Jones bus-y becoming catalyst for Bruins

Who would have thought that the UCLA basketball team would be driven – or stalled – by a junior college transfer, the smallest guy on the team?

Who would have thought that as Lazeric Jones goes, so goes UCLA?

But here the Bruins are, winners of five-of-six and 11-of-14, led by a Chicago-bred sociology major who was hardened by two years in junior college, a kid with a chip on his shoulder as big as his smile.

“I know since I’m one of the captains, I have to get us going a little more,” Jones said. “I have to make sure every day that I approach the game the right way and come out strong. I know my teammates go as I go.”

He is all too right.

As UCLA prepares for tomorrow’s 8 p.m. matchup against USC at Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins know their success mirrors Jones’.

In UCLA’s 11 wins since the Montana meltdown on Dec. 5, Jones has averaged 13.5 points and 3.5 assists.

In the Bruins’ three losses – to Washington at Pauley Pavilion and at USC and Arizona – Jones has totaled five points. Not averaged, totaled. Three points against the Huskies, two points against the Trojans, and the low point, a 23-minute, 0-for-7, zero-point performance in an 85-74 loss to the Wildcats on Thursday.

It was a tough pill to swallow, but he breathed deep and swallowed it whole. He let it digest and stew and bubble, and he knew he could go one of two ways.

He could wither, let the performance define him, crawl into a ball in the Bruins’ next game, at Arizona State on Saturday.

Or he could go out and score 18 absolutely crucial points in UCLA’s 73-72 overtime win, nailing a critical 3-pointer to open the extra frame with the shot clock winding down.

“I was just trying to come out and play my game,” Jones said after the Bruins beat the Sun Devils to finish the first half of Pac-10 play at 6-3, tied for third in the conference. “I felt like last game, I was a little sped up. I didn’t play my game, the game the coaching staff knows I can play. I wanted to come out calm and relaxed.”

Jones is thoughtful and thorough in his answers, even as the team bus is about to pull away to head to the airport, where the Bruins will return to Los Angeles to prepare for their cross-town rivals just four days later.

It is not an altogether new scenario for Jones, who has had plenty of bus trips.

Jones attended John A. Logan Junior College in Carterville (Ill.) after a good-but-not-great high school career at Chicago’s Simeon Academy. Jones was buried behind some guy named Derrick Rose early in his career and flourished as an under-sized senior, averaging 14 points and six assists off the bench for the Wolverines, who went 60-6 in his last two seasons.

Jones received little attention from Division I schools out of high school, and even after a solid two-year junior-college career – his scoring average rose from 8.6 points per game as a freshman to 14.5 as a sophomore last season for the Volunteers – Jones only had offers from Nevada and UCLA before committing to the Bruins last January.

“He has a better appreciation for how it is at this level because he was riding around in a bus everywhere,” UCLA head coach Ben Howland said. “Their big team meal was a McDonald’s before they’d go play a game.”

Jones remembers those trips, those long journeys across Middle America.
He grew accustomed to the beating pulse of the heartland, the thump, thump, thump of the creaky bus across those haggard roads.

“Everything is a bus trip, no matter where it is, there are no overnight stays,” Jones said, breaking into that smile. “You bus there, you bus back, no matter what time it is. Next morning you have class? You gotta go to class. We ate Subway before games, maybe Dominos pizza.
“It humbles you, but it gives you the chance to reflect on the hard work you’re going through. You may not see it then, but I appreciate it now.”

He appreciates it now, because it has helped to harden him.

He has gone from the outhouse to the penthouse, but he knows the stay can be just as brief, and he pushes and pushes.

Best not to become complacent.

“It’s always something; it seems like every year, something gives me that jolt, puts that chip on my shoulder,” Jones said. “Coming from where I have, going through the things I’ve gone through with basketball, there is that chip at all times. I’m really big on wanting to gain my respect.
“I want to earn it.”