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Eastern Washington University Basketball

Casey Jones has been spectacular for Eastern Washington. He hasn’t even reached his potential.

By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

When Jeff and Shelly Jones adopted their third son, Jeff made a promise to that baby boy’s birth parents.

“If this one turns out to be an athlete,” Jeff Jones said, “I promise you I’ll provide every opportunity that I can for him to become the best ball player, whatever kind of ball that is, that he can.”

The Jones’ older two sons were athletic enough, but their skills were eclipsed by the youngest Jones boy who, at 18 months old, could hit a baseball tossed underhand from 12 feet away.

It was then that Jones “realized this kid had some special gifts and special talents,” he said.

Two decades later, Jeff and Shelly Jones are enjoying that they got to keep that promise, attending nearly every college basketball game played by their son, Casey Jones.

“I love it. I love it so much,” Casey Jones said Saturday after Eastern Washington’s 87-79 victory over Idaho. “Some people don’t have that parental advisory and support, but my mom and dad have always been my biggest supporters.”

There is a duality to Casey Jones that makes him beloved and annoying, depending on which side of the court a player is on.

Jones is – and, according to his father, has always been – a tenacious player who scraps for rebounds, steals and loose balls in a way that his teammates love. For three years he’s been doing that for the Eastern Washington men’s basketball team (16-8 overall, 10-1 Big Sky), which is, for the second year in a row, leading the Big Sky Conference as the league heads into its final three weeks. The Eagles host Idaho State at 6 p.m. Thursday at Reese Court in Cheney.

But Jones is also the sort of player who enjoys bothering his opponents with those very same actions.

“You won’t see me start anything,” Jones said, “but I’m not going to back down.”

Jones said Eastern’s coaches have told him they received messages from other Big Sky coaches apologizing for the actions of their own players who have reacted strongly to the way Jones plays.

He is aware of his reputation as a “hard-nosed, old-school, toughest-guy-on-the-court” player, Jones said, and he embraces it. So do his teammates.

“He’s one of those players you hate playing against because he’s doing the annoying things that bother you, and really those are details it takes to win,” EWU senior Jake Kyman said. “And so when he’s on our team, it’s wonderful to have someone who goes out of their way to get an offensive rebound, or sees a steal when maybe it’s a little far but he takes the extra effort. Having a teammate like that is amazing.”

Jones, now a junior, grew up in Sammamish, Washington, and as a boy he showed enough talent to play above his age group in basketball leagues. He was scrappy then, a trait his father said Casey developed so that other kids wouldn’t bother him.

“As a younger player he played just as hard, just as physically, from the time he was 6,” Jeff Jones said. “And I think that came from him playing with older kids that didn’t care for him playing on the court.”

As a sophomore at Eastlake High School, Jones led his league in scoring (20.4 points per game) and rebounding (10.4), earning first-team all-league honors. The following summer, Eastern offered him a scholarship.

For his junior year, the Jones family decided to move temporarily to California – a choice Jeff Jones said they would not have been positioned to make with their older sons – where Casey could play for Mater Dei High School, one of the premier prep programs in the country.

But the playing time didn’t materialize, as Jones participated minimally off the bench, and so he looked for a new spot his senior year.

That ended up being at Wasatch Academy in Utah, where he played with Gonzaga’s Nolan Hickman, Utah’s Keba Keita and Texas Tech’s Pop Isaacs.

Jones said he played the same style he does now, but he wasn’t as disciplined.

“I had some really bad experiences just putting my team in a bad spot in high school, and then getting subbed out of games or getting sat for a whole quarter or half,” Jones said.

Averaging 5.4 points and 2.4 rebounds per game at Wasatch, no more scholarship offers came. And so, through the coaching changeover at Eastern Washington, Jones was happy to stick with his commitment to the Eagles.

But he also vowed that he would be a better teammate who wasn’t going to let his actions compromise his team’s success.

“I was just trying to find minutes, to get on the court in ways that other people didn’t,” Jones said. “I was going to do anything I possibly could, doing all the dirty work, trying to be the tough guy on the court and getting under other peoples’ skin.”

He played in 27 games in his freshman year at EWU, averaging 10.3 minutes and 2.4 points. As a sophomore he started 26 of 33 games and tripled his scoring to 7.6 points per game, grabbing 5.7 rebounds per game as well.

His rebounding is down some this year, to 4.6 per game, but he ranks third on the team in scoring (11.1 points per game) and has started all 24 games. His 22 steals are three behind team leader Cedric Coward, and he has proven to be a versatile offensive player who can drive and also shoot 3s when needed.

“I love my role,” he said. “I don’t need to score 20 points a game. I just need to play solid basketball and get my team open shots.”

As for his glasses – prescription rec specs – they’ve long been part of Jones’ ethos. Aside from his high school freshman year when he wore contacts, Jones has opted to wear the glasses in games.

“I was worried (then) about what people would say, so I wore contacts,” Jones said. “But after that I said screw it. This is who I am. This is my identity.”

He likes, too, that it seems to throw off his opponents.

“That’s the best part. I think it goes back to getting under other peoples’ skin,” he said. “They don’t expect me to act how I act.”

By playing with more composure – most of the time this year it’s been Jones drawing technicals rather than being assessed them – Jones has kept himself on the court more and has carved out a vital role for the Eagles, who are looking to do what they didn’t last year: win the Big Sky Tournament in March.

“I just want to win. That’s all,” Jones said. “Get two championships and have my name remembered here forever.”

If all that happens, his parents will almost certainly be there in the arena to see it. The only reason Shelly Jones wasn’t at Saturday’s game against Idaho was because she was attending a baby shower for their oldest son.

“We feel blessed and fortunate that we can (be at every game),” Jeff Jones said. “We feel like it’s such a short period of time in his life that we don’t want to miss anything.”