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‘He’s a baller’: Utah’s Rylan Jones may look like a kid, but he plays like a veteran

Freshman is making a smooth transition to college basketball

SHARE ‘He’s a baller’: Utah’s Rylan Jones may look like a kid, but he plays like a veteran
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Utah Utes guard Rylan Jones (15) calls out to a teammate during a game against the Oregon State Beavers in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020. Utah won 81-69.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Don’t let his youthful appearance fool you. University of Utah point guard Rylan Jones is no kid. The true freshman plays the game well beyond his 19 years.

“I know Bill Walton is talking about how young he looks or something like that, but we don’t think that way,” said Utah sophomore Riley Battin. “We just know he’s a baller and he’ll go out and help us win.”

The 6-foot, 175-pound point guard is averaging 10.6 points, 4.9 assists and 1.1 steals per game. He’s shooting 45.6% from the field (47 of 103), 47.1% from 3-point range (33 of 70), and 88.9% (32 of 36) from the free-throw line through 15 games of action.

“He’s got the heart of a lion. He’s probably one of the toughest kids I’ve ever met. It’s great playing with him every day.”— Utah’s Riley Battin, Rylan Jones

“He’s got the heart of a lion. He’s probably one of the toughest kids I’ve ever met. It’s great playing with him every day,” said Battin, who added that Jones knows the game and takes care of the little things. “He does so much for our team, whether it’s taking a charge, diving on a loose ball, knocking down a 3, whatever it is — he’s just really important to our team and he’s a great kid as well.”

Jones, by his own admission, says he didn’t know if he could come in and make an immediate impact with the Utes. 

“But I was going to come in and play my hardest, try my hardest,” he said. “And it just kind of worked out that way and I’ve had a good year so far.”

That may be an understatement. In Utah’s 102-95 overtime win over BYU on Dec. 4, Jones scored 25 points, dished out six assists, grabbed three rebounds and made three steals. The effort included a late 3-pointer that forced overtime.

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Utah’s Rylan Jones (15) drives against Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, in Las Vegas.

John Locher, AP

Exactly two weeks later, Jones had 12 points and six assists in Utah’s 69-66 upset of Kentucky in Las Vegas.

“I’ve always thought that Rylan was going to be able to contribute right away. I mean he’s an extremely heady player and he’s just as tough as nails,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “Those two things, I think, make it hard to feel like we’ve been surprised. He’s still obviously in the middle of a learning curve and every time you take a step to a next level it’s not easy, but I think he’s adjusted really well.”

Krystkowiak noted that Jones continually studies the game, learning and gaining confidence along the way.

“He’s been a nice catalyst for us and I truly believe that he makes his teammates around him better,” Krystkowiak continued. “And once you get through some of the difficulty that any freshman has — I think he’s settling in — his future is certainly very bright.”

Jones, though, isn’t one to look too far ahead. His focus is on the here and now, not on what kind of legacy he could leave after four years. His father, Utah director of basketball operations Chris Jones, uses an old adage to describe his son’s approach.

“Be where your feet are,” Chris said. “Just be in the moment and don’t worry about everything else.”

It’s an attitude that has served Rylan well.

A special player

Chris has long encouraged Rylan to “just be the best player you can be at where you’re at in life” and “don’t get ahead of yourself.” The advice even came when Rylan was in fifth and sixth grade.

“We are super proud of him. He works really hard,” Chris said. “All he cares about is trying to win.”

Before joining the Utes, Rylan won a lot of games in high school. His career began at Logan, where he averaged 19.7 points as the Grizzlies won 18 games. When his father left Utah State to join Krystkowiak’s staff at Utah, Rylan transferred to Olympus.

Titans coach Matt Barnes received a call from his friend and colleague Logan Brown, who informed him that Olympus was getting “a real special kid” who was “dang good.”

Brown had more to say after coaching Rylan for one season.

“Don’t let him fool you when you look at him,” he told Barnes. “When you look at him, you’re going to be like, ‘This kid is the real deal?’”

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Olympus guard Rylan Jones screams with excitement as the Titans take the lead late in the fourth quarter during basketball game between Pleasant Grove and Olympus at Olympus High School in Holladay on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018.

