TUSCALOOSA — Less than two weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured left wrist, Alabama junior wing Herb Jones was back on the court as the team battles for its NCAA tournament life.
“That’s a warrior. To play with one hand, to do what he did in seven minutes, not many people in the world can do that, so my hat’s off to him," sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr. said of Jones after Wednesday’s 95-91 overtime loss at Auburn. "We needed him, he made big-time plays, had big-time rebounds. They tried to Iso him to win the game going into overtime and they shot an air ball. That basically described him in one play — a true warrior and a great defender.”
Jones sustained the injury in a 90-76 loss at LSU, but continued to play through what he told teammates at the time was a broken left hand. He underwent surgery the morning of Alabama's Feb. 1 game against Arkansas.
And while he's still unable to practice fully with the team, Jones is back in action while wearing a bulky, black cast around his left wrist. The cast he wore Wednesday is the heaviest of three versions available to him, and is more of a heavy wrap around a protective splint that secures his wrist and limits its range of movement, which severely restricts him in what he can do with his left hand.
Because of the wrap, dribbling and shooting are out of the question, and he isn’t expected to do much more offensively for another week while he continues to rehab.
Jones’ presence Wednesday night and moving forward was more than just an emotional lift for the struggling Crimson Tide, which has lost 4 of 5 heading down the stretch of the regular season.
“We’ll use him when we can and hopefully it’ll continue to get better and better and he can do a little bit more, a little bit more,” first-year Alabama head coach Nate Oats said of Jones. “Make layups, catch (passes), whatever he can on offense would be an added bonus at this point, but defensively we could really use him.”
Jones is expected to play an even bigger role Saturday against No. 25 LSU (18-6, 9-2 SEC), in what is unquestionably a must-win Quad 1 opportunity if Alabama (13-11, 5-6 SEC) has any chance to make the NCAA Tournament.
“He was plus-13 in seven minutes (against Auburn),” Oats said of Jones. “Shoot, if I can double his minutes against LSU — we needed one more possession (in regulation), and he ended up fouling out (in overtime) but maybe I should’ve played him more possessions in regulation and it wouldn’t have gone to overtime.”
That included pulling down three key rebounds, including two defensive boards, during the final 5 minutes of regulation as Auburn missed its last eight field goal tries.
One of Jones’ defensive boards was quickly parlayed into points as he fed Lewis for a quick transition 3-pointer to pull Alabama with 79-78 with 3:58 remaining.
“He just showed that he’s the best defender in the country, a hard-working dude, a team player and a leader,” Lewis Jr. said. “He’s a tough dude, he’s played through a lot of injuries since he’s been here, so I wasn’t surprised when he checked in. I knew we were going to get max effort from him, good defense and what he could give us on offense (in the form of) offensive rebounds. I wasn’t surprised by the performance he gave us.”
Jones played 7 minutes, 3 seconds, his fewest minutes of the season by far, with exactly half of that coming during a sporadic 3 ½ minutes in the first half.
“He was obviously going to end up in some offensive possessions,” Oats said. “I said we’re going to play him well before he got to 100-percent. He just wants to play, he wants to help the team. He helps us last night. We don’t go to overtime if it wasn’t for him.”
And that was all by design.
The team structured Jones’ participation around defensive-only opportunities approaching mandatory media timeouts where there’d be a definite chance to quickly pull him back out once Auburn went back on offense.
There was even one point when Jones didn’t even record a full second on the court.
During an Auburn one-and-one opportunity at the free throw line with 12:48 left in regulation, Jones entered in place of James “Beetle” Bolden and was immediately called for his third foul while attempting to rebound a missed free throw. It forced Oats to bring Jones back to the bench without a full second coming off the clock.
He'd return though, playing just 13 seconds in his next on-court opportunity midway through the second half before playing a combined 2:37 over the final 4:48 of regulation. It was during that time that Jones recorded a one-handed block of Auburn’s Samir Doughty and got the defensive rebound off the miss. Jones also contributed to several lost offensive possessions from Auburn down the stretch, just with his mere presence on the interior.
"I just remember the block, I don't really remember anything else he did, but it was a great defensive play," Doughty said of Jones.
For his teammates, Jones’ limited performance against Auburn further highlighted what makes him invaluable to Alabama.
“He (showed) he was the best defensive player in the country in my opinion,” Lewis said of Jones. “He blocked a guy solid with one hand, I mean, I don’t know if many people can do that, hurt with one hand, and he’s using his right hand to block the shot and getting a last-second stop to force overtime. Getting key defensive rebounds, being that guy you can switch with so he can bang with the big guys.”
Jones would ultimately foul out with 17.7 seconds left in overtime, but his contribution went much farther than anything found in the stat sheet.
Jones’ biggest contribution Wednesday was providing an inspiration and physical example of the sort of blue-collar approach that Oats has tried to instill throughout the program.
“There’s no excuse for anybody on the floor to not make winning plays like that, blue-collar plays, because he’s out there in a cast making plays, sacrificing his body for his teammates, so I don’t see why everybody else can’t do that,” Shackelford said of Jones. “It sparks something in me. I know I had to go out and take a charge at one point in time. … If Herb can do it (with a cast), we all can do it.”