By Jon Gremmels Herald Sports Editor
The Clinton Herald
---- — CLINTON — It was an offer Jalen Jones couldn’t refuse.
Jones, a 6-foot-5 senior at Clinton High School, informed the coaching staff at Nebraska-Omaha on Sunday that he would play college basketball for the fledgling NCAA Division I program.
“It’s a good deal; I’m really happy for Jalen,” Clinton coach Nick Lawrence said Sunday night.
“I really liked the coaching staff, and I know one of the players,” Jones said. Derrin Hansen has guided the program for nearly a decade, and West Branch’s Rylan Murray, one of Jones’ former AAU teammates, is a freshman at UNO.
Jones earned second-team all-state honors from the Iowa Newspaper Association last season after leading the River Kings in scoring for the second year in a row. He averaged 19.0 points and 7.1 rebounds a game, shot 45 percent from the field and led the team with 76 assists. He made 48 of 147 3-point attempts (32.7 percent), shot 70.8 percent from the free-throw line and blocked 26 shots in 22 games.
He is joining a team that went 11-20 last year in its second season at the Division I level. A longtime member of NCAA Division II, the school is in a transition phase while reclassifying and will be eligible to participate in the Division I NCAA Tournament in 2015-16.
“It’s really exciting,” Jones said of joining the burgeoning program. “It should be cool.”
Jones, who said he probably would sign a letter-of-intent with UNO during the early signing period in November, said making the decision “was definitely a huge relief going into his senior season.”
While another big year might have brought offers from some of the larger schools that have scouted him, Jones said he didn’t want to risk an injury or anything else that might deflate his value.
“I’m not sure if I’m selling myself short, but I don’t want to pass up a full ride, a free education,” he said.
Jones, who played point guard out of necessity last year for CHS, said he likely would play a forward spot in college.
“I think they’ll probably use me as 3, maybe a 4 if I get bigger,” Jones said.
“He can play and defend multiple positions,” Lawrence said. “His skill set and body type allow him to play multiple positions on the court. He has the tools to be a lights-out defender.”
Lawrence said the point-guard skills made Jones even more attractive.
“I don’t think there’s any question that was the case,” Lawrence said. “I always brought that up to coaches. No question it has helped his development.”
Lawrence said coaches had been flocking to Clinton to watch Jones and 6-8 junior Brady Ernst during open gyms this fall.
“Eastern Kentucky is supposed to be coming in tomorrow, Lehigh flew its head coach down, Iowa, Wisconsin, Northern Iowa ... almost every open gym there have been coaches in our facilities,” Lawrence said.
While that type of exposure is great for the players being recruited, Lawrence said it would have a positive effect on everybody on the roster.
“It helps motivate some younger guys,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any way around that. To be able to have college coaches — some high-level Division I people — in the gym, I don’t think there’s any way to avoid that excitement.”
Jones said he wanted to help the River Kings take the next step during his senior year.
“I think we can finish in the top half of the (Mississippi Athletic Conference),” he said. “We hope to make a run at the MAC title and make it to state.”
Clinton finished 7-15 last season after going winless his freshman year — he moved up to the varsity late that season — and 1-21 when he was a sophomore.
“It was definitely a transition going from not playing much my freshman year to trying to take a leadership role as a sophomore,” Jones said. “It helped me grow as a player. I think I have really improved my jump shot and leadership on the court.”
The team’s improvement should help Jones this season, too, according to Lawrence.
“We’ll slide him off the ball,” Lawrence said. “We’re going to be able to play a different style; we have more depth. It will probably take pressure off Jalen this year, putting him in his natural position. We’ll get the ball and go.”
And, with the decision about his future made, Jones is looking forward to his best year yet.