THE hoop gods might not have been kind to ex-NBA first-rounders Terrence Jones and Chris McCullough early in their career, but vying for a championship in Asia’s first professional basketball league isn't half bad.
The two former NBA players are set to clash in the 2019 PBA Commissioner's Cup Finals, where Jones and the top-seeded TNT KaTropa hope to cap a stellar campaign with the franchise’s first title since the 2015 Commissioner’s Cup. Standing in their way are the San Miguel Beermen, who, unlike the KaTropa, were having a shaky conference that led to McCullough replacing import Charles Rhodes seven games in.
Several juicy storylines have been thrown around ahead of the championship tiff, like Terrence Romeo facing his old team, as well as head coaches Leo Austria and Bong Ravena’s battle of wits. Still, nothing makes this championship series more intriguing than the highly touted matchup between the ex-NBAers.
Between the two touted reinforcements, it's Jones who has so far had the steadier and more decorated professional career.
The 27-year-old was a top high school prospect prior to joining Kentucky in college. As a sophomore, he won the NCAA championship then entered the 2012 draft with Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and three other Wildcats. The Houston Rockets picked him 18th overall, but also assigned him to their D-League affiliate, Rio Grande Vipers, during his rookie season.
In his sophomore season, Jones put up career-highs of 12.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, and played 27. 3 minutes per game in 71 starts alongside James Harden and Dwight Howard. Health issues such as nerve inflammation and a respiratory illness hampered his progress in the following seasons, prior to him bouncing around the league— 51 games with the New Orleans Pelicans — and even in China at one point.
To be fair, McCullough, only 24, had a bad start. He didn’t finish his lone campaign in Syracuse due to an ACL injury. Despite the setback, the Brooklyn Nets selected the lanky forward 29th in 2015 and let him recover for the first half of the season. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to earn more minutes after another season in Brooklyn, then a couple with the Washington Wizards, and multiple assignments in the D-League.
Just like Jones, McCullough also found himself in the Chinese Basketball League and Puerto Rico before ending up in the PBA.
Beyong the stats
Terrence Jones – 33.7 ppg 16, rpg, 7.7 apg, 3/7.8 3pt (38 %), 8/14 ft (60%), 3.1 bpg, 1.5 spg, 5.2 to, 43.3 mpg (11 games)
Chris McCullough – 33.8 ppg, 14 rpg, 2.8 apg, 2.5/8 3pt (31%), 8/12 ft (67%), 2.3 bpg, 1.3 spg, 6.8 to, 37.8 mpg (4 games)
Save for the glaring discrepancy in assists and sample size, Jones and McCullough’s numbers are virtually identical. Both reinforcements have anchored their teams’ offense and defense, thanks to their size advantage. The numbers suggest that the two players are interchangeable, but a closer look at each import’s playing style reveals how valuable they are to their team.
Jones has channeled his inner Russell Westbrook, stuffing the stat sheet and showcasing his all-around game on a nightly basis. His conference-long dominance has resulted in people like Justin Brownlee calling him the Best Import and locals such as Calvin Abueva and LA Tenorio trying to tick him off. He also brings the same level of intimidation inside the shaded lane, an area where TNT has been sorely lacking since trading away Mo Tautuaa.
In the highlight video above, Jones is seen flashing his face-up savvy using his advantage in strength and footwork. Against smaller cover, he flexes his muscles — virtually all 255 pounds of him — while running circles around taller defenders as he bullies his way to the cup. Although not as quick as his younger self, the smooth post operator has been putting in the work that is reminiscent of his Houston days.
If there’s one chink in Jones’ seemingly unstoppable armor, it has to be his free-throw shooting. For a decent perimeter and three-point shooter, he has been consistently unreliable from the charity stripe since his NBA tenure (career 62 percent). Given the frequency of an import getting fouled here, Jones working out the free-throw conundrum will be the key to his staying power on the court during crucial moments.
In contrast, McCullough has been nothing short of a human highlight reel for the Beermen, en route to them turning things around. Whereas Jones overpowers anyone in his path, his title-seeking rival soars above everyone with his sheer athleticism. He has the natural ability to create his own shot while absorbing contact in spite of his thin frame, further accentuating his rule over the airspace.
McCullough has only a few things working for him in a faceoff against Jones, so he must exploit them to level the playing field. He should offset his counterpart’s experience with his youth, by outhustling Jones and beating him in transition. Poster dunks and circus shots can only get him so far, but turning those ridiculous hops into solid help-side defense will spell the difference between a viral video and a championship.
One aspect of his game that could really get McCullough over the hump is his three-point accuracy. If he comes through consistently, he could do what KD did so well back in his days with the Warriors. Becoming a long-range threat will open up things for his teammates, especially with Chris Ross and Romeo slashing and June Mar Fajardo patrolling the paint.
All things considered, what sets Jones and McCullough apart is their overall impact on their respective squads.
The Best Import frontrunner is expected to lead TNT back to the promised land as the focal point of Ravena and Mark Dickel’s rejigged system. Jones will need all the help he can get from teammates like Jayson Castro and Roger Pogoy, but won’t hesitate to initiate takeover mode if needed.
On the other hand, McCullough will have a lighter load as an explosive bucket-getter that gets the crowd going with his aerial display and scoring flurry. With arguably the league’s best All-Filipino lineup at his disposal, Austria has the luxury of staggering the minutes of his prized reinforcement for when he needs him the most.
Jones and McCullough will forever be linked in the annals of PBA import history because of their NBA roots. Both are legitimate first-round selections from top NCAA programs who had already recuperated from career-threatening injuries. Limited opportunities in the big leagues pushed the 6’9 forwards to try their luck overseas and end up as big-name foreign reinforcements for local powerhouse squads.
The similarities, however, end there— especially after one of them wins the crown jewel of foreigners playing in the Philippines.