Houston Rockets power forward Terrence Jones was essentially an afterthought a week or so into the new season. The second-year man out of Kentucky played just 16 total minutes over the first six games, racking up three DNPs in the process.
But when Rockets coach Kevin McHale decided to ditch the failing two-center experiment in the second half against the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 11, it was Jones who got the call at power forward. Jones wound up playing 32 minutes that night, notching seven points and 10 rebounds in a double-overtime win.
Since then, Jones has taken a permanent residence in the Rockets' starting lineup, and he may just be the power forward the team has been looking for to team up with Dwight Howard.
In Jones' four starts, the big man has averaged 13.5 points, 10 rebounds and 2.0 blocks while shooting 55.0 percent from the field. And in those starts, the Rockets are outscoring their opponents by 17.9 points per 100 possessions when Jones is on the floor, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.
Perhaps most notable is the difference in the Rockets' play at the outset of games. With Howard and Omer Asik struggling to mesh together, Houston was prone to slow starts. But when Jones has started, the Rockets have led at the end of every first quarter, and by an average of 10 points.
Jones and the Rockets were especially good in the first quarter against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday. Jones had 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting in the opening frame as Houston raced to a 40-18 lead. The Rockets cruised the rest of the way to victory, with Jones posting 24 points and nine rebounds in just 27 minutes in a 109-85 win.
With Jones on the floor instead of Asik, the Rockets have a greater offensive threat at power forward and a player who can space the floor much better. And while Asik is an elite defender, Houston hasn't suffered on that end with Jones. Howard and Jones have teamed up to provide solid rim protection, blocking shots and allowing the Rockets to get out and run. Houston has averaged 10.8 blocks over the last five games, and Dwight Howard thinks its changing the look of the team:
"I think it's our defense," Howard said. "Terrence and myself tried to do a better job of protecting the paint and forcing teams to only get one shot. Once we do that, our young guys can get out and run. They did a good job of that, of getting out and running early. We set the tone."
The Rockets have won three games in a row and clearly have found something that has worked for the time being. Jones is still mostly unproven, having played just 28 games last year for Houston. This could just be a flash in the pan, but the early results are certainly promising for Jones:
"I'm just getting more comfortable and more confidence from my teammates and the coaching staff," Jones said. "I'm just trying to make the simple plays and trying to be there for cuts and rebounds. Just playing with these guys, they're always making me feel comfortable on the floor, cheering for me on when I do anything to help them out. It makes it a lot easier."
The Rockets will face off against Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday. The Mavs' offense has been one of the most prolific in the NBA to start the year, and they boast a perfect 5-0 home record. Jones will likely draw the Nowitzki assignment, so that will be a tough test for the 21-year-old.