Early in the Ivy League season, Penn basketball nearly lost one of its freshman phenoms to injury.
On a freak play while practicing for the Quakers’ early February roadtrip to Cornell and Columbia, freshman forward Sam Jones felt something wrong with his elbow.
“It was an odd play in practice,” he said. “I didn’t really know I had hurt it too bad, but I knew something was wrong.”
He would soon learn that he had torn ligaments in his left non-shooting elbow, leaving him the option to have surgery and end his season or keep playing. Instead of taking the easy way out of the season, Jones kept going, deciding to wait on possible surgery.
“It was a concern,” assistant coach Mike Lintulahti said. “I think we were all respectful of Sam’s options but selfishly glad he decided to gut it out.”
The 6-foot-7 freshman from Arizona had played a limited bench role up to that point, logging fewer than 10 minutes in five of the six games going into Cornell. But the weekend after his injury was not another pair of five-minute, zero-point efforts.
In fact, it was the best weekend of his young career.
Jones drained a clutch three-pointer to put Penn ahead in the final minute against the Big Red, the last time the Quakers have won. The following night at Columbia, the freshman shot the lights out by making seven three-pointers, matching his total from his previous 10 appearances.
At the postgame press conference, Jones shrugged off the injury, as only he can.
“I think it’s been helping me out," he joked. "Since I did have it, I’ve been making everything. I don’t know what to say about that. It doesn’t bother me too much, so it’s not that big of a deal.”
In the late 1980s, the NCAA first implemented the three-point line, which forever changed the way basketball teams operated. Sharpshooters who could make long-range shots consistently began to play a larger role in games due to their increased impact, one shot at a time.
Since the three-point line became a consistent part of basketball, player after player has made their impact on the game with the shot. With prolific shooters like Ray Allen and Kyle Korver playing large roles on the court, teams have learned the value of spacing the floor, using their three-point shooters both to make shots consistently while also creating more opportunities for teammates.
Nowadays, almost every team has at least one dominant three-point shooter, from the NBA to the lowest ranks of colleges. The Ivy League is no exception. Fran Dunphy’s Penn squads were ripe with sharp shooters: Players like Jeff Schiffner, Scott Kegler and Andy Toole reigned from long-range. In more recent years, Zach Rosen and Laurent Rivard made their mark from deep for Penn and Harvard, respectively.
In that long lineage of Ivy three-point shooters comes a young Sam Jones.
The lanky forward plays a very specialized role for the Red and Blue, forcing opposing teams to game plan specifically for his ability to shoot the trey.
“We know he’s a shooter,” Lintulahti said. “He stretches the floor, whether he is making shots or not. Just his presence on the floor opens things up for other guys, and we were quietly optimistic about his opportunity to make an impact early on because we have nobody else like him.”
By the time Jones made his way to Columbia in early February, his ability to shoot the trey was already well known within the Ivy League. Jones is fourth in the Ancient Eight in three-point shooting percentage, the only freshman in the top 10.
Game by game, Jones makes his way off the bench and gets immediate attention from the opposing team. But despite the extra attention, he continues to make shots, using the three-point line to keep Penn in games or help lead comeback efforts in recent weeks. While he is not yet one of the elite three-point shooters in Penn’s history, the Quakers see a ton of potential in the young forward.
“To his credit, he stepped up and made some plays for us,” coach Jerome Allen said after the loss to Columbia. “I think it’s documented what he brings to the table in terms of being a legitimate threat on the perimeter. I wasn’t shocked how he shot the ball."
While Penn lost its first matchup with Columbia, the game helped reveal one of the hidden gems of the Quakers’ recruiting class. Since injuring his left elbow, Jones has averaged 9.25 points per game, providing a more consistent impact while cementing his presence on campus according to Allen.
“He’s a Penn guy. He's a Penn Quaker," Allen said after the Columbia game. "He’s great in the locker room. He’s part of the fraternity. He’s a part of campus; he has a ton of friends and he mixes and mingles. Couple that with basketball, he’s patient. He’s waited his turn. Whenever he was called on, he’s tried to give us what we’ve asked for and as his career furthers, he’ll be better and better.”
Over the past few weeks, Jones and the freshmen class have provided a glimpse of a brighter future for the Quakers. Alongside fellow first-year players Antonio Woods, Darnell Foreman and Dan Dwyer, Jones made his first career start on Saturday at Yale. The freshman class has become a consistent force in the Quakers’ lineup, making an impact right away unlike freshmen at other schools.
“When we came in, we all set our sights on the now,” Jones said. “We all just knew we were going to try to make an impact this year, and I feel like we’ve been working everyday acting like we’re not freshmen.”
Despite the clear improvement to his personal game, Jones still has a ways to go to become a fully well-rounded player.
“The first thought is can he defend and who is he going to guard,” Lintulahti said. “Obviously, other teams will try to exploit that to some extent. We’re trying to make sure [we have] answers for that on the defensive end of the floor.”
Looking at Jones, it’s obvious that he could add some muscle. After all, despite his 6-foot-7 frame, the lanky freshman is listed at only 175 pounds and is not as physically imposing as, for example, fellow first-year forward Mike Auger.
And while Jones has been the hot hand from long range in recent games, he had a six-game stretch mid-season where he did not score a single point. If the Arizona native wants to stay in the Quakers’ lineup moving forward, consistency needs to be the name of his game.
“I’m still working on a lot of things right now,” Jones said. “You’ll see I’ll go through streaks where I don’t shoot the ball as well. You can always get better as a shooter.”
So what does the finished product of Jones look like? When asked, Coach Lintulahti said he hopes he looks like Korver, the aforementioned prolific shooter that has helped the Atlanta Hawks take the NBA’s Eastern Conference by storm.
“I brought him in to watch film. We watched Kyle Korver specifically,” Lintulahti said. “On the offensive end but with Kyle Korver, people who know better than I do say he’s an outstanding team defender. Sam is really going to have to put extra work in the weightroom, really be conscious of nutrition and diet.
“He’s got a really slight frame so I don’t know how much he can [add to his weight], but what I do know about Sam is that he works. He’s a worker and I know he wants to get better.”
In the end, Jones may not end up reaching Korver’s level. But each of his shots brings Penn closer to its ultimate goals. Three points at a time.Comments powered by Disqus
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.