At an impressionable age, Bryce Jones was taught how to be tough. The lessons came from older players at neighborhood parks in Los Angeles.
That’s where a baby-faced pit bull of a basketball player was raised.
“You get pushed down, and it’s either you get up or you quit,” he said. “I was playing with older men at 9. I had to learn how to push them back or I couldn’t play.”
Jones always pushed back, and still does, and he can play. A UNLV team that lacked toughness this season is adding a needed mean streak.
A 6-foot-5-inch shooting guard and Southern California transfer, Jones is equal parts talented and tough.
That was Stacey Augmon as a player. As a Rebels assistant coach, Augmon said the description fits Jones.
“All those top guys have a special something to them,” Augmon said. “Bryce hates to lose, and he’s going to do everything in his power. He definitely plays with an edge. He has something that you can’t teach, and that’s just the will to do anything in your power to win, and he has the ability to do it.
“I think our fans are going to be very excited about how he plays.”
Jones, who has three years of eligibility remaining beginning with the 2012-13 season, could only practice while sitting out the year as a redshirt. He watched as UNLV lost six of its final 11 games to finish 26-9 after a third straight one-and-done NCAA Tournament appearance.
In January 2011, with his playing time diminished, Jones opted to leave USC. He was labeled an off-court problem, and according to a Los Angeles Times report, Trojans coach Kevin O’Neill told the freshman to transfer or face dismissal from the team.
On May 21, just more than a month after Dave Rice was named the Rebels’ coach, Jones became Rice’s first recruiting commitment.
Jones chose UNLV over Mountain West Conference rivals San Diego State and New Mexico. Rice and Jones had a relationship from Rice’s tenure as a Brigham Young assistant coach, but Justin Hutson helped seal the decision. Hutson attempted to recruit Jones to the Aztecs program before Hutson joined Rice’s staff.
“Bryce loves to play, and the hardest part for him was to practice every day and not get to play in the games,” Rice said. “One thing that has been impressive to me about Bryce is his basketball IQ.”
One challenge for Rice and his staff has been managing Jones’ basketball attitude. Off the court, he is polite and all smiles. On the court, his demeanor is often unpleasant.
“The coaches expressed to me that they want to see me start maturing now, and I understand and I’m working on it,” Jones said.
On Jan. 23, two days before the Rebels’ game at Boise State, Jones was kicked out of practice by the coaches when he refused to stop shouting during a dispute with senior guard Oscar Bellfield.
“Me and Oscar, whenever we play, we get into it a lot. We were jabbing back and forth, and I wouldn’t stop,” Jones said. “I’m just real competitive, that’s all it is. It’s all making each other better in practice, and sometimes it escalates. If you’re on the scout team, it’s the only way I can get them to start playing a little tougher.
“I’m more aggressive. I like to get in there and push around. Sometimes I get too involved in what’s going on.”
Jones said “knowing when to kind of cool down” is part of his maturing process. In fact, Bellfield is one of his closest friends on the team, and the two frequently went at it in one-on-one battles after practice.
“Playing a contact sport, guys get into it all the time. It’s the same thing I do with my brothers,” Jones said. “I love my teammates. We get along, we argue on the court and hang out after it.”
At USC, it was reported that Jones allegedly punched teammate Garrett Jackson and fractured his nose.
“We got into an altercation in the locker room,” Jones said. “He hit me and I hit him.”
UNLV could use a player willing to hand out hard fouls, and Rice knows it. Nice guys don’t always finish last, but in the Rebels’ case, they did finish third in the Mountain West and played like a soft, last-place team on the road.
In postseason team meetings, Jones said, “Coach Rice is already emphasizing it. He’s going to make a big emphasis on playing tougher, especially on the road. We’ll definitely be playing a lot tougher.”
Jones will be a leader in the attitude makeover, along with seniors-to-be Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins, and junior Mike Moser.
UNLV loses four seniors and welcomes at least five newcomers, a group that includes Jones, 6-9 Khem Birch, a Pittsburgh transfer, and guard Katin Reinhardt of Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei High School.
“We expect a lot from Bryce. Our whole coaching staff is working diligently with him as far as attitude, on the court and off the court,” Augmon said. “He definitely is going to show a lot of toughness on the court — him and Mike Moser and Anthony.”
Jones, a well-rounded offensive player who drives and shoots well from distance, started his first 10 games at USC and averaged 11.2 points and 28.1 minutes. But his last game action came 14 months ago.
His next game is scheduled for mid-August, when the Rebels go on an international exhibition tour — their first since 2008 — to Canada for four or five games in Montreal and Toronto.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Jones said. “I’m excited to have a new start.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907.