the middle of the defense, the Rockets are implementing the inverted principles that guide their offense -- denying opponents good shots at close range and open looks from behind the 3-point line.

Remember that stat up top that highlighted the Rockets taking four out of every five shots either at the immediate basket area or from beyond the arc? For the starters' opponents, that combined number is a paltry 55.6 percent. That’s the equivalent of facing a Doug Collins-coached offense every single night.

The starters take full advantage of the luxury that accompanies a center like Howard underneath. Howard is a patient, mobile rim defender who might have lost some bounce over the past couple of seasons but has cultivated a veteran big man’s nose for sniffing out schemes.

At first blush, it might appear as if Howard is less aggressive, but there’s clearly a defensive mandate to hang back, guard the rim and avoid triggering a rotation. Against pick-and-rolls, Howard isn't a Duncan-esque extremist when it’s time to drop, though he’s certainly inclined to maintain interior control. He commits very early to the driver, and weakside defenders are on alert early.
[+] EnlargeDwight Howard and Raymond Felton
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesDwight Howard isn't as spry as he once was, but he still must be reckoned with on defense.

Jones usually follows the same tack as a pick-and-roll defender, immediately corralling the ball handler, arms extended. But if Jones' counterpart at the 4 is a threat, the Rockets will switch up the coverage. Jones might jump out hard on the pick then scamper back or have Howard tag his man.

Against lethal scorers and playmakers, there are instances when the Rockets will launch a blitz and double the ball -- and not just against a high screen. Playing small against Golden State, Beverley and Jones trapped Stephen Curry deep in the backcourt as soon as the ball crossed the time line. And even with Howard underneath, the Rockets will send another body at an opposing big man working on the block, as they did Thursday night in spots against LaMarcus Aldridge.

One of the better barometers for a defense is how well it responds when it has to improvise. The Rockets adapt well, aided in large part by Howard’s strong ability to buy time for Beverley or Harden and Jones’ flexibility as a guy who can hold his own against most bigs and wings. Howard will rove more than most goalie-centers, but he’s become a bit more selective as a helper and weakside menace. He no longer feels the need to contest anyone and anything in his field of vision and doesn’t enjoy defensive commutes as much as he once did.

The Rockets have found something in Beverley, who gives them a capable on-ball defender who has the wherewithal to monitor what’s going on behind him, how much time Howard can buy him on a given action and when not to gamble. He isn’t an easy guy to beat off the dribble, and when an opposing player dumps the ball off then simply tries to clear through, Beverley loves to bump him off course.

Harden doesn't contribute much defensively. He's not a guy who closes out with any effectiveness, and help from Harden generally means an idle stab at the ball while the driver zooms past. It’s impossible to know for sure since Harden has never been a motivated defender, but the presence of Howard seems to serve as yet another crutch for Harden’s when-the-feeling-strikes brand of defense.

Parsons is an average defender and Jones is a bit undersized in the half court, but as a tandem they’re insanely athletic, which comes in handy when the game turns into a track meet. Both forwards lend the defense a degree of versatility, because both can hold their own on the perimeter and in the post against most competition. With Beverley pressuring the ball up top and Howard guarding the paint down low, it’s a defense that can check just about every box.

Orlando Summer League: Final Judgments

July, 12, 2013
7/12/13
7:36
PM ET
By Jordan White
ESPN.com
Archive
Here are some farewell takes from Friday's last day of the Orlando Pro Summer League:

Top Performers

Victor Oladipo, Magic

Rookies aren’t supposed to be this poised, this polished. They’re not supposed to display a defensive savoir faire far beyond their young years, and they’re certainly not supposed to be as comfortable taking the shot to win the game as they are the one to open it. And yet, Oladipo is all of these things. He wasn’t perfect in Orlando, with turnovers plaguing him in every game, but every other aspect of his game was either as good as advertised or better. Averaging 19 points, five assists and three steals per game while shooting 53 percent from deep and 82 percent from the line, Oladipo’s only main areas of worry were his oddly low field goal percentage (37 percent) and his turnovers (nearly five per game, which is to be expected of a rookie just now learning the point guard position).