Steve Griffin

Despite being ”small and skinny,” Rylan quickly fit in at his new school. Barnes explained that Jones was shooting when the opportunity was there, but just made the right reads and the right passes. As such, he meshed in well with the guys and became a great leader.

“He just came in and won everybody over with the way he played,” Barnes said. “So it was pretty easy. He was obviously very special.”

In his three years at Olympus, Jones helped the Titans post a 74-6 record. That includes a 27-0 mark and a state championship in 2017-18. Jones was named Utah’s Mr. Basketball by the Deseret News after averaging 18.3 points, 9.9 assists, 6.6 rebounds and 2.9 steals per game.

As a senior, Jones averaged 21.6 points, 8.0 assists, 7.8 rebounds and 3.0 steals. He wound up becoming the state’s career leader in assists with 743.

Barnes said Jones “just makes the game easy for everyone,” adding that “he’s just so under control and so confident.”

Jones was named Mr. Basketball once again, joining Murray’s Jeff Johnsen (1995, 1996) and Tyler Haws of Lone Peak (2008, 2009) as the only two-time winners of the award.

Looking back, Chris Jones gives Brown and Barnes a lot of credit for letting Rylan play at a young age, allowing him to play through mistakes and gain a lot of confidence.

“Then you have a chance to blossom and be as good of a player as you can be,” said Chris, who expressed appreciation to the coaches for the opportunities his son was given in high school.

At the next level

Rylan opted to play at the alma mater of his parents. Chris played basketball for the Utes from 1993-94 and his mother, Emily, was a swimmer.

“It’s been a really fun year,” Chris said. “Obviously there’s been some great moments already, but we have a long ways to go.”

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Utah Utes guard Rylan Jones (15) celebrates a game-tying shot with teammates as Utah and BYU play an NCAA basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. Utah won 102-95 in overtime.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

It’s the journey, not the destination, that fuels Rylan. He’s determined to play in the NCAA Tournament every year. Krystkowiak acknowledged that the short-term approach is “music to our ears.” Despite being one of the youngest teams in the country, he’s constantly reminding his players that four years go by fast and there’s no reason not to play with a sense of urgency until you become a senior.

Krystkowiak added that Jones has the right mindset.

“I know Rylan’s going to be as hard on himself than anybody else can be,” Krystkowiak said. “He’ll put as much pressure on himself to be good. He wants to be good and it’s not easy. It’s just not easy at this level.”

Jones, though, is familiar with the process. Make that quite familiar.

“He was around the game a lot when he was little and he just kind of grew up in the gym,” said Chris, who even brought Rylan with him sometimes while recruiting during his tenure at Utah State.

“He’s grown up in the game and he doesn’t miss much.” — Utah assistant coach Chris Jones on his son, Rylan Jones

Rylan enjoyed having his dad work in the profession.

“He just loved it. He just loved to play. He’s always thought that was a fun thing to do,” Chris said. “He’s very easy to coach. He’s always very receptive to coaching by everybody that has ever coached him.”

Barnes noted that Rylan was efficient and effective during his career at Olympus. He worked on certain skills for three years and showed he’d been around the game.

“Obviously he’s a coach’s kid,” Barnes said. “Chris has done a great job with him.”

“We always had a hoop at our house. He loved to play and he loved to shoot,” Chris said. “We spent a lot of time in the gym together growing up.”

Krystkowiak acknowledged that there’s no question about it.

“He’s grown up in the game and he doesn’t miss much,” said Krystkowiak, who explained that Rylan is ultra-competitive on the court and understands a lot of facets by studying up on them.

It’s one of his keys to success. Krystkowiak praised his feel for the game and the great instincts Rylan has, whether it’s taking a charge or getting involved in rebounding.

“A lot of guards don’t understand the value of that,” Krystkowiak said. “I always thought John Stockton was one of the best at helping his big men on the glass. If somebody gave up an offensive rebound, he’s in tune to come in and try to strip it, just a lot of things that are hard to coach.”

