A movie once was made on the idea that a mirror has two faces, that the relationship between mind and body can take different forms, that what we see on the outside might not necessarily be a person’s true character.
How do you separate the basketball player with terrible body language during games from one found working on his shot for hours afterward? The player who in one moment is shoving a teammate away and in another signing an autograph and taking pictures with a young fan? The player whose actions are interpreted by others as selfish but whose coach insists are born from a competitive nature unrivaled by peers?
Bryce Dejean-Jones can be that riddle-wrapped-in-a-mystery-inside-an-enigma. He can be Russia in 1939.
He is a difficult puzzle to solve.
“Bryce has a great heart,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “I like him a lot. He is very intelligent. He is ultra-competitive. I never worry about him bringing effort in practice or games. He went as hard as a scout team player during his transfer season with us as he does now against top 25 teams. He absolutely hates to lose. But he can struggle harnessing that competitiveness.
“I have always said our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses. Bryce is fearless on a basketball court, but that can manifest itself at times into negative actions.”
An example came last week, when Dejean-Jones angrily departed the Thomas &Mack Center immediately after a loss to San Diego State and was suspended by Rice for the team’s regular-season finale at UNR.
The junior wing was reinstated Monday and will play in the Mountain West tournament and any other postseason games.
Dejean-Jones won’t start against Wyoming today in a Mountain West quarterfinal and probably won’t again this season. But that he can finish on a positive note, in all likelihood his final season at UNLV, is important for him and the man who made him his first recruit as head coach three years ago.
“I don’t like losing, especially games like the one against (San Diego State), where you really want to get back at a team for beating you (earlier in the season) and then you lose again,” Dejean-Jones said of his actions last week. “But we don’t need things like that happening to disrupt the locker room and disrupt the team.
“I’m very passionate about the game. I kind of lost control. I’m just coming back and trying to be a better person. I understood that there had to be consequences for my actions. It was devastating not being able to be (at UNR). I love these guys. These guys are like family to me.”
And yet this is hardly a secret: Dejean-Jones can be difficult to play with. The ball loses air in his grip. He constantly over-dribbles, which at times disrupts any flow and rhythm a struggling UNLV offense might create. He hunts for shots when several possessions pass and he hasn’t attempted one.
He also will be just two classes short of graduation when summer arrives, and a popular theory is he will forgo his final college season in hopes of playing professionally next year, be it in Europe or the NBA’s Development League. He is good enough to do either.
It will be an amicable departure between player and coach.
It’s best for all involved.
Dejean-Jones is UNLV’s top scorer this season with a 13.4 average, but he has struggled transitioning from a supporting to leading role. He went from one of the guys as a sophomore to The Man this year.
It’s a tough jump to handle. It’s not for everyone.
Dejean-Jones never could quite make a go of it.
You can make the argument that one of Rice’s greatest strengths — his empathy and genuine concern for others — has become a weakness when the need arises to discipline players. That he is too soft at times. That he needs to hold others accountable more.
But he also understands Dejean-Jones as well as anyone. He was the first recruit Rice brought onto the UNLV campus when the player was looking to transfer from Southern California in 2011.
“I do think Bryce is misunderstood by a lot of people,” Rice said. “I always judge a person’s character most on how they act with people who can’t help them, and Bryce is terrific in those situations. He is great at our camps, with kids. He will always stop and sign or take a picture or talk with others. I’ve always noticed that about him.”
I noticed this often the past few years: Long after a game had finished and fans had departed and deadline had passed and columns and game stories had been filed, a few writers would depart the bowels of the Thomas &Mack to the sound of a bouncing ball.
On the court, by himself, hoisting shot after shot, working to improve amid the calming dullness of quiet, was a riddle-wrapped-in-a-mystery-inside-an-enigma.
No one wants to win more than Bryce Dejean-Jones, and that is a trait from which you can build a successful program. That sort of competitive fire. That sort of fearless attitude.
But the mirror had two faces in his time at UNLV and, for that, his potential was limited.
Good kid. Big heart. Very smart.
Misunderstood, both by his own doing and the presumptions of others.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.