The East St. Louis point guard is a perfect avatar for recruiting during the pandemic. For Mizzou, his tools were too tantalizing to pass up.
On a Saturday last month, inside a cramped gym in a Chicago suburb, Christian Jones started the July evaluation period having already been discovered. Along a sideline, I sat scribbling notes trying to play catch up. A week earlier, the East St. Louis native had pledged to Missouri, becoming the Tigers’ first commitment of the 2022 cycle. A normally months-long process – evaluation, offer, visit, and decision — compressed itself to a scant eight days.
Outside of coach Cuonzo Martin’s staff, the whirlwind courtship left anyone figuring out precisely what Jones could do.
Later that morning, Jones knocked off rust with Brad Beal Elite, who trekked to the Chicago Summer Jam as a warm-up act. The following week, they’d set off for a pseudo-bubble: two weeks at the Peach Jam in North Augusta, South Carolina. Coming off the bench, Jones notched seven points, and in the second half of a 43-point rout, he flashed stunning vision in the open floor, teeing up Braxton Stacker and Tavion Banks with pinpoint alley-oops and throwing a no-look dish to a trailing Nick Smith for a layup.
Afterward, I caught up with Jones in the concession stand, where he politely answered my questions in just seven minutes. Quiet and subdued by nature, he sounded like a prospect adjusting to attention that eventually grates on peers who spend more than a year pestered about their intentions.
When we were done, Jones added a quick postscript. “Still getting used to it,” he said. Then, he smiled, tore open a pack of Skittles, and shuffled off to pass the time before his team shellacked an overmatched Wisconsin Playground Club that afternoon.
Rather than render a verdict after two games, I spent the rest of the month occasionally catching Jones’ fleeting appearances on live streams. Over two weeks, he logged an average of 10 minutes a game during Brad Beal Elite’s run to the Peach Jam final. Often, sharing the floor with a pair of five-star talents — combo guard Nick Smith and jumbo wing Brandon Miller — naturally meant touches could be hard to come by. Naturally, Jones’ output was modest: 2.1 points, 1.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists.
Under the circumstances, you find yourself trying to divine insights by extrapolating production over 32 minutes. Or looking at basic efficiency metrics. Doing so tells you Jones’ shot volume was sliced in half, but his two-point shooting, rebounding, and distribution track closely with benchmarks set down during an abbreviated season at East St. Louis.
So, I called up Mark Chambers.
Over the winter, he found himself in the place most of us are right now: curious what his new lead guard would bring to the table. While Jones grew up in East St. Louis, his family lived briefly in Granite City, where he spent his freshman and sophomore seasons. With only a couple of days until a season opener against Collinsville, the Flyers’ coach needed to take stock — and quickly.
The opening minutes of a preseason practice offered vivid clarity. The 6-foot-4 guard’s handle? Tight. His reads off the bounce? Impeccable. And while Jones possesses a subdued persona, his assertiveness on the ball defensively spoke loudly. Midway through the workout, Chambers turned to an assistant. “This kid,” he said, “is going to be special.”
It would take scouts and recruiters longer to catch on. For one, the Flyers’ schedule kept Jones under lock and key, playing an abbreviated 15-game campaign against Southwestern Conference foes around the Metro East. Meanwhile, only family members were permitted entry. Anyone wanting to lay eyes on Jones needed to find AV clubs from each school streaming the action on YouTube.
And it wasn’t as if Jones was a familiar radar before the pandemic torpedoed traditional seasons. Despite growing up in East St. Louis, a family move meant Jones spent his first two prep seasons with Granite City, where he’d posted solid but unspectacular stat lines.
After a slow start, East St. Louis railed to a 10-5 finish, including a victory over Edwardsville to win an SWC title. Behind closed doors, Jones averaged 11.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 6.3 assists, along with a 52.1 true-shooting percentage. Yet he’d have to wait until June, when East St. Louis ventured to team camps, to gain traction with Division I programs.
“That’s why we went to live events this year,” Chambers said. “People needed to see our guys and what they have to offer. We knew how good he was.”
If anything, Jones’ plight wasn’t unique. Illinois’ restrictions were among the tightest nationally. But, perversely, they teed up a slew of breakouts by prospects from around the state — Jaden Schutt, Kam Craft, Braden Huff, Asa Thomas and Jalen Quinn — once the NCAA permitted coaches to hit the road in June and July.
But if you track down archived footage from the winter, it’s easy to see why more than 25 programs called up Chambers to inquire about his lead guard.
Entering the season, East St. Louis boasted a compelling lineup. Senior David Granger anchored the front line as a mobile forward. Fellow senior Ryan Stevenson’s shooting stroke made him an ideal floor spacer. And sophomore Macaleb Rich’s punishing physicality was a potent contrast attacking closeouts. As for Jones, his size allowed him to peer over the top of defenders, and his length accentuated a deft floater.
Ideally, the Flyers would punish teams in transition, while a dribble-drive system would crack open massive gaps in the half-court. Quickly, opponents deployed a logical counter: throw out a zone. “We sort of came to expect that,” Chambers said. “We keep it simple for our guys. We gave them basic principles to play by, and they just ran with it.”
