The saga of Chris Jones at Louisville has finally come to an end. Jones was dismissed from the men’s basketball program, per a curt statement from the school. The dismissal came after multiple suspensions this season, including one this week against Syracuse — a game the Cardinals lost 69-59.
Jones was ridiculed early in the season because of his wildly inefficient play and penchant for over-valuing his skillset on the offensive end, but this is still a pretty major loss for a team that has big NCAA tournament ambitions. The point guard had been averaging 13.7 points, four rebounds and 3.6 assists per game for Rick Pitino’s team, which struggles to find secondary scoring beyond Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier.
Here’s a way to put those secondary scoring woes in perspective: From the final eight minutes of the Cardinals’ win over North Carolina on Jan. 31 to the first two minutes of their win over Pittsburgh on Feb. 11, no one outside of Jones, Harrell, Rozier or Wayne Blackshear scored a single point. That’s a stretch of nearly 90 minutes of game time with only four players scoring, which is almost unfathomable given that there are five players on the court of a basketball game at a time, and that Louisville goes about eight-to-nine-deep with its roster.
So, yeah, reducing the Cardinals’ scoring depth by even one of those four — despite his inefficiency — is a pretty major issue.
However, Jones’ loss will likely be felt most on the other end of the court. Defensively, he is one of the pre-eminent guards in the country, with an incredible ability to pressure the ball in Rick Pitino’s high-intensity scheme. He was also an excellent ball hawk, as his steal rate of nearly 4 percent is in the top-50 nationally. Last year, it was over 5 percent and in the top 10 nationally. Without him on the defensive end, it’s not only that Louisville’s defensive efficiency will likely suffer, but it could lead to lessened offensive efficiency as well because of Jones’ ability to force turnovers and get easier buckets in the fast break.
The Cardinals do have a solid replacement in freshman Quentin Snider, who was pretty good in Jones’ stead in the Syracuse game, scoring 13 points and dishing out four assists with zero turnovers. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Snider actually help their execution in the half-court with his steady play and more traditional point-guard-like attributes, including his ability to distribute. However, their play late in the shot clock could suffer, as Jones is better at creating something from nothing than Snider. Plus, Snider’s defense isn’t nearly what Jones’ was, which will undoubtedly hurt.
Another aspect to consider is that this will also lead to some increased responsibilities for Rozier manning the point, which is something of a double-edged sword for the highly regarded sophomore. I say that because it’s something he hasn’t particularly been great at in the past. Rozier is excellent at scoring and creating plays for himself both in high ball-screen scenarios and in isolation, but he really struggles with getting everyone else on the offense involved, as his 17.9 assist rate shows. He also has a tendency. Still this is an excellent opportunity for him to prove to the nation and to NBA scouts that he is capable of manning the point, something that will be vitally important to his draft stock. So he’ll be fascinating to watch down the stretch.
But shifting back to the larger picture, losing Jones is a really big problem for a team that didn’t have a lot of depth to begin with. He’s an offensive creator for a team that desperately needs one outside of Rozier, and a defensive maestro that was perfect for coach Pitino’s high-pressure style. Even though he was an efficiency nightmare and likely not the best guy to have around the team, Jones was a pretty important piece to where this team could go.
And that now becomes the question, right? What is the ceiling of this Louisville team? For me, it’s pretty significantly dampened without Jones because I think there will be something of an offensive drop-off, and becuase there is now a pretty significant lack of offensive creation ability beyond what Rozier can do — along with the spacing problems that have plagued them this season due to their inability to shoot the 3 ball.
Rozier and Harrell can take this team pretty far, but I’m not sure we’re talking about much more than a top-20 team at this point. From a talent perspective, I don’t see a difference between them and Providence now — another team that relies heavily on two players. Now, I’d give Louisville as a whole a greater benefit of the doubt due to Pitino’s presence. But that’s the type of team we’re talking about here.
It’s now more of a dark horse Final Four team than a serious contender for a spot in my mind. And that’s a pretty significant drop, given where we were just two months ago when Kentucky came to the Yum Center on Dec. 27 in a matchup of unbeatens.