Terrence Jones is the Western Conference’s worst nightmare.
But when the team can add a supreme knack for drafting and developing players—at the position that needs it most, in this case—the future for its competitors starts to look mighty bleak.
Ever since Kevin McHale brought Jones into the rotation—the coach is notorious for his feast-or-famine approach to player minutes—in the Rockets’ November 11th victory over the Toronto Raptors, they’ve gone 11-4. Prior to that, they were an underwhelming 4-3.
This uptick in winning speaks to a large collection of adjustments the Rockets have made, but make no mistake, the inclusion of Jones has been paramount.
Drafted from the Kentucky Wildcats by the Rockets as a prospectively fearsome finisher and mobile defender, Jones is much lighter of foot than Omer Asik, who was previously starting games next to Howard.
With Jones in his place, the Rockets can do more of the open-court pressing that they’re built around and thrive on.
He’s also an impressive outside shooter, with a .406 mark from beyond the arc for the season. This is a boon for the Rockets, who have long been attached to trade rumors involving deep-shooting 4's. Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News suggested that Ryan Anderson was a target in late November.
Those rumors seem to have shut themselves up since Jones’ emergence.
Perhaps most important of all is that Jones is a more natural complement to Howard than Asik. His skill set on offense doesn’t double over on what Dwight does, and since his outside shot has to be respected, he’s actually able to clear the space around the basket for the big man.
With Jones on the floor, the Rockets are able to bring back some offensive sets from the halcyon days of Howard’s stay with the Orlando Magic, where he would regularly hunker down into the post and have his option of shooters spread around the arc.
Such a set is one of many potential answers to the issue of Houston needing more half-court game come playoff time.
An intuitive passer, Jones is also redirecting defenses on the perimeter quite effectively, utilizing the spreads of hot Rockets shooters to his advantage.
Jones’ defense is certainly no replacement for Asik’s, but his quickness and length make for a promising amount of potential on that end of the floor.
This is merely Jones’ second season—and the first in which he’s seen significant minutes—and it takes most NBA players some time to adjust to playing defense as a professional. The jury is still out on how well Jones can defend.
More than anything, Jones’ surge is a testament to the quality of the culture that Houston has built. Omri Casspi has also looked, suddenly, like his best self with the Rockets and Patrick Beverley was scooped out of anonymity last year—now he’s a deadly rotation player.
Aaron Brooks, overlooked by the whole league once he went to China during the 2011 lockout, is also excelling.
Like their in-state rival San Antonio Spurs have done for years, the Rockets have begun to form a template for a rotating cast of effective role players to supplement their star core of James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Howard.
Fans in Houston should be elated to see Jones become the latest member of that cast. His unusual poise and willingness to be whatever pawn his team asks him to be bode well for their prospects in the postseason.
With a little more time and development, Jones may even transcend his auxiliary role to stand tall and prominently in the Rockets’ future.
Statistics used in this article are accurate as of December 12th, 2013.