Led by Roosevelt Jones, Butler looks to be 2015 NCAA tournament bracket buster.
NEW YORK—Six years ago, Butler assistant Matthew Graves watched an under-the-radar prospect named Roosevelt Jones play in an open gym outside St. Louis. When he left, he called up Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens with a scouting report.
“Did he shoot it well?” Stevens asked.
“Not really,” Graves replied.
“Is he athletic?” Stevens asked.
“Not overly,” Graves replied.
“So what does he do well?” Stevens asked.
Graves paused for a second, and then attempted to sum up the essence of the Roosevelt Jones’s unconventional game. “I can’t put my finger on it,” Graves recalls saying, “but there’s something about this kid that you want him on your team.”
All these years later, Stevens is with Boston Celtics, Graves coaches South Alabama and Jones is doing for Butler exactly what Graves projected—winning games. Butler (22-10) has undergone one of the most dramatic turnarounds in college basketball this season, leaping to second place in the Big East from ninth last season. So how did the Bulldogs regain their familiar form as a potential NCAA tournament nuisance? Well, the first place to start is the return of Jones, a redshirt junior who missed all of last year's 14-17 season from a left wrist injury. “That says it all,” said Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski.
Consider Jones one of the most indispensable players in the nation, as unorthodox as he is fascinating. He’s righthanded, but drives left 52% of the time. He’s a guard who refuses to take jump shots. He’s a bulldozer specializing in soft touches around the rim. Jones’s teammates tease him that his free throws defy the laws of physics, as they arc so little that they appear to not travel above the rim. (And they only go in 60% of the time). With his range limited to within 15 feet, Jones thrives on an array of floaters, runners and flip shots with seemingly a different release point every time.
Defenses know what’s coming every possession and sag off him accordingly. Nothing delights Jones more. “I can just get a full head of steam and just cut right into them,” he says. “They can be ready and whenever they turn their head I’m already by them. It helps me out a lot when they do that actually.”
Jones’s intangibles stick out much more than the tangibles. Sure, he’s the team’s second-leading scorer (12.6 ppg) and rebounder (5.2 rpg), but there’s an edge that’s helped Butler redefine itself this season. Nothing epitomizes that aura more than the cold stare that Jones delivered to the Butler bench two years ago when Saint Joseph’s guard Chris Wilson hit three three-pointers in the game’s first four minutes. Jones takes defense so seriously that he was steamed that he was instructed not to guard Wilson tighter, per Graves’ scouting report. With every Wilson make, Jones’s look to the bench evolved from an annoyed glare to a menacing one. “We thought he was going to kill Graves,” laughs Butler assistant Michael Lewis. “But he just takes so much pride in his defense and is so competitive.”
And it rubs off, too, as Butler went 2-8 in league games decided by eight points or fewer last season. But with Jones taking late-game shots—like his winning runner at Creighton on Feb. 16—and locking down the opposition’s best player, Butler went 6-4 in league games decided by eight or fewer this year (including an overtime loss to Xavier in the Big East tournament). “He has the highest level of confidence of anyone I’ve ever played with,” Butler senior Kameron Woods says. “The thing that makes him special is he gives that same swagger and confidence to everyone on his team.”
Jones is 6'4" and 230 pounds, stocky and aggressive enough that the Butler football coaches have talked to Bulldogs coach Chris Holtmann more than once about his gridiron potential. Jones played a bit of football in high school, but creased a smile when admitting that he stopped playing when the coaches made him attend summer workouts. He said he has “no desire” to attempt a hardwood to tight end conversion like hoopsters Antonio Gates (Kent State) and Jimmy Graham (Miami). He’ll prefer to keep bullying opponents; his defense would best be defined as press coverage, as it’s a combination of hand checks, shoulder dips and arm bars. Jones is quick enough to keep guards in front of him and powerful enough to move defenders off the block in the post. “When we talk about defense, it almost gets into a spiritual discussion, as he can feel what his opponent is going to do before he does it,” said his father, Robert Jones. “That helps him with footwork and positioning.”
There’s a physiological explanation for Jones’s lack of a jumper. He broke his right wrist playing AAU in the summer going into high school. The doctor set the cast so Jones’s arm jutted like a chicken wing—parallel to the ground—the exact opposite direction of a textbook jumper. When Jones shot jumpers after the injury, muscle memory jutted his elbow out and limited his range. Lucky for Jones his father brought him to East St. Louis Sr. High on weekends starting at age 10 to play in games against adults. His old man repertory developed through necessity shooting over them, and he learned to go left as speed and deception neutralize size.
These days on offense, Jones has essentially given up taking jumpers in games. But there’s one person who hasn’t given up on his jumper—his mother. When Holtmann was officially named Butler's head coach in January—he had the job on an interim basis with Brandon Miller on medical leave—he called around to all of the Butler players’ parents. At the end of a conversation with Jones’s mom, Vickie Franklin, she gave Jones a subtle reminder. “Coach, just one more thing,” she said, “I want you to know, Roosevelt can shoot!” Holtmann loved the story so much he told it on the team bus after a win, and says now: “It was awesome. She wasn’t saying to me, ‘Hey get him shots.’ She just wanted me to know that Roosevelt can shoot.’”
With a crafty game that’s easy to embrace and a jump shot only a mother can love, Jones has made Graves’ long-ago scouting report look prescient. There’s something about having Roosevelt Jones on your team that’s indelibly intertwined with winning. And with Butler back in the NCAA tournament, Jones’s presence gives the Bulldogs a shot at a deep run.