Kelly Olynyk, Celtics
Will he be able to get his shot off against NBA-caliber athletes? Can he rebound dependably despite his Tyrannosaurus Rex-rivaling wingspan? Will he be anything more than a complete liability on defense? While Olynyk might not have completely eased these concerns, he’s well along the path to doing so after his stellar week in Orlando. Olynyk did so much more than just score the ball (though he did that, too, quite a bit); he rebounded very well, averaging eight rebounds per game -- fourth overall out of all players -- and displayed surprising court vision. His defense, specifically his lack of strength, will be a hindrance, but it wasn’t as if he was a total sieve on that end of the floor.

Solomon Hill, Pacers

Give credit to Indiana’s draft strategy: Hill might have been a reach, but he was the player they wanted, so they took him regardless of where he was projected to go. Likewise, credit must also go to Hill for coming here and outperforming the expectations many had for him. The Pacers rookie was tremendously efficient this week, averaging 14.5 points on just 9.5 shots per game and shooting 55 percent from beyond the arc. As I wrote in Thursday’s dispatch, his shooting is going to be the key to him finding the floor in Frank Vogel’s offense.

Andre Drummond, Pistons
Drummond’s averages of 15 points, 15 rebounds and nearly three blocks per game were effortless -- even a little underwhelming -- as nobody could hope to match his gargantuan blend of mass and athleticism. One cause for concern -- though certainly not a new one -- was Drummond’s putrid production from the free throw line. He shot just 23 percent from the charity stripe in his three games. Presumably, Detroit sent Drummond to summer league to further polish his game in a competitive setting against something at least resembling NBA talent. But Drummond was so thoroughly dominant, his size so wholly overwhelming, that one has to wonder if he really got anything out of this week.

Terrence Jones, Rockets
Jones used his time in Houston to make the case to his onlooking coach and general manager that he deserves more playing time and a larger role with the Rockets. Supporting Jones’ argument were his 16 points and seven rebounds per game, 36 percent shooting from beyond the arc and terrific defense in the paint and on the perimeter. He was aggressive, yet under control, assertive, but rarely forcing the issue. If his improved dribbling, face-up game and shooting prove to be more than just summer sizzle, Jones will be a valuable contributor to an already exciting Houston team.

Maurice Harkless, Magic
This final spot was a tough choice between Harkless and Jeremy Lamb of Oklahoma City, but Harkless takes the trophy because of the noticeable myriad improvements to his game. Last season, per MySynergySports.com, Harkless scored just .59 points per play as the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations. Look for that number to improve, as Harkless’ improved handles and strengthened frame -- as well as the Magic’s emphasis on putting him in these situations during this week -- have made him a much better operator off the bounce. Harkless was noticeably more comfortable as a ball handler this week, which bodes well for him and the Magic offense as a whole.

Surprises

Dwight Buycks, Thunder

Inevitably, every summer league sees one player who rises from obscurity to prominence. In Orlando, that player was Buycks. Bursting onto the scene with a 12-point, 13-assist performance in Game 1, Buycks was tremendous for Oklahoma City on both ends of the ball, running the pick-and-roll to perfection and hounding opposing ball handlers. He averaged 9.5 points, six assists and two steals per game while shooting 48 percent from the floor (albeit on an average of just six attempts), and his production did not go unnoticed: Buycks recently signed a deal with the Toronto Raptors.

Daniel Orton, Thunder

Not long ago, Orton was written off as yet another young, raw big man who, for some reason or another, never reached his full potential. Maybe he never will reach that potential, but he’s at least back on the right track after his performance this week. Orton, was both aggressive and active, dunking at nearly every opportunity and challenging shots both inside and out. The biggest concern for him is conditioning, as Orton struggled to sustain that high level of energy for very long and was visibly winded after six or seven minutes of play.

Ian Clark, Heat
Like many college shooting guards who find themselves undersized to play the position in the NBA, Clark had to shift over to point guard if he was to make his mark in the NBA. While he might have averaged just one assist per game, his attacking style on both offense and defense very much fits the Miami Heat mold of point guard. Clark was also one of the top scorers in Orlando, averaging 16 points per contest.

Disappointment

Michael Carter-Williams, 76ers
Nobody expected Carter-Williams to come in and dominate summer league; his current strengths and weaknesses as a player don’t lend themselves to such performances. At the same time, no one expected him to be one of the worst players in Orlando. Shooting a measly 27 percent from the floor, turning the ball over at an alarming rate and complaining to the refs after every no-call, Carter-Williams had a miserable week. Perhaps the one silver lining to be found in this grey cloud of inefficiency is that now the organization can pinpoint the exact areas in which they need to develop their young point guard.

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