Rebels basketball:

Dejean-Jones’ stellar UNLV debut only an indication of what he can do this year

The Rebels’ aggressive sophomore has a ways to go yet, but fans and coaches are impressed considering how long it’s been since he played

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV guard Bryce Dejean-Jones signals one of his successful three-point shots against Northern Arizona during the Rebels season opener Monday, Nov. 12, 2012 at the Thomas & Mack.

UNLV Runnin' Rebel Bryce Dejean-Jones

UNLV guard Bryce Dejean-Jones drives to the basket against North Carolina during their game Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012 at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. North Carolina won the game 79-73. Launch slideshow »

The reason Bryce Dejean-Jones can sit out of Division I basketball for more than a year and a half and then step in to No. 18 UNLV’s season opener and score 15 points is that his effort in practice never wavered.

Dejean-Jones’ last game for USC was on Jan. 15, 2011, at Oregon State. He played four minutes and missed his only shot attempt, a 3-pointer. From that time to Monday’s 94-52 victory against Northern Arizona, a stretch that included a year as a Rebels practice player while he sat out because of the NCAA’s transfer rules, Dejean-Jones did his best to practice every day with the same intensity he’s known for in games. That level of preparation is what allowed him on Monday to play 20 minutes, shoot 5-for-7 from the field, including 3-for-4 behind the three-point line, and dish out three assists.

“I’m always practicing and playing like it’s for real,” Dejean-Jones said. “I take this very seriously.”

The performance was far from a finished product though, which is why UNLV’s coaches and fans are so excited about what’s to come. Dejean-Jones’ first chance to improve on that debut is Saturday night at 7 in the Thomas & Mack Center, where the Rebels (1-0) host Jacksonville State (3-0). It isn’t televised but it will stream for a fee on UNLVRebels.com.

This game is a prelude to next week’s Global Sports Classic tournament at the Mack. The Gamecocks travel to Las Vegas for Saturday’s game, then go up to Oregon for a game Monday night. Less than a week after the UNLV game they’re back at the Mack on Friday, Nov. 23 to face Northern Arizona.

It’s a tough schedule for Jacksonville State, an Ohio Valley Conference member, and that doesn’t even factor in the fatigue from Thursday night’s 79-61 victory against Alabama A&M. UNLV is going to welcome in a weary Gamecocks team, albeit one that’s deeper and probably more talented than NAU.

UNLV coach Dave Rice said the most important improvement the team could make from that first victory was to take better care of the ball. The Rebels committed 17 turnovers, including 12 in the second half, against NAU. It’s easier to excuse those late ones than if they had come in the first half, Rice said, but it’s still too many.

“It’s such a fine line because I don’t want to take our aggressiveness away,” Rice said.

He was talking about the team as a whole but it may as well have been directed at Dejean-Jones. After not missing a shot and scoring 12 in the first half, Dejean-Jones started slipping and committed six turnovers. Aside from the fact it was his first regular season game playing with these teammates, that subpar second half could be due to both his overall conditioning and his limitations with a left hand that’s still less than 100 percent.

Dejean-Jones broke two bones in his left, nonshooting hand in early October and had the cast removed less than two weeks before the game against NAU. He said after Thursday’s practice that it’s at about 90 percent and the pain continues to decrease. As that becomes less of a problem, so too should the turnovers. And as far as conditioning goes, the best way to improve that is to keep charging forward.

“You’ll get there the more you keep playing,” Dejean-Jones said.

Rice and his staff get a lot of credit for this current recruiting class, but it started with Dejean-Jones. He was the first player Rice added to the program, a harbinger of the type of athleticism he intended to inject into the team.

“I’d watched him in high school and loved his energy, loved what he brought,” Rice said after Monday’s game. “I felt like we needed a guy in our program to supplement what we already had, a guy who had an edge. Bryce absolutely hates to lose, nobody works harder than he does and the improvement he’s made in terms of his disposition on the court has been remarkable.”

That last part is the only thing you could say has changed about Dejean-Jones on the practice court. He was thrown out of practice multiple times last season and at USC he allegedly broke a teammate's nose in an altercation after practice. Much like the fine line Rice referenced in regards to playing fast but not turning it over, it’s tough to balance being an aggressive player without going over the line.

Right now Dejean-Jones appears closer to that happy medium than he’s ever been. That’s one reason he’s a likely candidate, along with freshman Anthony Bennett and junior Mike Moser, to lead the team in scoring this season. Another reason is that Rice will never have to take Dejean-Jones out because he’s not trying hard enough.

“He certainly has matured on the court and is playing with a greater sense of purpose in practice every day,” Rice said, “but he always brought it from an effort standpoint.”

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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