ATLANTA — After his team lost to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament, Kansas State Coach Frank Martin approached Perry Jones III on the court and offered an encouraging message: “Man, keep being who you are. Don’t give into perception and public nonsense – be who you are, man.”
Jones, a 6-foot-11 sophomore, is one of the most talented players in the country. He is also probably one of the most criticized because he has not measured up at least statistically to the hype that accompanied him to Waco two years ago.
Jones would have been an NBA lottery pick had he left school after his freshman season. And the 20-year-old likely will be one this June if he enters the draft despite averaging a pedestrian 13.4 points per game.
Bears Coach Scott Drew and assistant Jerome Tang, who first watched Jones play as an eighth-grader, said that the NBA will realize his extraordinary potential when he is 25. Teammates say he’ll be a starting forward in the NBA next year and an all-star in three years.
But one of Jones’s challenges all season has been trying to block out the negativity about him that runs rampant on the Internet. Baylor senior forward Anthony Jones said Jones has been chastised so much “you’d think he’s already a millionaire in the NBA.”
On one occasion, Jones tweeted about how excited he was that he received a grade of a B-plus on a difficult English paper. Someone tweeted back that he should stop worrying about academics and get back in the gym to fix his game.
On another occasion, someone tweeted that Jones was the most “underachieving player” in the history of college basketball.
On Saturday, a day before third-seeded Baylor plays top-seeded Kentucky in the South Region final, Jones spoke with a reporter privately, smiling at the memory of the pointed criticism. But to say the verbal darts merely ricochet off his thick skin would be a lie.
“It bothers me a lot, to be honest,” Jones said. “[Kentucky star freshman] Anthony Davis, I don’t think he did so well in some of the games I saw. He got into foul trouble. He had like eight or nine points and 12 rebounds. If I did something like that then they’d be like I didn’t show up, I wasn’t there, I wasn’t in it.
“A couple people actually tweeted me and said I’m losing [potential NBA money] every game. Everybody is just worrying about the wrong thing. They are just worried about me going to the NBA. I don’t think anybody is worried about us making it this far in the tournament.”
Jones never expected this level of backlash when he decided to return to school. He doesn’t check Twitter anymore to see when his name is mentioned. It’s gotten so bad that during a news conference this week teammate Quincy Acy lowered his head to the microphone and sarcastically pronounced that it was “Bash Perry Day.”
“I wonder why,” Jones said of the criticism. “They expect me to score 25, 30 a night. I don’t have to. If I go out and play defense and lock down my man, to the world that’s a bad game.”
Tang, the Baylor assistant, first walked into a gymnasium in Henderson, Nev., to check out Jones on the eighth-grade AAU circuit. Tang was the only college coach in the gym. Jones was four inches shorter and as thin as dental floss.
When Jones committed to Baylor in ninth grade, people laughed. But his stock soared later in his high school career. As a freshman at Baylor, Jones averaged 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds, earning freshman all-American honors.
This season, he’s had some impressive showings, dropping 31 points on Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament. But critics wonder why he appears too unselfish, too passive at times. In Baylor’s first two NCAA tournament games, Jones had two points against South Dakota State and seven points against Colorado.
“Why keep shooting the ball if I am not feeling it?” Jones said. “Right now, if I miss five or six shots in a row and I don’t make the next three or four after that, it’s time to give it up to a teammate who can score.”
In the Colorado game specifically, guard Brady Heslip made nine three-point shots. And Drew said Jones played a key role in collecting “hockey assists,” meaning making the pass that led to the assist on the basket.
Coaches recently have talked to Jones about not thinking, just reacting when he catches the ball. Jones said that was how he played in the region semifinals against Xavier, when he made 7 of 8 field goal attempts.
“At times, he cares too much about what somebody else will think,” Tang said. “He is a kid. He might have a grown man’s body and unbelievable talent. But he is still a kid learning how to adapt to all this. And this year he is more comfortable than he was last year.”
In talking about Jones’s evolution, Drew referenced the improvements Kentucky’s Davis and Kansas’s Thomas Robinson made over the past two years. Drew called Jones a late bloomer.
“He never asked to be judged like he is a first pick in the NBA draft,” Drew said. “We all want kids to stay in college longer because we know how important academics is, but if we criticize them and treat them like pros, why would you want to stay?”