I’m not sure any team will be able to produce a more bizarre pair of back-to-back results this season than the ones the Pelicans just completed. After giving up 143 points and losing by 29 to the woeful Brooklyn Nets at home with Anthony Davis in the lineup on Friday, New Orleans went out and beat the defending champion Cavaliers without Davis on Monday. Though Cleveland would close within two by the final buzzer, the Pelicans never trailed and led by as many as 22 in what was at times a thorough domination.
With Davis out, the Pelicans relied heavily on Jrue Holiday, whose return to the lineup in November has turned the Pelicans season around and made a postseason spot attainable for a team that started 2-10. But, even more so than Holiday, the Pelican most responsible for the surprising victory was Terrence Jones, who is undergoing a renaissance season in his first year in the Crescent City.
In an offseason when even unproven role players were rolling in dough, Jones had to settle for a one-year, veteran’s minimum contract from the Pelicans after fielding no offers during the first few weeks of free agency. It was surprising given the potential Jones showed during his first two seasons with the Rockets, but chronic injury issues kept him out of the lineup last season, clouding Jones’ future. Still though, Jones is clearly talented and it was odd not to see any team, particularly one like Brooklyn or Sacramento, take a moderately expensive flier on him.
Instead it was New Orleans who convinced Jones to sign at way below his market value, though I suppose if Jones had a higher market value he wouldn’t be playing for the minimum. Ironically, it was Ryan Anderson’s departure to Houston that opened up the backup power forward spot in New Orleans, and Jones has stepped into that role and performed well. Jones is a totally different player than Anderson, but he gives the Pelicans a spark and he’s versatile enough to play alongside Davis when he needs to. Only Davis, Holiday and Dante Cunningham have a better net rating than Jones, meaning the Pelicans are generally at their best when he is on the floor.
Jones’ diverse skill set was on full display against the Cavaliers when he tied his career high of 36 points on 13-of-18 shooting while collecting 11 rebounds and three blocks. Jones inability to hit 3s consistently is perhaps the biggest reason the Pelicans found him in the bargain bin this summer, and that trend has continued this season as he is shooting just 27 percent from beyond the arc. But Cleveland learned how dangerous Jones can be when he has his shot going. Jones was 3-of-4 from deep against the Cavs, capitlizaing on the acres of space the Cavs afforded him.
That 3-point shot is so vital for Jones. When he has it going, it frees up the other delightful elements of his game that make him a tough cover for most other power forwards in the NBA. Watch here as Tristan Thompson crowds Jones at the top of the key, extending his arm to dissuade the long jumper. Jones uses the space to get moving toward the basket, stops on a dime and unleashes a gorgeous behind-the-back move to get right to the rim.
Jones is one of the most frequent pump fakers in the NBA. It is almost like a nervous twitch. Sometimes you can tell Jones never had any intention of shooting the ball and few things can irk coaches more than when their defenders fall for a pump fake from someone shooting 27 percent from deep. But when Jones does claim a victim, he takes off and drives into the paint, where can either finish or find an open teammate if the defense helps. Jones is shooting 65.2 percent in the restricted area this season, which is the same percentage as Davis.
On the other end of the floor, Jones is in an unenviable position of ambiguity. He’s not quite quick enough to guard small ball fours and he isn’t long enough to play the five for prolonged stretches. He can do a job on players in his own category, but isn’t an obvious plus defensively. However, forced into the role of rim protector against Cleveland with Davis and Omer Asik out, Jones delivered with solid interior defense, including a devastating rejecting on LeBron James late in the fourth quarter.
Jones was a forgotten man during one of the most player-friendly offseasons in sports history, and he had to settle for a make-good one-year deal in order to get a chance to prove himself as a reliable rotation player. Thus far, Jones has done far more than that in New Orleans. He hasn’t exactly cemented himself as a long term frontcourt partner for Davis, but he has shown that the variety of tools in his arsenal are still there. And if he can manage to become a more consistent outside shooter, he won’t be playing for the veteran’s minimum again for a long time.