As Baylor’s Perry Jones III sat at his locker late Saturday night, most of his teammates were celebrating around him.
They gleefully slapped high-fives, kidded one another and tweeted about beating No. 11 seed Colorado behind sharpshooter Brady Heslip’s nine three-pointers to advance to the NCAA tournament’s South Regional semifinals in Atlanta.
The scene was what the uber-versatile 6-foot-11, 235-pound Jones had envisioned when he decided to stay at Baylor this season and skipped likely being a top-five pick in last year’s NBA Draft.
But instead of reveling in it, the lanky sophomore forward was quiet, just as he had been on the court, as he picked at a mini pizza from a white box.
Once again this season, Jones had been unimpressive, this time with seven points and four rebounds in 27 minutes. Two nights earlier, he was even worse with a season-low two points and 11 rebounds in 33 minutes during the third-seeded Bears’ closer-than-expected eight-point win against No. 14 seed South Dakota State.
Jones’ struggles so far in the NCAA tournament are indicative of what has been an admittedly inconsistent season for him, despite his averages of 13.4 points and 7.7 rebounds. It’s been one that has caused his draft stock to fall more than perhaps any other college basketball player this season, according to experts.
Now, Jones is no longer a lock to be a top-five pick in June’s draft and could slide to the mid-to-late lottery.
"He is this year’s enigma," said Chad Ford, an NBA Draft analyst for ESPN. "Anybody that tells you they know for sure what Perry Jones is going to be at the next level is selling you a bag of goods."
Worst of all for Jones, NBA teams are talking less about his upside potential and more about the possibility he may never reach it.
"Teams that will pick in the top eight are scared of him right now," said an NBA scout, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "The best way to describe this kid is with a huge question mark."
In between bites of pizza, Jones admitted he was "more than sure" his NBA stock has fallen, but said he didn’t care because his team is winning more this season than last when it failed to make the postseason.
He had to sit out Baylor’s final game last year and its first five this season after the NCAA ruled he and his family received impermissible benefits.
But in the 31 games Jones has played this season, he has scored fewer than 10 points in 12 of them.
"If I score a 30-point game, then it’s all of the sudden, ‘He’s the best player in the world,’ " Jones said. "If I don’t score a 20-plus-point game, then I suck."
Jones attributed his inconsistency this season to simply not being able to make shots in some games. That has shown in his field goal percentage (49.4 percent), which is down almost six points from last season.
In other games, Jones attributed his rocky play to teammates being hot offensively. With Baylor having more weapons this season, he said his role has also changed.
"It’s not like they need me to step up and be the only person scoring all the time," said Jones, who averaged 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds last season. "That’s how it was last year, and I couldn’t give it to them."
Because Jones prefers to face the basket and doesn’t like to mix it up inside, he often disappears in games for long stretches at a time. But he’s also had spectacular stretches, like during his 31-point, 11-rebound performance against Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament earlier this month.
"He can get you fired for sure because he might just be exactly what he is at Baylor, a talented kid who doesn’t really know how to apply himself in the game," Ford said. "Or he’s just going to mature and get in the right situation where a coach lets him be who he wants to be and then, my goodness, could he be great."
In terms of NBA tools, Ford said Jones is one of the three-best prospects expected to be in this year’s draft, along with Connecticut freshman center Andre Drummond and Kentucky freshman center Anthony Davis, whom Jones could face in Sunday’s South Regional final. Although Jones sometimes plays center for Baylor, he is projected to be a small forward in the NBA.
Ford has Jones ranked as the eighth-best prospect in this year’s draft. Last year, he had Jones three spots higher before he decided to remain at Baylor.
A rare combination of size, athleticism and length, Jones has shown he can do everything on the court, but has rarely put it all together at once. He is expected to impress during pre-draft workouts, and his skills should translate better to the more wide-open NBA game.
But there are still plenty of questions about him. Besides his obvious flaws of uneven performances and vanishing in games, he must get stronger, be more of a presence defensively and not play so passively, Ford said.
There are also questions about his laid-back personality.
"He’s not an alpha male, so he’s not going to be a guy who’s going to dominate the way his talents suggest he should," Ford said.
The NBA scout said he believed Jones might "really be soft" and wondered whether he truly loves basketball.
"He teases you with his athletic ability and what he can do, but can he bring it every night?" the scout said. "Will he be tough enough to go against a guy that wants to kick ass every day in practice?"
But some of Jones’ problems could also have to do with playing for Baylor coach Scott Drew, who has a reputation as a recruiter, but not for developing talent. Both Ford and the scout agreed the Bears are not maximizing Jones’ skill set.
The NBA scout said he even believed Jones is essentially the same player he was coming out of Duncanville (Tex.) High School two years ago.
"I think some of that is coaching," Ford said of Jones’ inconsistency. "I really do. I just wonder what would Perry Jones be like on Kentucky. I think he would have a better career than what we’ve seen from him so far."
Drew, however, insisted Jones will still be a top-five draft pick whenever he decides to leave Baylor.
"His potential is endless," Drew said. "He’s going to be a much better player when he’s 25 than he is now."
At best, Ford believes Jones could be similar to Dallas Mavericks forward Lamar Odom. At worst, the NBA scout said Jones could be like former Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks forward Jonathan Bender, the fifth pick of the 1999 draft, who started just 28 games during his forgettable eight-year career.
"I think he’ll probably be better than he played in college, and I don’t think he’ll ever live up to his potential if he was aggressive," Ford said of Jones.
For all the talk about Jones’ NBA future, it has taken a toll on him. He admitted to being bothered by the criticism.
"They don’t know who I am and the work ethic I have," Jones said. "In the NBA, it’s a totally different game."
Jones compared his situation to that of another often-ostracized player, Miami Heat forward LeBron James.
"If he don’t score in the fourth quarter, he gets so much criticism because they don’t think he did too well last year in the Finals," Jones said. "But LeBron’s still one of the greatest players ever."
With that, Jones resumed eating his mini pizza quietly. Now, if only he could silence his critics just as easily.