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by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Terrence Jones (right) grabs a rebound for the Houston Rockets in a game against Robin Lopez and the Trail Blazers.HOUSTON — Terrence Jones loped down the hallway at Toyota Center Monday night, pleased with the Houston Rockets' 126-113 victory over the Trail Blazers, disappointed he couldn't be a part of it.

"Just couldn't go," said Jones, who sat out the game with a deep thigh bruise. "But it was all good. The guys didn't need me tonight."

The Rockets have needed the Jefferson High grad a lot lately, though. And he has come through in a much bigger way than anyone — coach Kevin McHale included — could have expected.

After playing only 19 games and bouncing back and forth between the NBA and the NBA Development League as a rookie last season, the 6-9, 250-pound Jones — who turned 22 on Jan. 9 — has sprung upon the scene as a Most Improved Player candidate in 2013-14.

"He has made a monumental leap," is the way Portland coach Terry Stotts put it.

In his last outing on Saturday night, Jones scored a career-high 36 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in a 114-104 victory over Milwaukee, becoming the second-youngest Rocket ever with a 30-point game (behind Hakeem Olajuwon).

  • Jones began the season as a reserve, with McHale electing to go with the twin towers lineup of Dwight Howard and Omer Asik. It didn't work, and five games in, McHale junked the idea, inserting Jones alongside Howard in the starting five.

    Jones has become a triple threat, averaging 12.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.62 blocks in his 34 starts. Those numbers should go up as the season proceeds.

    "It doesn't surprise me," Howard said. "Terrence works hard every day, is always pushing himself to get better. I'm very happy for him."

    Jones flourished in his two seasons at Kentucky, earning Southeast Conference Freshman of the Year honors in 2010-11, then helping lead the Wildcats to the national championship the following season. Taken by Houston with the 18th pick in the 2012 draft, Jones hoped to make an immediate impact.

    It didn't happen. Jones struggled with the nuances of the NBA game and never cracked McHale's rotation.

    "The whole game is different" than the college game, Jones said. "There are a lot more players who are playing faster and are more proficient in every little thing they do. They know the game, know what they're really good at, and they strive to use that. When you're going against them, you have to try to take it away."

  • Jones worked hard through the offseason, earning first-team all-Las Vegas Summer League honors, and was prepared when his opportunity arose early this season.

    He was sensational against Boston on Nov. 19, scoring a game-high 24 points on 10-for-12 shooting with nine rebounds.

    He had 21 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots on Christmas Day vs. San Antonio, racked up 19 points and a career-high 17 rebounds at Washington on Jan. 11 and collected 25 points, eight boards and six blocks at New Orleans on Jan. 15.

    Not surprising, all of the aforementioned performances came in Houston victories. In the 36-point outburst against Milwaukee, he scored 25 points on 9-for-11 shooting in the first half alone.

    by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW - At the 2010 Class 5A tournament in McArthur Court, Terrence Jones of Jefferson cuts down the net after the Democrats' third consecutive state championship.Jones, who had one double-double as a rookie, has 13 this season, including six in his last nine games. Jones and Yao Ming are the only Rockets with at least 25 points and five blocks in a game over the past decade.

    "Terrence has been playing well," McHale said. "Like all 22-year-old guys, he's prone to be up and down a bit, but he's getting more comfortable all the time. He has a wide variety of skills. He can rebound, he's a good shot-blocker, has good hands and a good handle. He's just a very good player."

    What has made the difference for Jones this season?

    "The experience I've gotten," the Portland native said. "Not playing that much last year, I was able to learn from watching. That, plus the experience of actually getting out there and being able to do everything … I've learned a lot.

    "Making transitions between the NBA and the D-League last year helped me out a lot. I took advantage of that. I remained confident and healthy and fresh and ready to go when I did get my opportunity."

  • Jones' teammates have been impressed.

    "He's still learning how to play the game," Howard said. "But he has been really effective running the floor, grabbing offensive rebounds, being in the right position. He's playing free."

    Guard James Harden loves Jones — "He's my guy. I hang out with him every single day off the court" — and appreciates his teammate's work ethic.

    "He's very talented and versatile," Harden said. "That's what makes him so useful for our team. He can guard different positions. He's a tough matchup for opponents. And he's young, so he's still developing."

    Hall-of-Famer Clyde Drexler has a great deal of respect for Jones' game, too.

    "Terrence can be the best power forward in the game in two years," says Drexler, TV analyst for Rockets games. "That's how good I think he is. He can put the ball on the floor, he can spin, he can shoot. He has to work on his long-range shot, but his mid-range shot is good, and he has thousand moves around the basket.

    "He plays way above the rim, is good rebounder and probably the best shot-blocker on the team. He has a good motor, too. He runs in transition all the time. And he's a really nice young man."

    Jones grinned bashfully when told of the praise lavished on him by the former Trail Blazer standout.

    "I appreciate the compliment coming from as great a player as Clyde," Jones said. "If I work hard, anything's possible. I'm going to continue to try to get better and reach as high a goal as possible."

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    Twitter: @kerryeggers

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