Expectations were decently high coming into this season for first-year center Jared Jones, the dynamic athlete who helped lead his high school to a state championship and undefeated season in 2019.
Prior to the opener, Chris Collins lauded the Georgia native’s “unbelievable combination of size, skill, and athleticism” and hinted at his bright future as a Wildcat. Jones seemed primed to play a pivotal role on a squad severely lacking depth at center, especially after the departures of Dererk Pardon and Barret Benson.
Yet at a glance, Jones’s debut season appeared underwhelming. In limited minutes, he only averaged 2.9 points and 2.1 rebounds per game, less than ideal for the program’s potential heir to Pardon. Part of Jones’s minimal utilization can be explained by the blossoming of redshirt freshman Ryan Young and fellow class of 2019 recruit Robbie Beran, both of whom played larger roles than expected. Nonetheless, Northwestern fans would have certainly liked to see more consistent production off the bench from Jones.
There’s a lot for the young big to improve on this offseason, but also much to look forward to as he continues his career at Northwestern. Here’s a closer look at a mixed bag of a freshman seasonL
Jones only played 25 percent of the team’s minutes, which is particularly surprising given his appearance in all 31 games as well as Northwestern’s season-long string of injuries. Nevertheless, Jones made his limited playing time count, especially on the defensive end.
Leading the team with a 4.9% block rate (which increased to 6 percent against the talented bigs he faced during conference play), Jones demonstrated a remarkable ability to protect the rim. On the flip side, he committed an egregious 9.1 fouls per 40 minutes. Although this number clearly isn’t sustainable, it should decrease as Jones becomes more comfortable defending inside.
The offensive side wasn’t as glamorous. Jones shot a comfortable 50 percent from inside the arc, but only made one of his 12 three-point attempts. A better percentage from deep, combined with his strength and quickness, will give Jones a chance to become a lethal stretch forward/center.
Jones has one of the team’s most well-rounded shot distributions, shooting about 49.4 percent of his shots at the rim, 36.8 percent as 2-point jumpers, and 13.8 percent from beyond the arc. This shot variety should make him a threat from anywhere on court, but unfortunately as he moves away from the hoop, his field goal percentage significantly declines. It’s a good sign that he’s willing to shoot it from anywhere, but his consistency from long range needs to improve if he’s going to be effective.
In addition, for each of the three ranges, Jones relies more on assists than the team average, especially from mid-range, where two-thirds of his shot attempts come off of passes. For a big man this isn’t too concerning, but it certainly shows that he’s not creating his own shots like Boo Buie or Pat Spencer.
In Northwestern’s blowout loss to Michigan in February, Jones was the team’s lone bright spot, posting a team-high 12 points, which doubled as his season high. The ‘Cats struggled to produce half-court offense all game...except on this mesmerizing play early in the first half. Coming off a smooth pick and pop with Buie, Jones caught the ball near the top of the key, made two quick crossovers, and put up a pretty fadeaway from the edge of the paint.
Plays like these should be a cornerstone of Jones’s game. Very few college players have both the agility to guard such fleet dribble moves and the size to defend fading jumpshots.
Suffice it to say that in this case, “oh my goodness!” is spot-on.
At this point in his career, the focal point of Jones’s game is his defense. His physical play in conference games proved he could go toe to toe with high quality big men on several occasions, and his 6’10’’ frame intimidated smaller guards from challenging him at the rim. Jones also showed off his shot-blocking abilities with consistency, including late in the second half of the Indiana game, where two crucial blocks in transition helped the Wildcats jump out to a ten point lead.
Jones also found success with the pick and roll, albeit sporadically. The clip with Buie above is a great example. Setting screens worked well for Jones because he was most effective out in space. Whether sealing his man and rolling to the basket or popping to the perimeter, picks allowed him to fully utilize his size and athleticism, especially when given a mismatch with a smaller defender.
The stats clearly show that shooting from distance is the weakest aspect of Jones’s game. However, the small sample size may be misleading. Jones never took more than two 3-pointers in a single contest, and when he did fire from deep it was often because the shot clock was running out. If he starts shooting with more comfort, the numbers may improve.
Perhaps a larger issue with his performance this season was committing fouls. Jones’s strong defensive performances were often neutralized by foul trouble. In March’s game against Wisconsin, he fouled out in just 11 minutes of playing time. Back in December, Jones racked up four quick fouls in just three minutes, forcing him to watch the game from the bench. The big just can’t be the dominant force he’s capable of being if he’s always in foul trouble.
Jones needs to get up more shots this summer. He’s already a good inside player and no one’s questioning his athleticism, but it’s challenging to become a great college player without an outside shot. Luckily he doesn’t need to start from scratch, as his form is already in good shape. It’s all about repetition at this point.
The Bottom Line
The one silver lining of a 8-23 season is that there’s just about nowhere to go but up, and this season made clear that Jones can certainly become one of the X-factors the program needs to move out of the bottom of the conference. His pure athletic abilities can help him create shot opportunities when the offense inevitably stalls, and his looming defensive presence can prevent opposing teams from going on sudden scoring runs, which doomed Northwestern often this past year.
The onus to control the paint can’t fall solely on Ryan Young’s shoulders. If dominant big men like Kofi Cockburn and Luka Garza decide to forgo the upcoming NBA draft, the Big Ten will again be a war zone on the inside, and Chris Collins will need someone to step up. Jones still has many holes in his game, but don’t be surprised if he has a breakout sophomore season.