CRAWFORD | Louisville's Jones still striving to get Pitino's point
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So the first thing that Chris Jones should understand after a few off games is that he's not the first to feel frustration from fans — and from U of L coach Rick Pitino.
Jones has gone 11-for-43 from the field (including 3-for-15 against Kentucky) over U of L's past five games, with seven assists and seven turnovers.
Those aren't winning point guard numbers. But neither were these: 12-for-38 (including 2-for-13 against Kentucky), 29 assists, 23 turnovers. That's a six-game sample from Siva's junior year.
At some point during that stretch, with the team struggling in the early months of 2012, Pitino had to take Siva aside and have a talk. Pitino told me during discussions for his most recent book that Siva was always focused on others, taking care of his family, friends, whoever. He had to remind his point guard that during the season, his main focus should be school and basketball.
“Once he rededicated himself,” Pitino said, “the season turned around for him, and he became the point guard who led us to back-to-back Final Fours and the national title.”
Over the past week or so, Pitino has tried to have some similar discussions with Jones. Still, it isn't easy. Pitino said earlier this year that Jones was listening to too many voices, reading social media on his phone, letting too much surface noise get through.
“I think he reads that phone too much," Pitino said. "He's on it every second of the day. Doesn't get enough sleep. ... I guarantee that if he loses it for two weeks, he'll play great basketball."
That was a month ago. Jones changed the way he handled his phone, and his social media interactions, and it helped his game for a time.
Now Pitino has another message.
“I think Chris, like a lot of players on our team, has a very difficult time listening,” Pitino said. “We talked about problem-solving the other day, that once you know the problem, then you can solve it. And what I explained to Chris the other day is he was 6-for-36 off the bounce taking off-balance shots. I said ‘Chris, you're one of the top three shooters on our team, if not the best open shooter, so what you have to strive for is when you go down the lane and you don't have a shot, do what Peyton Siva used to do, keep on dribbling, dribble it back out and get a better shot or look for someone or for yourself. But you're one of our best shooters and we need you to shoot open shots. When you shoot an open shot you shoot a very high percentage.'”
But something Pitino said, got lost in translation.
“What did he do in the next game? He didn't shoot the ball when he was open,” Pitino said. “So his translation of my message was not to shoot, when it's just the opposite. So unfortunately, you can't solve the problem unless you have the ability to listen. That's the first thing for him, the ability to learn how to listen.”
That, too, is not unusual. When NBA scouts came to U of L practices a couple of years back, they said they liked Montrezl Harrell's game, but that he needed to show them more than just a penchant for dazzling dunks. When Pitino relayed that message to Harrell, it wasn't constructively received. Harrell, just a freshman at the time, said they just didn't see him on his best day, or that they didn't understand the full range of his game.
Over time, of course, Harrell began to realize that he needed to expand his game, and he has, to the point that he actually returned to school to try to become an NBA Draft lottery pick after last season, when he surely could've been a first-round pick had he gone.
With Jones, Pitino is hoping to see a similar maturation in the second half of this season, though he's only in his second season with the Memphis native after he transferred in from junior college, and Jones isn't the kind of natural listener that Siva was, nor have his assists kept piling up even when his shooting numbers dipped, as Siva's did. Pitino is still working to get through, and Jones is still working, period.
“He is very temperamental,” Pitino said. “He didn't understand the message. He understood the problem; we showed him the 36 shots and we showed him making the open shots, but his translation was different than my translation. We've got it cured now — until the next problem comes along.”
It's been a rough few weeks for Jones, no doubt. He found himself under heavy criticism for flopping in the second half of Kentucky, then found himself on the bench after Pitino told him that it's one thing to try to draw a charge — and be good at selling a charge — but another to actually try to fake an injury by rubbing your jaw when there was no contact.
“It's against what the game stands for from a principle standpoint,” Pitino said. “You're totally faking something, and then rubbing your jaw afterwards, that's uncalled for. . . . If there's contact, and you're able to, like a stunt man, you're able to take it and go down and land perfectly, you take a little contact but you make it look like it's a tremendous hit, that's okay. That's up to a good referee to determine whether it's a charge or a flop. But when you go down and you fake an injury, that's not good.”
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Jones said after U of L's game against Long Beach State that Pitino's message had been received. He said he understood that he needs to be a facilitator for his team.
He may not have gotten Pitino's message right, but the coach said on Friday that's been ironed out now.
U of L needs Jones. His defensive ability is crucial to the team's success. When he's making good decisions, he's a weapon.
He's had his share of critics lately, and I've been one of them from time to time. But he's not alone in that regard. Whether he's able to find the right balance to make the final chapter of his U of L career a memorable one will unfold in the coming weeks.
Rarely, for whatever reason, have the success stories (or even the cautionary tales) in Pitino's U of L tenure come without some kind of struggle and adversity. They are written by imperfect players who, at some point, discover a way to be effective. Gorgui Dieng learning the game. Larry O'Bannon finding his way. Russ Smith overcoming his own recklessness. Siva honing his focus.
There also have been tales of talent squandered.
For Jones, at the moment, it could still go either way.
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