Green Target: Will Terrence Jones lift off straight out of Houston?

Brandon Bass is already in purple and gold. Could Terrence Jones be wearing green and white sometime soon?
When NBA fans think of Kentucky alums, quite a few names come to mind. Anthony Davis is an MVP candidate, and the John Wall-Demarcus Cousins tandem from 2009-2010 have established themselves as all-stars early in their careers. Yet of all the Kentucky alumni in the league (17 drafted since 2010 alone, 21 total still currently in the league -- or, in real life terms, a full NBA roster and six guys playing on the greatest D-League team of all time), one name that often goes unnoticed is a certain hyper-athletic rebounding machine with a developing three-point stroke: Terrence Jones.

According to Chris Sheridan, the titular editor of, Jones, a player who has been a key cog in the Rockets’ success as a springy complement to Dwight Howard, may just be on the block. If such rumors are true, Jones is an enticing piece for a lot of teams, especially the Celtics.

At 6’8”, Jones may be just slightly undersized for the power forward spot, but his impressive athleticism makes up for it – athleticism that has translated to a career average of 1.3 blocks per game as a weak-side rim protector in Houston’s pack the paint scheme. Much like the Celtics own Jordan Mickey, Jones is willing and able to contest at the rim from the weak side, selfless enough to risk foul trouble for the sake of the team’s defense – or risk ending up on a poster for his trouble:

Such instances are few and far between, however, and Jones' impact on the defensive end goes beyond chasing blocks. Jones has the lateral quickness to stay with most any stretch four, and he battles down low even when outmuscled by behemoths like Zach Randolph, all of which adds up to a defender who makes the word versatile seem like an understatement.

On offense, Jones is a steady contributor who has improved every year in the league in different facets. He originally struggled to finish in his first few seasons before learning to leverage his athleticism to finish in traffic and draw fouls (Jones averages around four free throws a game, but on only 13 shots per game total).

And his jump shot, a question mark coming into the pros, has improved each year he’s been in the league, with his three point percentage jumping from 26% his rookie year to a league-average 35% last year (albeit in a year in which Jones only appeared in 33 games due to injury). And inside the arc, Jones’ jumper has even become above-average, and, combined with his quickness and a knack for ball-handling few men his size have, has allowed him to become an effective off-the bounce threat against plodding traditional forwards.

Like almost every player in the league – with the possible exception of Stephen Curry, who may just be a genetic experiment meant to breed the perfect basketball player – Jones comes with question marks. He missed most of last year with a nerve issue in his left leg that reportedly left him wondering whether he would ever play again, and has already missed time this year with a lacerated eyelid. The nerve injury is certainly worrisome, though Jones has said that he has no ill effects and he seems to have regained most of his athleticism. If the injury is truly in the rear view, it seems that it is only the current dysfunction surrounding the Rockets that is holding Jones back, as both former coach Kevin Mchale and interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff have moved him in and out of the starting lineup as they search for a spark to ignite what has become a lackadaisical and disorganized group.

If that is the case, Jones is a fascinating test for Danny Ainge’s rebuilding philosophy. At 25 and on the verge of entering restricted free agency, Ainge would have to be damn near certain that he would both be able to re-sign Jones and that the young forward would live up to his new contract before acquiring him. With the way the team has operated thus far – opting not to extend Jared Sullinger and sticking to de facto one-year deals with all of their veteran free agents – it would seem that Jones lies outside the model which the Celtics have decided to pursue as they forge forward in their rebuilding plan.

However, let us not be too quick to forget that Ainge re-signed Jae Crowder, a player in a strikingly similar position to Jones’, to a five year thirty-five million dollar contract, with the logic being that a spiking salary cap and Crowder’s youth would make the deal a bargain in years to come. Jones is certainly going to cost more than Crowder, but he is arguably a more valuable commodity as a player with a similar offensive profile who creates mismatches with his ability to play steady minutes at the four.

There is no easy road to nabbing Jones, mostly because the Rockets hard-capped themselves at 86 million in total team salaries after they signed Montrezl Harrell in the offseason. As such, any trade involving Houston would have to involve salaries that are essentially identical, with the rockets assuredly wanting to save at least enough space to perhaps pursue a buyout candidate down the road.

Jones showing off his elite athleticism at the
2014 Rising Stars Challenge
While we cannot know who the Rockets’ would be looking for as the centerpiece of such a deal, even a cursory look at the roster and play style would tell us that the Rockets value versatility and shooting but may or may not be looking to upgrade its overall team defense. As such, there are only a few scenarios that bring Jones to Boston while satisfying Daryl Morey’s insatiable need to win the simulated NBA championship every year.

A package of Kelly Olynyk, Minnesota’s top-14 protected first round pick (becomes second rounders this year and next if Minnesota is in the lottery), and Memphis’ first round pick in 2018* might get the job done, but the player going Houston’s way is what throws a wrench into the apparatus. With the salary-matching restrictions, there are only three combinations of players which makes the deal work: Olynyk alone, Sullinger alone, or a pair of two rookie-scale contracts such as Terry Rozier and James Young.

Each scenario presents unique issues; Sullinger is playing well enough that Ainge may simply want to hold on to him, while Olynyk is clearly a tier below Sullinger in terms of talent and the youngsters simply can't help Houston this year. The draft pick compensation helps mitigate some of those issues, especially since Minnesota’s pick may actually be conveyed as a first rounder this year due to a surprising resurgence up north. But the rest simply boils down to this – does Olynyk hold the kind of value that would allow Morey to count acquiring him and a medley of picks, or does it require Sullinger to get a deal done?

Morey is the holy father of the church of advanced statistics, and advanced stats have always looked upon Olynyk favorably. That, along with his ability to spread the floor for a Rockets offense that gets clogged up by James Harden’s ten-steps-without-a-dribble drives and the lurking presence of Howard in the paint, may just be enough to convince Morey to pull the trigger. For now, this is all conjecture. Houston has to let either Jones or Donatas Montiejunas go, especially since they gave a fairly lucrative deal to Harell after selecting him early in the second round.

There is something to be said for Houston’s lack of leverage in this situation, and Olynyk might be the best talent available under the circumstances. But only time will tell if Jones will be trading one Christmas color for another and don the green sometime this season.

*Memphis' 1st round pick to Boston protected for selections 1-12 in 2018 (conveyable if Memphis conveys a 1st round pick to Denver in 2016), 1-8 in 2019 (conveyable if Memphis has conveyed a 1st round pick to Denver by 2017) and 1-6 in 2020 (conveyable if Memphis has conveyed a 1st round pick to Denver by 2018) and unprotected in 2021 [Boston-Memphis-New Orleans, 1/12/2015]

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Opening photo courtesy of USAToday
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