The Shaka Smart era at Texas was supposed to usher in a new sense of energy and enthusiasm surrounding Longhorns basketball, after such feelings surrounding Rick Barnes’ tenure had long came and went. This extends beyond what ultimately happens on the hardwood, as luring top-quality talent to Austin hasn’t been the most successful task over the recent years, especially when it came to keeping in-state talent from wandering.
These are two challenges Smart has welcomed with open arms, and while he’s only been at the helm for just over eight months, with only nine games under his belt, they’re challenges at which he’s finding convincing success.
It began with the recently past weekend, still fresh in the minds of the burnt orange nation. Texas had seen its share of early-season struggles, dropping three of its first eight games, but the No. 3 North Carolina Tar Heels were in town, and more importantly, so was elite in-state combo guard, Andrew Jones, who was there on an official visit. Despite Smart having already received commitments from four-star Houston point guard, Jacob Young, and four-star Georgia big man, James Banks, Smart still hadn’t made that big recruiting splash that’s demanded at Texas.
Less than 48 hours after a Javan Felix buzzer-beater lifted Texas over UNC in one of the most exciting college basketball games this season, Smart made that recruiting splash with the news that four-star Irving MacArthur’s Andrew Jones committed to Texas over powerhouses Arizona and Louisville.
Now although this is the fourth four-star recruit Smart has seen commit to him and the Longhorns, Jones’ commitment is far-and-away the most impactful of the bunch. Sure, the simple fact that Smart has already landed a near handful of four-star recruits in such short order without actually proving his worth at Texas speaks volumes to the long-term success we can come to expect from him, regardless of where the recruit’s hail from. But when you consider the "elite" label that’s widely been placed on Jones – he’s a borderline five-star talent with realistic McDonald’s All-American potential – along with him staying in state to play for Texas, it’s equates to a victory in a significant recruiting battle that Texas was long viewed as the underdog in – Arizona has consistently led in Jones’ Crystal Ball projections.
The key term in all of this is "in-state." Texas has cemented itself as a recruiting hotbed for elite high school talent. Since 2010, the Lone Star State has produced 63 ESPN 100 recruits; 19 of which were listed as five-star recruits. The Longhorns have lured only eight from this group to Austin (two being Sheldon McClellan and Julian Lewis, who both transferred). In his first true recruiting cycle, Smart has already landed Jones, a future consensus five-star recruit, which is of great value because of the message it relays – the 40 Acres is as good a home as any for the top talent Texas produces.
And in the short-term, which would ultimately radiate into next season’s recruiting efforts, is the impact Jones’ commitment may have on the future decision of Austin-native and five-star power forward, Jarrett Allen. With just Young and Banks on board, Texas had a marginal 2016 recruiting class, at best. The addition of Jones boosts Texas to No. 12 nationally, with the top ranked class in the Big 12, per 247Sports. Now that the proof is in the pudding that Smart can land top talent, if Allen, too, were to elect to stay home and play for Texas, the Longhorns could ultimately finish with a top five class in 2016.
But while Smart now has his first statement victory, and first significant recruiting splash, recruits like Allen may hold off to see what kind of season-long and postseason success Smart can muster in his first season in Austin. Keep in mind, Myles Turner didn’t commit in 2014 until April 30.
What Andrew Jones brings to Texas
While Smart and Texas hope Jones’ commitment provides a domino effect for future in-state targets like Allen, let’s not fail to give worthy praise to the newest Longhorns, whose versatile skillset will be beneficial from day one.
Between the arrival of Young, and the likely returns of Kendal Yancy, Jordan Barnett, Kerwin Roach Jr., Eric Davis Jr., and Tevin Mack, the Longhorns are already in position to feature plenty of skill and depth on the perimeter. But with one of 2016’s most explosive multi-positional talents now off the open market, Texas may see its latest commit surface as a freshman starter. While Jones is considered a combo-guard, the belief is starting to sway towards him playing point guard at the college level. But just as with Davis, Jones is a scoring guard that can flat out put points up in bunches, who just happens to be a pretty good facilitator, as well.
With Texas already set to have Roach and Young, and possibly, but unlikely Isaiah Taylor, Smart doesn’t necessarily have a need for another point guard. But this is where Jones can be of such value. He’s essentially a position-less wing, capable of running the show himself in half-court and fast break settings, operating as a secondary ball handler, or simply looking to score, which he does effectively attacking the rim, off the dribble, and from deep. And with a lanky 6-4 frame and plenty of quickness, Jones can guard each perimeter position well, which in itself will provide minutes.
I envision a likely starting lineup of Roach, Jones, and Davis, which would provide Texas with an explosive and capable guard running the offense, much of the same with more scoring instincts in Jones, who would score in a multitude of ways, while Davis awaits around the arc and reaps the benefits of Roach and Jones’ assertiveness. And all of which have lock-down potential defensively, which should provide Texas the advantage in the majority of its perimeter match ups next season.
Jones has been a case of a rapid riser, as he was unranked before the summer and quickly found himself as one of the best guards in the nation and a debatable five-star product. As is, Smart landed a jewel in Jones. But if his ascension continues at the rate it has over the past six months, Texas will play host to one of the very best the high school talent pool has to offer for the 2017 season.