By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2006
During one two-minute stretch Saturday at Temple, Maryland's Mike Jones made one of his seven three-pointers but also committed three turnovers that led to four points for the Owls, his career summed up in 120 seconds.
Jones has long been popular with fans, who adore his smooth shooting stroke and contend he deserves a starter's role. Coaches, on the other hand, cite Jones's shaky ballhandling and suspect defense and maintain the 6-foot-5 junior is not yet a polished guard.
But after co-captain Chris McCray was ruled academically ineligible Jan. 23, no one could debate Jones's importance to the fate of Maryland's season. If Maryland (14-5, 4-2 ACC) is to have a shot at qualifying for the NCAA tournament -- the Terrapins host North Carolina (12-5, 3-3) tonight -- Jones's ability to round out his game is key.
"I don't think there is a better open shooter," Terps Coach Gary Williams said. "But when a guy takes away your shot, you need to either get by him and shoot or make a play as the help defense comes into play. That's Mike's next step."
As Saturday's game showed, shooting has never been the issue. Jones said his range starts a few steps after crossing half court. He recalled beating teammate Travis Garrison in a shooting contest by making 20 consecutive three-pointers. And his former high school coach, Rob Dixon, remembers Jones making deep three-pointers so effortlessly that defenders looked at him "like Mike was insane."
Jones's athleticism allowed him to dominate opponents at Thayer Academy (Mass.) by shooting or jumping over them. But his game largely has been one dimensional at Maryland. His last nine field goals have been three-pointers. He's actually shooting better from three-point range (47.4 percent) than from inside the arc, where he has made 37 percent of his shots.
When Dixon watches Jones on television now, he said, "I'm seeing 20 percent of what he did in high school."
Over the last four games, though, Jones has made 62 percent of his three-point shots and has twice scored at least 22 points. Before the Jan. 15 win over Wake Forest, Williams told Jones that he had the "green light," meaning he shouldn't worry that a miss will cost him playing time.
In a practice following that exchange, Jones found himself semi-covered by a defender and chose to pass. He said Williams, who has said he wishes he had loosened the reins sooner, stopped practice and reminded Jones that he needs to take those shots, again and again.
The talent is evident. After the Temple game, during which Jones tied a school record with his seven three-pointers, Owls Coach John Chaney called Jones a "pro." It hardly mattered that Jones had scored in double figures for just the sixth time this season or had started just his fourth game of the year.
The offensive prowess is what enabled Jones to become a McDonald's All-American and get ranked as the second-best shooting guard in the high school class of 2003 behind LeBron James. It also prompted scuttlebutt, mostly from summer-league contacts, that Jones had a chance to get picked in the first round of the 2003 NBA draft straight from high school, Dixon said.
Now, he is one of four Maryland starters -- point guard D.J. Strawberry the lone exception -- with more turnovers than assists this season. Jones will routinely review tape of a game and note how he rushed at times when he received the ball, leading to bad passes.
By most accounts, Jones has gradually improved defensively over three years. He can't pinpoint the exact reason for past defensive struggles but acknowledged that a lack of focus may have contributed. Williams believes the problem started when Jones was in high school, where he was not relied upon for much defense.
"I coached high school," Williams said. "If you have a great player, you don't want him to get too near anybody because you need him for 32 minutes on the offensive end."
Dixon said Jones has had trouble adjusting in general to the college level. When Jones became frustrated by his struggles in the past, he talked to family members, who he said cooled him down. He does not know for sure why it took McCray's ineligibility to give him a starting job.
"It could have been" defense, he said. "I never really got down to [finding out]. And I don't really plan on getting down to it.
"I've waited for this opportunity."
Note: Maryland officials are encouraging fans to arrive early because of traffic concerns.