By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The other day there appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail a story running under the headline:
“Consensus is Jones the best since Rod Thorn”
Seeing that caused a brief double take, although I did realize the use of the word consensus was a play on what has come to be known over the years as a consensus All-American, a player who was named on most All-America teams, rather than the consensus of fans or experts was that Jones was the best West Virginia University player since Thorn.
I had no problem with the comparison to Thorn, who at 72 is still quite active as president of the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that once employed a player named Wilt Chamberlain. In fact, when Thorn was at his prime at West Virginia University as junior and senior, Chamberlain was at his with the 76ers, averaging 50.4 and 44.8 points a game during Thorn’s All-America years.
The story noted how many honors Kevin Jones had garnered this year, the most since Thorn’s senior season at the height of Mountaineer mania that had seen Rod Hundley, Jerry West and Thorn go through the school consecutively.
Certainly Jones earned every honor, but the story seemed to infer Jones was the best player since Thorn, and that got me to thinking about just where his place is among the Mountaineers to play over the last 50 years.
If one were to go strictly on physical talent alone — and this is quite opinionated and certainly open to discussion (which is what @bhertzel on Twitter is about) — I suspect Gordon Malone and Joe Alexander would stand at the top of that list with Kevin Jones rather far down on it.
But being physically gifted may allow you to win a slam dunk contest or flee successfully from jealous husbands, it does not necessary win basketball games.
In truth, simply as a basketball player, Jones towered above many more talented players.
What I cannot do, however, is put Jones above Da’Sean Butler as the best player since Thorn, whether had had as many All-America honors or not.
We say this for four reasons.
The first is that when the two played together, Butler was always the first option, the go-to guy.
Secondly, his ability to perform under pressure was unmatched, as noted during the season when the Mountaineers made their run to the Final Four, Butler hitting five buzzer-beaters during the season, a sign of his ability to create his own shot, to do it under pressure when everyone in the zip code knows he’s the one who is going to shoot the ball and to make it.
The third reason was the versatility that Butler displayed in his game.
Jones was a forward, a good one who was persistently pounding the offensive glass to turn missed shots by others into baskets by West Virginia.
But Butler often was forced into playing a guard, even the point at times, and did so with
out missing a beat or a jump shot. His senior year he had 119 assists.
Jones also had 119 assists … in his last three years combined.
Granted, it wasn’t his job, but it wasn’t his job because it wasn’t one of the skills that he possessed.
Kevin Jones became the great player that he was as a senior because he decided to stop trying to be something he wasn’t and just played like Kevin Jones, which was good enough to be an All-America player.
The fourth thing that lifted Butler above everyone else who played in the 50 years since Thorn was his ability to make everyone around him play better.
That was something Jones tried so hard to do, but he just couldn’t have the same effect on his teammates that Butler had. Jones tried to keep his roommate and teammate Truck Bryant on the task, but somehow he couldn’t do it.
This is not a rap on Jones, by any means, but rather it shows that the aura a great player creates comes from somewhere other than just talent. There is nothing wrong with being an unselfish player who averages 20 points a game like Jones did.
It’s just that Butler possessed an intangible that you can’t learn and you can’t develop. It is there or it isn’t, and while you know it’s there, you can’t really explain why or what it is.
The best since Thorn?
You can make an argument, for sure, but if I were to put together a post-Rod Thorn all-star team of Mountaineers, it would be this:
F – Da’Sean Butler, backed up by Damian Owens.
F – Kevin Jones, backed up by Kevin Pittsnogle.
G – Fritz Williams, backed up by Lowes Moore.
PG – Steve Berger, backed up by Seldon Jefferson.
G – Wil Robinson , backed up by Greg Jones.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.