Chris Jones is all smiles when he’s in his element at North Texas, with the bright orange object of his affection at his command.
The Mean Green’s starting point guard is pretty good with a basketball as well, an object that just happens to be about the same color as his 1998 Ford Crown Victoria, which looks like something one might have seen on Pimp My Ride.
The car has chrome touches added here and there, not to mention other head-turning modifications.
“That orange piece of candy that he has — his car outside,” teammate Roger Franklin said following practice this past week, “that’s his baby.”
Jones has spent countless hours under the hood, fixing the car up and making it something unique, something of his own creation.
In a lot of ways, UNT’s team is a little like that sedan.
The Mean Green is a work in progress heading into a home game against Southeastern Louisiana today at the Super Pit.
It’s Jones’ job to make sure everything runs well. If he can make UNT look as good as his Crown Vic, well, that’s an added bonus.
That job might sound easy enough, especially with all the pieces Jones has to work with — from a potential NBA lottery pick in Tony Mitchell in the post and a couple of experienced wing players in Jacob Holmen and Jordan Williams to Franklin, a senior captain who transferred in from Oklahoma State and does a little of everything.
Nothing has come easy for the Mean Green, though, not in UNT’s first season under Tony Benford and an entirely new coaching staff.
UNT was expected to roll this season but is just 4-6.
That start is a bitter pill to swallow for Jones, a 6-2 sophomore, but not nearly as bitter as what he experienced last season.
After getting off to a great start, Jones and Williams were declared academically ineligible for the second semester of their freshman seasons.
Suddenly, Jones had a lot more time than even he wanted to spend working on his ride.
“It was really hard to miss the last half of last year,” Jones said. “It was embarrassing for me, my teammates, my family and the school. I felt like I let people down, but I learned from it. I have to take care of my business if I want to keep playing basketball. I have to take care of my grades. Coach Benford is always on us about our grades. He pushes me even more to be successful in life.”
The fight back has been anything but easy and certainly not as clear-cut as some of the work Jones has done on his car. There is no owner’s manual for how to regain what one lost on the basketball court.
UNT had to adjust to a new system after former head coach Johnny Jones left for LSU. Benford placed Chris Jones back in the starting lineup for the Mean Green’s season opener against Creighton.
Jones scored 31 points against Texas Tech as a freshman and scored more than 20 points three other times in just 19 games a year ago.
He didn’t score a single point against the Bluejays.
“Mentally, it was an adjustment,” Jones said. “People were wondering what I would do when I came back. Once I got that out of my head, I started playing better. I put a lot of pressure on myself wondering what everyone else was thinking.”
Jones scored in double figures in three straight games, beginning with a 13-point outing in a stunning loss to Division II power Alabama-Huntsville, but really started to come on in UNT’s last three games.
He scored 23 points in a loss to Louisiana-Lafayette, 21 in a loss to St. Louis and then 11 in a win over Jackson State. Jones is averaging 12.1 points a game this season, just short of the 14.1 he posted last year.
“He is starting to get back into the flow,” Benford said. “It’s hard on a point guard to miss that much time, come back, have the ball handed to him and be asked to run the team. It’s a process. I don’t care how talented you are. You have to be an extension of the coach. He’s calling the offense, he’s calling the defense, he has to get the guys into the right spots and know where everyone is supposed to be on every play. He is getting into a routine now and is getting comfortable with that.”
What Jones has realized is that for UNT to run the way he wants his Ford to run — smoothly and with style — he is going to have to take a lead role.
“I have to be aggressive for the team,” Jones said. “The first couple of games of the season, I wasn’t as aggressive as I used to be. When I’m attacking, it opens things up for everyone else.”
Benford has encouraged Jones to be aggressive because he sees the potential his point guard possesses.
“Chris’ strength, quickness, toughness, his ability to run a team and also to score make him effective,” Benford said. “He has all the intangibles you need to be a quality point guard in any league.
“The guys really listen to him. He’s a leader. I was telling him the other day that if he’s moody, his teammates are going to be moody. If he challenges them and is vocal, they will follow suit.”
Franklin often wonders what might have happened if UNT had had Jones at the end of last season.
UNT was up 13 points on Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt Conference tournament final. An NCAA tournament bid was within reach, but UNT didn’t make the plays down the stretch and lost.
Could Jones have put UNT in better positions late in the game to convert and close out a win? It’s a question that will always haunt Jones and UNT.
“Chris Jones is the type of guy we needed,” Franklin said. “He’s such a key factor. He carries a lot of weight, playing 30 minutes a game and taking so many shots. He doesn’t want to let his teammates down. He told me personally last year that if he could, he would rewind time and go back and fix the mistakes he made.”
Benford said Jones has learned his lesson, taken care of his academic work and even thanked his coaches for holding him accountable for his actions this year.
Jones is focused on basketball, but even college athletes need a way to get away from the pursuits that dominate their life.
For Jones, that escape is cars. When he isn’t working on his own, he often tinkers with those of teammates.
“CJ is a car guy,” Franklin said. “He worked on my car and got it back running and is telling me about what he wants to do with his car. He wants to put in a new interior and new seats. He likes being under a hood.”
Jones still has a lot of time left in the game, perhaps even on the professional level. He knows that he won’t play forever, though, and someday will have to tackle other pursuits.
That’s why Jones is focusing more than ever on academics while eyeing a future in his secondary passion, one that is evident when people see him driving around Denton in his Crown Victoria, something he enjoys almost as much as driving around a defender.
“If basketball doesn’t work out, I have to have Plan B,” Jones said. “I want to be a mechanic. I like working on cars.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.