Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak long ago pictured this happening. Rylan Jones will start for the Utes in their season opener Tuesday night at Nevada, about 8½ years after Krystkowiak moved his family to Utah and two of his sons connected with the point guard from Cache Valley on summer basketball teams.
Even then, as a preteen, Jones made an impression. “He's made teams better around him; he makes game-winning plays,” Krystkowiak said.
Chris Jones moved from an assistant coach's position at Utah State to become Utah's director of basketball operations in 2016. The timing allowed his son to be recruited by Krystkowiak, within NCAA rules regarding support staff members.
So here’s Rylan Jones, having helped Olympus High School go 74-6 in his three seasons with a Class 5A state championship in his junior year, taking over the on-court leadership of a Pac-12 program that’s in a building stage. That’s a big responsibility for any freshman, even someone who averaged 21.2 points, 8.3 assists and 8.0 rebounds as an Olympus senior.
“This is the move up the ladder, the rite of passage to the next level, so it's not easy,” Krystkowiak said. “But I think he's cut of the right stuff, as a lot of our guys are. They're going to go through a bit of a learning curve, but then they'll start figuring it out.”
Jones can pass and shoot; those are proven skills, and should translate well to college basketball. The natural question about a 6-foot, 175-pound player is whether he’s sturdy enough to compete. Answers came last week, when Jones insisted on playing with a sore ankle in an exhibition win over Texas-Tyler and took four charging fouls in 18 minutes of action.
“I had a heart-to-heart with him in the locker room before the game, and I didn’t want him playing at 75 percent,” Krystkowiak said. “He didn’t have to prove his toughness to us; we already knew. He needs to get healthy, first and foremost, but he’s got all the trust from our staff.”
The transition to college involves “just getting used to the length and athleticism of playing against these high-level guards,” Jones said. “When I get under control, I think I'll be good.”
After the Utes' closed scrimmage with Boise State, Jones said, “I just learned how fast the game's going to be. Playing your own team in practice, it becomes fast, and then playing a different team, it becomes really fast … and physical.”
Chris Jones' job description won't allow him to speak directly to players during games or practices. Those NCAA rules don't apply to Krystkowiak, whose son Luc is a freshman walk-on, or newly hired assistant coach Henry Martinez, whose son Ian is expected to sign with Utah next week and join the program in 2020 as a highly ranked guard in southern California.
Rylan Jones is known for his adaptability in basketball. Chris Jones guided his son's career, sending him to camps in Las Vegas and Chicago at early ages. “I put him lots of different environments,” he said last winter. “I never sheltered him away from getting his butt kicked”
Those experiences show that Rylan “rises to the occasion with every hurdle that has been thrown in front of him,” his father said.
Interviewed at Olympus in January, looking ahead to college, Jones said, “I mean, there's obviously going to be a little added pressure or some tough situations that come out of it, but you know what? I'm just looking forward to it. I think it'll be a fun ride.”
Last week, while worrying about his ankle after a Utah practice, Jones was more subdued than in his high school days. After a state tournament quarterfinal game in February, he described a shooting drought that turned into a scoring spree: “I just thought, you know what, it’s like Steph Curry and those guys, they see one go in, they’re shooting that baby as many times as they can. That’s kind of how shooters go.”
That's evidence of how much Jones enjoyed his high school experience. As his father once said, “He knows that college is so much more of a business.”
The work begins Tuesday in Reno.
UTAH AT NEVADA
At the Lawlor Events Center, Reno, Nev.
Tipoff: 8:30 p.m. MST.
TV: CBS Sports Network.
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: Season opener.
Series history: Utah leads, 10-1.
Last meeting: Nevada 86, Utah 71 (2018).
About the Utes: Utah is starting a basketball season on the road for only the 21st time in 100-plus years. The Utes are 7-13 in those games. … Sedrick Barefield, then a senior, scored 33 points in last December’s loss to Nevada, then ranked No. 6, at the Huntsman Center. Among returning players, Timmy Allen was the top scorer with 13 points, helping the Utes stay within one point at halftime. … Utah’s home opener is Friday vs. Mississippi Valley State.
About the Wolf Pack: Former UCLA coach Steve Alford is making his Nevada debut. His roster includes only two players who played significantly for a 29-5 team last season. Jazz Johnson, who scored 12 points against Utah, averaged 11 points. … Nevada lost seven seniors from that NCAA Tournament team. … Redshirt freshman K.J. Hymas was voted the preseason freshman of the year in the Mountain West.