Jerry Kline was biased, of course. Still, he knew in his heart that Curtis Jones was destined to prove people wrong, that all those Division I basketball coaches were missing the boat.
Jones was a star for Kline at Cretin-Derham Hall, a private high school in St. Paul, Minn. The Raiders won sectional and state titles during his time there. But as a senior in the 2019-20, Jones didn’t have a single Division I college offer.
“He didn’t pass a lot of eye tests,” Kline said Friday from Minnesota. “I said, ‘Guys, you’re missing out.’ I couldn’t get St. Cloud State or Mankato State, the good D-IIs up here, to even offer, let alone D-I.”
Kline told college recruiters that Jones was a good kid, a top student, one of those late bloomers. No one listened. It was a Covid year, with visits restricted and players transferring all over the country. It was a tough time in college hoops.
But Jones believed in himself. He thought he was a D-I player. So, he enrolled at Indian Hills Community College in Ottuma, Iowa, confident that if his game continue to evolve and he did well in school, some school would notice.
Buffalo noticed. The Bulls saw the possibilities in the 6-5 guard and gave Jones a scholarship. Jones spent the 2021-22 season as a freshman fourth guard on a veteran Bulls squad, playing 12 minutes a game but mainly watching and waiting for his chance to be a big contributor at UB.
That chance came sooner than expected. The Bulls had a near-total turnover on their roster. Seven players combined for 150 starts on a 19-11 team last season. Not one of them returned. They either jumped into the transfer portal, turned professional, or left the sport entirely.
All of a sudden, Jones, who had averaged 2.5 points and 1.3 assists as a freshman, was perhaps the most vital holdover on Jim Whitesell’s rebuilding UB squad.
“I remember sitting down with him after the season,” said Whitesell, whose Bulls play Tulane on Saturday at the Holiday Hoopsgiving in Atlanta. “He said, ‘I know what I have to do. I’ve got to get better. I got to work.’
“He took a mature approach to it. He had a great spring and a really good summer and has carried that on. Being a new group, we needed someone with stability to come in. He’s done a great job with that.”
As Kline had anticipated, Jones blossomed when he got his big chance. Over the first month of his sophomore year, he emerged as a star. He was recently named the MAC player of the week after one of the most dynamic scoring runs by a UB player in years.
Over a four-game stretch from Nov. 19-Dec. 3, Jones averaged 29.5 points a game. He scored 22 points against Howard, George Mason and Canisius, then capped it off with a 32-point outburst in the Bulls’ 83-66 home win last Saturday against Big 4 rival St. Bonaventure.
Jones became the first UB player to score 20 in four straight games since Mitchell Watt did it in the 2011-12 season — the year Watt was MAC Player of the Year. That’s amazing, when you consider some of the offensive stars who have played at UB in recent years.
You don’t envision that kind of scoring run, but Jones was confident he would respond to Whitesell’s challenge and become the leader his coach needed.
“Oh yeah, it was a big opportunity,” Jones said after UB beat St. John Fisher on Tuesday, 91-53, for its fourth straight win. “I saw it in myself the whole time. It was just putting in the work, getting in the gym every day. When I was home, I was shooting so much my shoulder starting hurting! I had to chill out for a little bit.
“The Player of the Week, the 20-point games — it all came from putting in the work, working hard, and it’s all been a blessing.”
Jones is clearly a gifted shooter, with a quick release on his spot-up jumpers. He buried his first three three-point attempts in the first seven minutes against St. John Fisher, an overmatched Division III opponent.
But Jones didn’t score again. He seemed more interested in getting his teammates involved on the scoresheet. Even more than his shooting, it’s his passing skill that catches your eye the first time you see him. He has terrific court vision and snaps off crisp, fundamental passes that would make any hoop clinician smile.
He’s the Bulls’ top scorer, but he has a selfless, pass-first mentality. Midway through the first quarter, he grabbed the ball near his own foul line, turned and threw a perfect bounce pass with backspin down the middle of the floor to Yazid Powell, who went in stride for a layup.
A couple of minutes later, Jones had an open three-point look on a fast break, but dropped the ball off to senior forward Laquill Hardnett, who buried his first three-pointer in five games. Nothing like deferring to an older teammate.
“Last year, I came here to be more of a facilitator,” said Jones, who is averaging a team-leading 16.3 points a game. “That’s basically what they told me. This year, it just so happened that I’ve been needed to score.
“It’s been good,” he said. “Last year, learning more so how to facilitate, and this year more so how to score. So I can do a little bit of both, and rebound.”
Jones can certainly fill up a box score. Over nine games, he’s averaging 5.4 rebounds (second behind Hardnett), 2.7 assists and 2.0 steals (tied with Powell).
Much was made of his run of 20-point games. But Jones was equally proud of the fact that he won the team’s Blue Collar award four times in the first eight games. It’s based on a point system for the inelegant stats, like deflections, steals, blocks, loose balls and floor dives.
Drawing charges is the ultimate blue collar job, worth twice as much as any other stat. Jones led UB with four charges after eight games. The rest of the team had one combined.
“He’s complete,” said Whitesell. “I think that’s the biggest thing that we tell our guys. He’s consistent in his work ethic. He’s consistent in his approach.
“I think, and he would tell you, that he learned a lot last year. He played behind some good players and it was an up-and-down season for him.”
Jones was the fourth guard last season on a veteran UB team that won 19 games. Two of the players he learned from were last year’s top two scorers, Jeenathan Williams and Ronaldo Segu, who decided to turn professional rather than return to Buffalo for a fifth season as allowed after the pandemic.
Williams and Segu knew what it was like to sit and wait as freshmen. They barely played on a UB team that was nationally ranked in 2018-19, then became standouts and leaders the next three seasons.
“They said they were more mad than I was last year,” Jones said. “I pretty much knew what it was. They said it was hard, obviously. But once they grew and got to be juniors, seniors, and looked back, they could see why things were the way they were.”
Jones said he still communicates regularly with Williams, who is playing with Salt Lake City of the NBA G League. He said he talked with Williams before the St. Bonaventure game and said he couldn’t believe Williams had sat so often as a UB freshman.
Then Jones went out and scored a career high against the Bonnies.
Kline, who has coached at Cretin-Derham Hall for two decades, said he’s not surprised by Jones’s emergence as a solid player in Division I.
“I knew he could score,” Kline said. “But the things I thought the staff at Buffalo would enjoy, they’re seeing it now. He’ll make the right basketball play. Even though he scored 20 points in four straight games, if there’s someone else open ahead of him, he makes that play. That’s what I love about him.
“In today’s game, with AAU and ‘I’m going to get mine,’ Curtis is almost a throwback, where it’s all about the game. I’m just ecstatic for him. So is our whole staff and our school. He came back this summer to see our administration, the teachers and the coaches. He’s that kind of kid.”
Kline’s one regret is that his coaching duties will prevent him from being in East Lansing on Dec. 30 when UB plays at Michigan State. Tre Holloman, the star point guard for his state champions a year ago, is a freshman for the Spartans.
“We’ve been doing this 18 years,” Kline said, “and to have two players of that level going against each other — really good kids — it’s a high school coach’s dream.”
Imagine what it’s like for the players. Jones and Holloman grew up in the same neighborhood in Minneapolis and became teammates. They talk or text every day.
“He lived right down the street, so he was always at my house,” Jones said. “We had a lot of battles together, just one-on-one before school. So, it’s going to be fun to play him. I’m excited for him and happy and proud of him.”
No doubt, the feeling is mutual.