Transformer: Jones has new focus, different body

Terrence Jones isn’t going to spontaneously change this season into some unstoppable, basketball-like robot, capable of turning his arms into mechanical scoring machines like some Hollywood blockbuster (although his new biceps might lead some to believe otherwise).

But this is undoubtedly a different Terrence Jones. Something about him is not quite the same.

Underneath the same laidback exterior and teenage grin is a different type of beast unlike anything Kentucky fans saw last season. Jones has gone through a transformation.

“Terrence Jones right now, I’ll tell you, if there’s a better player in the country, I’ve got to see him,” head coach John Calipari said Tuesday at a media opportunity. “Maybe that guy’s in our gym. I don’t know. But if there is somebody better than Terrence, I’ve got to see it.”

Those are bold words for a coach who, at times, rode Jones last season like a jockey in the Kentucky Derby.

Jones shined early last year as a freshman and went on to win Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year honors, averaging 15.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, but he struggled with consistency as the season progressed.

Calipari attributed the mountain highs and the valley lows with Jones’ work ethic.

“He and Doron (Lamb) fought for (being) the last guy to walk in the gym every day, and it was 30 seconds before the bell went off,” Calipari said. “I think they were in the hallway arguing who should go first and who should be following.”

Calipari said he wasn’t in shape, he didn’t have a rock-solid physique, his shooting was streaky and he could only go left.

Sophomore forward Terrence Jones is practicing like the best player in the country, Coach Cal says. (photo by David J. Phillip, Associated Press)

And now?

“It’s totally different than it was a year ago,” Calipari said.

It’s easy to notice the physical changes in Jones. The added bulk is apparent in his aforementioned biceps and beefed up chest. Those comments that Coach Cal has about Jones finishing first in the sprints, he’s not joking. As this writer can attest to, Jones’ legs pump like pistons in a car as he almost always beats his teammates to the baseline.

But his focus is what’s behind the physical drive.

“You’re seeing a young man that’s changed his habits, changed his body, added skill level and now a different attitude toward basketball,” Calipari said. “Who’s that sound like? Josh Harrellson. So now what you see is a different player.”

Teammate and former last-place sprint partner Doron Lamb called this Jones “the new Terrence.”

So what happened to the old guy? The Final Four, Jones says.

“Thinking about coming up short last year, it hurt so much that I wanted to do better this year and not have that feeling again,” Jones said. “I just feel everything at practice is important. Being the older guy that other players look up to, I feel like I’ve got to take every drill seriously.”

Jones said it’s part of “growing up and being older, more focused,” but that isn’t a switch that just turns on when a player graduates from a wide-eyed freshman to an “experienced” sophomore. It takes a concerted effort

“The minute he got here he started working,” Lamb said. “The first day of school (this summer) he started putting up shots in here.”

Jones has aspirations of being a top-10 pick in the NBA Draft, and he looked to be headed there last fall when he torched defenders at the Maui Invitational. Some national pundits predicted he’d be this past year’s No. 1 pick, but things didn’t pan out that way.

When teammate Brandon Knight decided to pursue the NBA after one season, Jones remembered his goal and desire to win a championship, opting to return to Kentucky with a renewed work ethic and body.

“T-Jones is extremely focused,” senior guard Darius Miller said. “You can tell. You can see by the way he prepares himself for practice, the way he trains. It’s exciting to watch. He’s definitely grown as a person and a player.”

Jones isn’t the only player that has taken a page out of Harrellson’s success story from a year ago. Team wide, Coach Cal and the players say the competition and effort at practice are booming.

“If you don’t compete, you’re going to get embarrassed out here,” Miller said. “A lot of us know what’s going on, know what to expect, know how hard Cal wants us to go. We’ve done a great job with leading by example and the young guys have been working from the beginning. Now you’ve got everybody going hard at the beginning of the year and the season hasn’t even started yet.”

Coach Cal said Miller “has never been better” and praised senior forward Eloy Vargas for coming into the Joe Craft Center early in the morning and late at night to change his habits.

“That’s the only way this works,” Calipari said. “I tell these guys 20 times, ‘You want a chance?’ (They say), ‘I need a chance! I just need a chance!’ Go play the lottery. It’s a buck. You can win $150 million. There’s your chance. You’re not getting it here. You either earn minutes or you work your way out of minutes. It’s simple.”

If it sounds like Calipari is high on his team as it prepares for Wednesday night’s Blue-White Scrimmage (7 p.m. on FS South) at Rupp Arena, well, it’s because he is. Based on what he’s seen to this point, he’s not afraid to express his confidence.

“I know this: I’m not coaching any effort, I’m not coaching intensity (and I’m not coaching) enthusiasm,” Calipari said. “Occasionally I have to stop them for tough shots – occasionally. I haven’t said boo to Darius. I haven’t said boo to Terrence. The young kids I’ll get on occasionally, but they’re giving everything they have. What more can you ask?”

Transformations are plenty enough, Coach.