The UCLA men’s basketball team huddled together in the tunnel of Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario during halftime of its first exhibition game, ready to take the floor for the second half of a game against Division-II Cal State San Bernardino that was anything but in hand.
The Bruins clung to an eight-point lead and were just embarking on their season-long “road show.” No longer were they running out of the comfortable bowels of legendary Pauley Pavilion to the familiar voice of public address man Chuck White.
After a few players added their two-cents on how to maintain the lead and the customary “1-2-3, Bruins” was chanted, everyone paused and looked across the huddle, waiting for someone to take the lead, to be the first to step out of the tunnel and into the bright lights of the second half.
“Go, man!” One player yelled at senior point guard Lazeric Jones.
Startled, Jones accepted the directive and led the team onto the floor where they proceeded to avoid disaster and dispose of the Coyotes, 80-72.
He may be learning on the job but Jones is the unquestioned leader of coach Ben Howland’s 2011-2012 team.
Jones ““ one of two seniors on scholarship ““ is the only captain on this year’s team.
He was the one player Howland picked to be by the coach’s side as they tried to weather the Pac-12 Media Day storm, and his is the only face you’ll see on promotional banners or flyers trying to drum up support for the temporarily homeless team.
Engage him in conversation and he seems like an old veteran, like he’s been captaining the nation’s most storied basketball program for years.
But a little over a year ago, Jones was bringing the ball up the court for the John A. Logan College Volunteers in Carterville, Ill.
Howland took a chance on the junior college transfer out of necessity. Senior Jerime Anderson didn’t live up to expectations in 2009-2010, just the third losing season at UCLA since 1948.
Rarely does Howland dip into the junior college ranks, as he recruits more than enough talent out of high school, but Jones was worth it.
“A leader,” Howland said of what he saw in Jones. “A guy who could come in and give us leadership with the ball as well as on and off the court. He’s been all of the above.”
No Division-I schools dared offer Jones a scholarship out of high school, probably because colleges were more infatuated with Jones’ then-backcourt mate, now NBA all-star Derrick Rose.
Jones and Rose still talk about non-basketball things, education among them. Rose stresses the importance of a degree to his former teammate, something the NBA point guard doesn’t possess.
Jones, or “˜Zeek’ as he’s known to his teammates, will graduate this year, but he took a circuitous route to get his diploma.
He put in the work at Logan to get noticed and pick up a few Division-I offers, jumping at the chance to commit to Howland’s program. But Jones himself didn’t envision the type of success he’s had in Westwood to date.
“I don’t think too many people that ever met me thought I would be in this situation,” Jones said. “I can’t tell you that I thought I was going to be in this situation a couple of years ago.”
His first season at UCLA didn’t go exactly as he would have liked statistically ““ he averaged a shade under 10 points and four assists per game ““ but he established the leadership role he owns today.
He was the only player on the roster to start all 34 games, albeit playing one-handed.
Jones sprained his left wrist during a Feb. 2 game against USC when he landed awkwardly on it after he tried to dunk over a pair of Trojans.
Showcasing that signature Chicago toughness, Jones not only finished the game, he played the rest of the season with tape surrounding the wrist, rendering it all but motionless.
He wouldn’t admit it then, but the injury clearly limited Jones’ ability to shoot and pass effectively. Now, fully healthy, he can come clean.
“It was a lot worse than people thought,” said Jones, who was also dealing with a finger injury at the time. “It hurt every time it got hit, really bad. It was stiff to the point where if it moved back or forth any way, it hurt like it had just happened again. It was so bad. Some teams would grab it and pull from the inside or it would get smashed between two people, it really used to hurt.
“If I was healthier and I continued to grow as the year went on, by the time the tournament came, I would have been a lot more confident. That kind of falls on me. I definitely threw us off last year. Hopefully I can stay healthy this year and take us further than where we were.”
Where they were was in a one-point game with eventual elite-eight team Florida in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
Jones immediately began to rehabilitate his wrist while working out with NBA players, playing pickup games in the Student Activities Center.
After seeing him play, Rose isn’t the only NBA talent that has high praise for Jones.
“I think he’s underrated,” said former UCLA point guard Darren Collison, now with the Indiana Pacers. “He’s not nationally known but I think he’s one of the best point guards in college basketball right now.”
With the strength of this year’s team being in the frontcourt, the pressure lands squarely on Jones’ shoulders to keep the backcourt up to par.
No longer does he have the luxury of passing the ball to shooting guard Malcolm Lee and small forward Tyler Honeycutt, who bolted for the NBA.
“I feel a lot of responsibility, but I like it like that,” Jones said. “It’s supposed to be like that for a point guard. I know a lot of things are going to fall on my head in a win or a loss. I would rather it come down on me than my teammates. I’ve been playing point guard my whole life so I was kind of molded into this.”