Has Houston found its missing piece?

Once an afterthought, Terrence Jones may be just what the Houston Rockets have been looking for. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

On draft night 2012, in the media workroom deep in the bowels of Toyota Center, a collective groan evinced upon the announcement of the No. 18 pick. Most present were content with the Houston Rockets’ earlier selections of Jeremy Lamb and Royce White. They were both tantalizing prospects with some of the most unique skill sets in the entire draft – a prototypical shooting guard and a powerful 4 with the playmaking ability of a point guard. But Terrence Jones? With Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson already on board, were the Rockets attempting to corner the market on unimpressive, undersized power forwards?

A year and a half later, the tune in Houston has changed. After a rookie season in which Jones often rode the pine, the Rockets entered training camp for the 2013-14 season with no veteran power forwards on the roster. That made Jones the default option next to Dwight Howard in the starting unit. With Houston desperate to make an Omer Asik-Howard “Twin Towers” lineup work, Jones remained chained to the bench to start the season. But when that experiment failed, Jones was sent back out with the starters to start the second half on Nov. 11 against the Toronto Raptors. He hasn’t given up the spot since, and as result, the Rockets’ offense has taken off.

The quintet of Jones, Howard, Patrick Beverley, James Harden and Chandler Parsons has posted an offensive rating of 115.3 in 228 minutes played. They’ve posted a net rating of plus-17.9 per 100 possessions and accumulated a true shooting percentage of 60 percent. By comparison, that same lineup with Asik in for Jones scored 82.6 points per 100 possessions, with a net rating of minus-26.5. Their true shooting percentage was 45.7 percent. While Houston’s 17-9 record to start the season is worse than one might have expected, Jones was the antidote to its early-season offensive woes. With Asik out and Jones in his place, the offense has worked exactly as Daryl Morey had envisioned.

Jones, a former Kentucky standout once projected to be drafted in the top five, doesn’t have any elite indicators: average size; no post game to speak of; and while athletic, you wouldn’t pin the “freakish” label on him. But what he can do fits the Houston lineup.

A former point guard, Jones’ best attribute is his handle. The 6-foot-9, 252-pounder gets low on the dribble, a fundamental ballhandling habit ingrained into young children but a trait rare for NBA big men. Setting out on the perimeter almost exclusively during his court time, Jones attacks off the catch either with a pump fake or a hesitation dribble.

One of the more entertaining spectacles from each Rockets game involves Jones corralling the rebound and leading the break on his own. In these moments, Houston’s guards stroll the other way, confident Jones will finish the play. And with a surprisingly accurate shooting stroke, Jones can spread the floor and give Houston’s stars the space they need to operate inside. He is always moving, either in transition or in the half court, finishing the passes off cuts to the rim that Asik couldn't handle.

After attempts to honor Asik’s long-standing trade request, reports surfaced on Thursday that the Rockets had backed away from the negotiation table and planned to hold onto the big man for the time being. Undoubtedly, they weren't too thrilled by the available offers. But it's fair to assume that the urgency over filling the power forward spot has also diminished.

Still in just the infancy of his development, Jones’ next assignment will be developing the ability to create on his own out of nothing. As this face-up game evolves, a midrange jumper and some varied finishing moves would also be of use.

Jones will also have to improve on defense. While he averaged 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes last season (by comparison, Serge Ibaka averaged 2.6 per 36 his rookie year), too often he gets lost in rotations, not reacting quickly enough to help out his teammates in the scheme of the team’s defense. For the Rockets to seriously contend, this will have to change. The good news is that he is only 21 years old and will get better with each opening tip.

It’s unclear how and when the Asik situation will be resolved. The team will probably look to deal him again closer to the trade deadline. It will surely try to get him back out on the court in the meantime. But one thing is already clear: In Jones, the Rockets have their power forward.