Cornell's Jon Jaques - from benchwarmer to star

Updated: March 16, 2010, 4:58 PM ET
Associated Press

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Chances are, you've never seen a basketball player quite like Cornell's Jon Jaques. Big Red coach Steve Donahue certainly hasn't.

The 6-foot-7, 220-pound senior tri-captain has gone from a near-permanent spot on the bench for three years -- he played in 34 of Cornell's 87 games in his first three years, averaging just over three minutes and one point -- to a starring role at power forward on a team that has won the past three Ivy League championships.

"In my 25 years of coaching, I've never experienced anything like it, and I think the rest of the league feels the same way," Donahue said. "Yeah, he hadn't played in three years, essentially not a meaningful minute, which is hard to imagine, but the difference he's made is phenomenal. I think he's taken our team to another level."

Until Jaques was inserted in the starting lineup in early December, his main claim to fame was as a blogger extraordinaire for the New York Times.

"Better late than never, I guess," Jaques said with a smile. "A lot of people have asked why I kept playing. After each season during the summer I would just think about what I was doing, if I still wanted to play. I just kept thinking how weird it would be not to play, not to be around these guys, guys I'm used to being with every day.

"I basically told myself it would be worse not to play. I was having so much fun doing it anyway, and it's worked out."

Jaques has a history in the role of second fiddle and his confidence often suffered. He played behind Alex Stepheson at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles. At Cornell, he's part of the supporting cast behind star Ryan Wittman, the school's all-time leading scorer and Ivy League player of the year and an NBA prospect.

Everything changed for Jaques in late November. He didn't play in the first three games of the season, then logged 1 minute at both Syracuse and Toledo and 2 minutes in a home game against Vermont. But when senior tri-captain Alex Tyler suffered a calf injury at Drexel in the Legends Classic, Donahue inserted Jaques, the Big Red's best on-ball defender, and he responded by making a pair of clutch free throws in a seven-point win.

For that minor contribution, Donahue nominated Jaques to the all-tournament team, considering it a gesture of thanks and nothing more.

"I felt that was the last we'd see of Jon Jaques," Donahue said. "I just thought I would reward him for what he's done over the last three years in accepting his role. That was my goal. Little did I know he would end up being one of our best players the rest of the season.

"He's gone from a kid who I would worry about his poise to, if there's a more poised player on our team, I don't know who it is."

Two games later in his first start, Jaques scored a then-career-high 15 points in a win over Saint Joseph's and one week later connected on 5-of-6 3-pointers to lead Cornell with 20 points in a victory over St. John's. In a three-game span, Jaques averaged 13.7 points -- he'd never scored 13 points in an entire season.

"It's a testament to him how he he's been able to not play for three years and come in and be such a contributor for us," Cornell senior guard Louis Dale said. "I don't know how I would have handled that."

One of Jaques' biggest contributions has been helping Wittman become a more complete player by guarding him in practice.

"He's a guy in the shadows to the lay person," said Army coach Zach Spiker, a former Cornell assistant. "To those in the program, he has a very important role because he went head-to-head every day with Witt. He has had a lot to do with Wittman's progress. Think about that size guy banging on Ryan Wittman every day, and he's able to stay up with him."

"There would almost be fights out there. That's how hard he (Jaques) competed," Donahue said. "I think that has enabled him to help us this year. If he didn't do that and every single day try to get better, then there's no way he would have been prepared for this situation when the opportunity arose."

Jaques' presence in the lineup has helped Wittman, too.

"It was great for Ryan. To put another kid out with his size that can shoot the ball, it's enabled Ryan to get more looks," Donahue said. "Ryan this year has been able to get more 3s than he's ever had. It also frees Ryan on the defensive end, leaves him to save his energy for other things like rebounding."

Wittman said Jaques has done more than help him -- he's another weapon.

"He's given us a huge lift, just giving us another option, another person who can knock down shots," said Wittman, who led Cornell in scoring for the fourth straight year, averaging 17.5 points per game, and is 26 points shy of 2,000 for his career. "I think everyone's really happy that it's paying off for him."

Jaques, who leads the team in taking charges, has reached double figures in scoring four more times since the St. John's game, including a team-high 20 in Cornell's win at Brown 11 days ago when the Big Red clinched the Ivy League title. He averaged 6.9 points a game for the season and shot nearly 50 percent (39 of 80) from beyond the arc.

Cornell (27-4), seeded 12th in the East, faces fifth-seeded Temple (29-5) in the opening round of the NCAA tournament on Friday. The Big Red have lost in the first round as a No. 14 seed the last two seasons, and if Friday marks the last game of Jaques' career, his legacy won't soon be forgotten.

"I'll use him as an example for kids forever -- never give up," Donahue said.

"He's everything that a college basketball player should be," Army's Spiker added. "It's easy to get in the gym and work on your game when you're playing a lot. It's easy to get in the gym and work on the game when you've got a defined role, and for the better portion of his career he had none of those."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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