Instead of flashing bodies to nail or attacking from behind, East St. Louis assaulted creases. Frequently, Rich set ball-screens for Jones at the top of the key. Off the bounce, Jones had a decision tree once he reached the elbow. He could snake his dribble toward the nail for a floater. A simple drop-off pass to the short corner opened up if a low defender came up from the baseline. When another top-side defender stunted in, Jones could pitch the ball out to an open shooter.
When Jones creates advantage situations, he doesn’t pop off the screen. Rather than turning tight against the screener, he glides. Instead of using the first dribble to create a yawning gap, Jones keeps a recovering defender on his hip. In other words, more pace than twitch. There are even some games where half his assist tally comes on the most mundane play imaginable: reversing the ball to a spot-up shooter.
To see how Jones fares against man-to-man, call up a 10-point loss to Belleville West from February. Five of his seven dimes came in pick-and-rolls, often in the form of dishing the ball to a teammate in the short corner. In those actions, running mostly of the slot, his pace manipulated a defender in drop coverage or a help defender unsure whether to rotate.
“That’s what Chris does,” Chambers said. “He just makes good decisions. He’s not flashy. Sometimes, he’ll throw an alley-oop, but it’s because he’s making the right choice.”
Asked about what Mizzou’s coach found enticing about his game, that sound judgment resurfaced. “They kept talking about how I get my teammates involved,” Jones said. “More than anything, I’m a good teammate first.”
Moving ahead, though, the question will be what scoring package Jones tries to flesh out. For now, he relies on a floater. Yet a scout who watched him in June noted Jones tends to settle for them, mainly when a help-side big rotates to meet him at the rim. “He should be forcing the issue and drawing fouls given his size and athleticism,” the scout added.
Chambers said his staff is working to diversify Jones’ finishing package. For example, they want to add release points and angles to his floater game. And in June, workouts entailed finishing layups with either hand or maneuvering to shots after jump-stops.
“They work me over a little bit,” Jones said. “Mostly with the pads, and that helps a lot. You’ve got to put your body into them. They have me taking hits all the way down the court.”
However, the most influential factor might be whether Jones adds strength and mass to his core – and the assurance from progress in the weight room. “He needs to have the confidence to take the bump when he goes into the lane,” Chambers said. “There’s a comfort that comes with it. He’s not quite there yet, but he’ll get there.”
Evaluating Jones’ jump-shooting entails another long-term forecast. Last season, he made 29.6% of his 3-point attempts, but they comprised 18.6% of his overall shots from the floor. That’s a relatively modest volume in a pandemic-shortened season, creating a fine margin. – relatively modest volume. How fine? Had Jones canned three more 3-balls, he would have finished the season as a 40% shooter from long range.
“I really struggled on corner 3s,” Jones said. “I feel like that’s what I got to work on when it comes to catch-and-shoots.”
Mechanically, Jones’ shot doesn’t require a teardown. On the catch, there’s little wasted motion going from his mid-section to his release point. And when a shot comes off his hand, it’s clean and with sound rotation. The issue: elevating that point of departure from his chin. At the moment, the result tends to be better when he steps into a jumper than shooting straight off the catch.
“It can be a little flat,” Chambers said. “Just having a consistent release is the biggest thing for him. That’s what we’ve been working on over the last few weeks. We’re going to put more emphasis on it going into the fall, too.”
That Jones is far from a finished product isn’t a surprise. But a pair of standout weekends with the Flyers at the Midwest Crossroads Classic and Chicago Summerland Showcase piqued enough interest for 25 programs to ring up Chambers. It would have also been understandable if Jones kept his process more open-ended, fielded more calls, or taken more visits.
Instead of basking in newfound attention, Jones acted decisively — and quietly. When word of a late July visit filtered out over Twitter, the natural assumption was he’d hitched along with Rich, a 2023 prospect who also holds a Mizzou offer. Earlier that month, MU had hosted Chandler Jackson, a combo guard out of Memphis, whose May breakout catapulted him into the top 150 of 247Sports’ composite index. Add to that the fact assistant coach Marco Harris had been tracking Jackson for more than a year, and the available evidence suggested Jackson was the priority.
But a couple days after that unofficial trip to Columbia, Jones returned for a formal visit — one that cemented his choice. “It just felt like home,” Jones said of Mizzou. “The first time I went there, I just liked everything. The facilities, the coaches, the players. All of them just understood where I’m from, especially coach Cuonzo and coach Marco. They all welcomed me with open arms.”
By closing down his recruitment so swiftly, Jones cut off any other high-major suitors who might have extended an offer or tracked him closely over the summer’s final live period. Practically, it eliminated offers as a measuring stick for his stock.
As for scouting appraisals, they still run the gamut. “He has great spatial awareness,” one scout said. “Just needs to be coached in a structured system. He’ll likely need a year before cracking the rotation.” Another seasoned eye was curt. “I’m not sure I’d have enough to say,” they noted. And a third punted, “Haven’t seen him yet.”
For Mizzou, though, the sample size was large enough — and it might typify the experience of being recruited this summer. There’s plenty to like, plenty of questions, and plenty more to learn. Given how Jones measures his words, it falls to Chambers to voice what might lie ahead.
“I’m eager for people to see the real Christian play,” he said. “He’s not a four-star, not a five-star, not all those stars. But he very easily could be, and probably should be. But they’re going to see how special he is. It’s like I told one of the scouting agencies, Christian Jones is the best point guard I’ve coached.”