Some of it instinctual, Krystkowiak continued, and some of it is about being in a family where he just absolutely loves the sport and wants to understand as much of it as he can.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. Obviously he’s not going to block a lot of shots. He’s not going to be flying over people. He’s not going to overpower or over-athlete people,” Chris said. “So what’s his advantage? His advantage is he can move his feet and he knows his best defense is to have someone run him over and hopefully they’ll call a charge.”

However, such physical play has taken a toll. Rylan missed the Weber State game in the Beehive Classic because of a rib injury. He’s also worked through sprains to both ankles.

“So he’s been far from where he needs to be physically to get through this year,” Krystkowiak said. “But he just keeps coming back.”

‘Grit meter’

Rylan’s ability to answer the bell has been impressive.

“He’s got what it takes when it comes to that grit meter, no doubt,” Krystkowiak said. “Grit is a big part of success in this game.”

A lot of folks still express worry to Barnes about Rylan’s size, athleticism or whatever.

“I’ve just always been amazed at the way he plays the game — his smarts, obviously his IQ, his toughness,” Barnes said. “He just really understands the game.”

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Utah Utes guard Rylan Jones (15) comes up holding his side after falling to the floor with Oregon Ducks guard Chris Duarte (5) as Utah and Oregon play in an NCAA basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020. Oregon won 69-64.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Thus, there’s little surprise that Rylan is doing well at Utah. Barnes felt he would be really good.

“Did I think he’d be this good, this early? I wasn’t quite sure. I thought he had the chance, the potential, but it’s just kind of all worked out great.”

Although Chris points out that Rylan is not blowing the socks off college basketball right now, he is helping the Utes be competitive and win some games. He explained that Krystkowiak is giving him an opportunity and Rylan is taking advantage of it by working hard, being coachable and doing whatever it takes to win.

Chris emphasized that nothing else really matters except for the latter and being a productive player.

“He’s about winning and is happy to be a part of it.”

Barnes has seen a lot of growth in Rylan this season in terms of growing confidence and understanding of college basketball. The BYU game provided a big boost. So, too, have other things Barnes has observed. Rylan has worked hard on his shooting and plays smart, knowing where to get his teammates the ball.

“He’ll put work in and be a special player for the next four years,” Barnes predicts.

And there’s more.

“It only takes people a few minutes to watch him play and then it’s just you fall in love with him,” Barnes said. “He can play. He makes the game look so easy.”

Youthful appearance

Rylan doesn’t look his age. He’s heard jokes like “go back to elementary school” while on the court. It doesn’t faze him. Those around him every day insist it’s not something anyone really notices.

“I know when you look at him out on the court in the game, sure, he does look younger and skinnier and thinner, all that and a lot of other things out there,” said Chris, who noted that Utah players aren’t defined as freshmen or other classes. They’re college basketball players.

Even so, Chris recognizes that his son does look young,

“If you can play, you can play. If you can’t, you can’t,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you look like, you’ve got to be a productive player.”

Chris explained that Rylan is a happy kid most of the time and plays the game happy. He lives in the moment and doesn’t get too far ahead of himself. Besides that, Rylan is super humble and insists individual accomplishments mean nothing if not accompanied by a win.

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Utah Utes guard Rylan Jones (15) and Minnesota Golden Gophers guard Marcus Carr (5) collide during the second half of an NCAA men’s basketball game at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

As for other things like a youthful appearance, Rylan isn’t getting a lot of internal feedback on it.

“You know, I don’t know if I’ve ever really been able to think that way,” Krystkowiak said. “They all kind of have the same face when you’re coaching them to me. I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to it.”

Word, though, has gotten around. Krystkowiak admits hearing around the community about how young Rylan looks.  

“That’s not a bad thing. More important to him is when he’s 40. Is he still going to have that young look or is he going to look like his old man?” Krystkowiak said. “It’s OK. It’s a compliment if people are telling you that you look young, just soak it up.”

Speaking of which, Utah is tied with Navy and TCU for having the most freshmen on its roster this season. 

The Utes have 11 (including one redshirt), and Rylan is one of six from within the state. They’ll be in action again Thursday (6 p.m., P12N) in the Huntsman Center. Pac-12 play continues with Utah (10-7, 1-4) hosting Washington (10-7, 1-3). The Utes face Washington State on Saturday.