by Peter Walsh / @ayo_petew

Heading into the season, a fuss was made about the Houston Rockets frontcourt tandem of new-signee Dwight Howard and last year’s starting center, Omer Asik. Many writers and analysts wondered how the two would fit together, being that they both operate solely in the post with no ability to stretch the floor on offense and have trouble defending mobile bigs on the other end of the floor. Early in the season, the concerns have proven to be legitimate. Asik has made it clear that he wants out of Houston and instead of being the physical presence on the court that he was last season, he can now be seen sulking on the end of the bench. Emerging from the hoopla and taking advantage of his new starting role is second-year power forward Terrence Jones.

After posting solid numbers and winning the National Championship during his sophomore year at Kentucky, the Rockets selected Jones 18th overall in the 2012 Draft. With so much attention being paid to the acquisitions of Jeremy Lin and James Harden, the 6-9 Jones faded into the background and split his time between the NBA and the D-League, appearing in just 19 games for the Rockets. Through the first seven games of the ’13-14 season, not much had changed for Jones. Coach McHale played the Portland native sparingly and it seemed as if Jones had fallen victim to being drafted by the wrong team, a problem that has plagued many talented players before him. terrence jones

But as grumblings about Asik’s unhappiness with his situation in H-Town began to surface, the Rockets sent him to the end of the bench and Jones was thrusted into the starting lineup alongside All-Stars Howard andHarden. Despite little experience, Jones has played very well and has been a much better fit next to Howard than Asik, thanks largely to his versatile skillset and athleticism. Jones has the ability to stretch the floor and keep defenders honest with his jumper, and has a good handle and explosive first step to finish strong at the rim. Thanks to Head Coach Kevin McHale’s tutoring, Jones is also developing a solid post game and has flashed some nifty moves in the paint so far this season.

Since entering the starting lineup against the Sixers on November 13, Jones has averaged 34.3 minutes, 10.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2 blocks a game while splitting time between power forward and center—positions he can play effectively against most teams thanks to his size (6-9, 245 pounds) and length (7-2 wingspan). With Jones developing and proving that he can be a worthy contributor on this level, a deal for Asik now seems imminent.

Though it may have seemed like Jones was the odd man out in the Rockets rotation, he is a far better fit for the roster. He is a far superior athlete to Asik and can get up and down the floor with ease. Jones also has a much more rounded offensive game than Asik and takes some pressure off of Howard in the post.

Still, Jones knows his role on the team and with so much left to learn, and so much potential still untapped, Jones has no problem deferring to his star teammates and doing the dirty work while he continues to develop. “I just like getting guys open and making better situations for the team,” says Jones. “Whether that’s on the ball or off the ball, if it’s going to help the team make a better play, then I’m willing to do it.” Jones’ selflessness is evident in the box score as well; over the last three games, Jones has averaged a +/- of +9 and the team is 2-1.

Though he may not be as big as Asik, Jones makes up for the size deficiency in strength and athleticism. Against the Knicks last Thursday, Jones was assigned Carmelo Anthony—a tough task for any player, but an especially daunting role for a second-year kid making his first NBA start. While Melo scored 45 points, Jones did an admirable job playing physical with Anthony and seemed to make him earn every bucket. Though he may have lost the one-on-one battle against Anthony, the Rockets ultimately won the game and Jones got one back on the All-Star by dunking on him in the fourth quarter. “[Carmelo is] one of the best players in this League and I tried to guard him the best I could,” says Jones of Anthony. “Just to go out and help my team win was great. He’s been my favorite player in the NBA and I’ve got to watch a lot of him so I just tried my best.”

With Jones now in the starting lineup for the Rockets, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist improving every game with the Bobcats, and Anthony Davis looking like the next big thing in the NBA, the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats’ stars are starting to live up to the hype that was cast upon them following their incredible NCAA Championship run. In a very cool twist, Jones, MKG and AD are still very tight and check up on each other almost daily. “I texted AD today and talked to Gillie three days ago,” says Jones of his former teammates. “Those are my brothers for life we pretty much talk on a consistent basis. We check in on each other and root for each other always—unless we’re playing each other.”

As Jones continues to shine with the Rockets as the season carries on, more and more will be written about the soft-spoken 21-year-old with massive game. Though it may be a surprise that he is playing this well considering he barely got on the court during his rookie year, Jones has been preparing for his moment and has been ready for this situation thanks in part to the work ethic instilled in him by Coach John Calipari while at UK. “From the first recruiting home visit, [Coach Cal] told me no lies and made sure that I knew that this was a grown man’s business,” says Jones. “He taught me how to prepare everyday for games and the situations I’m in now.”