Herb Jones was draining 3-pointers — three in all — during the first half of Alabama’s game against Georgia.
For a sharp-shooting team like the eighth-ranked Crimson Tide, that might not seem notable. Then again, Jones made only one 3 all of last season.
Jones is no longer mostly just a rebounder and defensive stopper, like Alabama is no longer just a middle-of-the-pack team in the Southeastern Conference. The mutual transformation is hardly coincidental heading into Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt.
“I still go out and try to do my job on the defensive end,” Jones said. “I don’t too much worry about the offense, really. I just try to get open shots for my teammates and create for my teammates. If it’s my time to score, I take that opportunity and score.”
Even if that means shooting the occasional 3-pointer. Jones has made 19 of 36 3s, a 52.8% clip. He doesn’t have to elaborate on the dramatic improvement in that regard.
“Everyone can see it,” Jones said.
In his first three seasons, he made 14 shots from beyond the arc, hitting on a paltry 22.9% of his attempts. Last season, when he had elbow and wrist injuries, Jones was just 1 of 14.
He is averaging 11.9 points, easily a career best, this season and a team-leading 5.9 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-8, 210-pound senior also is tops on the team in assists, steals and blocked shots.
He is coming off a career-best 21-point game against the Bulldogs.
John Petty Jr. gets more attention as one of the SEC’s top shooters. Jahvon Quinerly and Josh Primo are former five-star prospects and Jaden Shackelford is Alabama’s leading scorer.
But nobody on the Tide’s best team in years fills up a stat sheet like Jones. He has added scoring to his repertoire even while dealing with a lower back injury that has limited practice time.
One thing hasn’t changed: Jones’ defense.
“I think he’s the best defensive player in the country,” Alabama guard Keon Ellis said. “He just does so much. He can guard from 1 through 5s (positions).
“Just seeing that alone, he sets the standard for our defense. He’s always talking. He knows what spot everyone’s supposed to be in, and he’s always helping our guys. I think he just motivates everyone to play better on defense.”
After coach Nate Oats had just taken over the program, a staffer suggested Jones as an option for much-needed point guard depth. Based on his limited film study at the time, Oats was skeptical.
“His defense is unbelievable, but how he’s playing this year?” he said. “No, I didn’t see that before I got here. Now once we started practicing that summer, then I could start to see it a little bit. I thought he was going to be dynamite, like an all-league player. Then he just couldn’t stay healthy his junior year.”
The left-hander injured his left elbow in the season opener. Then he fractured his left wrist, missing three games and playing the rest of the season in a cast.
Upon his return, Jones played only seven minutes against Auburn as a defensive specialist, but his impact persuaded Oats to play him more even essentially one-handed.
Jones responded with 17 rebounds against LSU in his next outing, making two key free throws (one-handed, of course) late in the game.
Now that Jones is healthier, Oats is hoping his versatile player can attain at least one more individual milestone.
“I’d still love to see him get a triple-double,” the Tide coach said. “I think he’s that good of a player and I think he should get one. Assists, rebounds, deflections, steals, blocks.
“Even when he’s not doing anything that shows up on a stat sheet, he’s just kind of mucking things up for the other team’s offense when we’re on defense. He’s so valuable to have out there on the floor.”
The improved shooting is a nice bonus.
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/College-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25