Rylan Jones’ latest injury came on a quintessential Rylan Jones play.
Early in the University of Utah’s win over then-No. 19 USC on Saturday evening, there was a loose ball. Jones has a history of being willing to give up his body to make a play, and this was no different. He dove for the ball, was called for a foul on the play, and stayed on the Huntsman Center floor, clutching his right shoulder as the ESPN2 broadcast went to commercial at the under-12 media timeout.
By the time Dave Pasch and Bill Walton came back on air, Jones had been helped to his feet and to the home locker room to have that right shoulder examined. That same shoulder was injured earlier this month in practice, keeping Jones in a sling and out of action for four consecutive games from Feb. 11-20.
His night was over, while the remainder of his sophomore season is now in doubt. The Utes have a pair of games this week, Oregon State on Wednesday and Arizona State on Saturday, before opening the Pac-12 Tournament on March 10 with a first-round game at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
“I don’t know any other way to describe it, but these guys, I really feel like they’re all my kids,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said Saturday night following the win. “An analogy would be you never want to see your kids hurt and going through stuff like that. I don’t know the severity of it, I know it’s a little bit different than he hurt it before. My fingers are crossed, but we’re all crushed for him. There’s no question.”
When Jones exited with 11:51 to play in the first half, steadily improving freshman Ian Martinez checked in and proceeded to play well, finishing with 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting in just 15 minutes. Notably, he showed off his versatility and often-freakish athleticism a handful of times.
Take Martinez’s night, add it to productive efforts from Alfonso Plummer (19 points, 7-for-12 shooting) and Pelle Larsson (9 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 5 turnovers), and the Utah backcourt had an encouraging evening as it attempts to find some momentum before things shift to Las Vegas next week. All of this feeds the notion that Utah’s backcourt will be all right if Jones is out for more extended time, but taking that a step further, if Jones’ season is done, writing the postscript for it isn’t going to be so simple.
Across the boards, Jones’ numbers are down compared with his freshman season. He is averaging seven less minutes per game, scoring less than half as much per game, taking fewer shots and shooting worse, although he has taken better care of the ball, averaging just 1.1 turnovers per game vs. 2.7 per game during the 2019-20 season.
Taking all of that into account and simply saying Jones is playing poorly is unfair, not to mention incorrect. He has not played poorly, but there is more help, more options than a year ago.
UTAH VS. OREGON STATE
At the Huntsman Center
When • Wednesday, 5 p.m.
TV • ESPNU
Larsson is growing into a primary ballhandler for Krystkowiak, which takes some of the onus off Jones to always be quarterbacking. Martinez, who averaged 22 minutes during the four games Jones missed and is now up to 14.5 minutes per game for the season, can handle the ball some, while Timmy Allen has grown into a capable distributor, averaging 3.7 assists through 21 games. Allen, All-Pac-12 as a sophomore and likely headed for that honor again next week, is coming off eight assists against four turnovers against USC.
If this is what’s happening now, is this what the future holds for the Utah backcourt? While offseason roster volatility is always a possibility, Larsson, Martinez and Allen are all slated to return without losing any eligibility after the NCAA froze the eligibility clock due to COVID-19. Plummer, a senior, has the option to return for another year, but that decision has not yet been made.
One thing at a time, though. Krystkowiak’s toughest player is hurt again. And while the Utah coach said Tuesday that Jones’ injury is not season-ending, it did not lessen the ache of seeing him go down again.
“My heart dropped,” Krystkowiak said. “We talked about it in the timeout, we lost one of our brothers and we need to have some guys step up and make up for his absence. We’ll keep him in our thoughts and prayers, and hope that we can get him back on the court again. It’s a sad situation.”