For me, the story of Charlie Jones began during the semifinals of the 2014 Patriot League tournament against Holy Cross. The host Eagles looked dead in the water, with a lifeless offense and trailing the Crusaders by 10 points early in the second half.
That's when the no-name freshman walk-on happened. That's when Charlie Jones saved American's season en route to the league title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
First, Charlie hit a 3. Then he scored a layup. Then he blocked a shot. Later, he saved a missed free throw right into the hands of Jesse Reed, who buried a game-clinching 3. Jones finished with five points, four rebounds and two steals — the type of stat line American fans have gotten very used to seeing, while realizing that he does so much more, the past four years.
"I said it earlier this season, but Charlie has been our 'energizer bunny' all season long," Darius "Pee Wee" Gardner, a junior, said at the time. "He just comes in and is everywhere for us. We kind of built on that energy, especially on the defensive end."
This Sunday, Jones will play his final regular-season home game in an American uniform against that same team, Holy Cross. He undoubtedly will receive a well-deserved standing ovation from the AU faithful, but I still feel like he's underappreciated. Maybe people's recognition of Jones' contributions will come after his career is complete.
If the Holy Cross game was Jones' coming-out party, his sophomore year was validation of him as an integral piece of American's rotation — yet still as a walk-on. Name another walk-on in the country who started 31 of 33 games, playing 33 minutes per contest. Jones attempted just 5.4 field goals per game, but scored eight points per and did a little bit of everything else for a methodical American team that was the slowest tempo squad in college basketball.
Jones pulled down 3.8 rebounds per game, had a team-best 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio, averaged a steal a game, and was American's third-best 3-point shooter by percentage. But anyone who watched Jones that year knew that even with advanced analytics becoming more available, his contributions went beyond the stat sheet. On a very undersized American team that played 6-5 Mark Vasic at center (and even Jones at the position sometimes), Jones battled players three or four inches taller often. He took almost every jump ball. He skied fearlessly for rebounds.
And he got a hand on everything.
"GIVE CHARLIE JONES A SCHOLARSHIP."
Sam began saying this on every podcast we aired. It seemed like a no-brainer. And yet as the season concluded with a heartbreaker in the Patriot League title game to Lafayette, there was uncertainty. No one we talked to — players, parents — knew what would happen. And if Jones somehow wasn't given what he deserved, he had every right to transfer and be an impact player somewhere else.
That was our worst fear.
Thankfully, the Eagles made the easy choice and gave Jones a scholarship before his junior season. He would stay at American and provide that steady presence that a very young Eagles team needed.
2015-16 started off brutally for AU. The Eagles went 2-9 in non-conference play and then things got even drearier as Patriot League play began. American dropped six straight league games by double digits, its losing streak reaching 10. All hope seemed lost. Mike Brennan spoke during his postgame press conferences about looking for answers, about trying anything.
Through it all, even while dealing with an ailing foot, Jones maintained an important veteran presence alongside seniors Jesse Reed and Marko Vasic. You could always count on Brennan to say that he knew what he would get from Jones. The quotes got repetitive, but they were never false. Jones was a bull on defense, third in the league in steal percentage (3.26). Jones was a beast on the boards, his 18.8% defensive rebounding rate 15th best in the league and No. 1 of anyone 6-4 or shorter. Jones' 2.62% block rate was 13th.
When American, out of the blue, got red hot late in the season — first winning five straight to get to 5-6 and then picking up another handful of consecutive victories to unexpectedly finish the league 9-9 and upset BU on the road in the Patriot League quarterfinals — Jones was in the thick of things.
Throughout his career, the only criticism of Jones has been that he passes up too many shots. And it's fair. But you can't say that he hasn't taken, and made, the big ones. In 2016, Jones hit at least one 3 in five of the Eagles' last six games. In an overtime win over Lafayette, he knocked down a game-tying 3 in the last minute of regulation and sealed the victory with a free throw in overtime. He also had a pivotal block. This, in a nutshell, is Charlie Jones.
Jones' senior season hasn't gone as planned. His performance hasn't fallen off, but the team has never gotten untracked. Now, with just three games left in the regular season, a late run of success for the Eagles seems increasingly unlikely. Still, the 6-foot-4 forward has done everything that endeared him to Eagles fans the previous three years.
American opponents won't miss him.
He still takes the opening tip, often against a player six inches taller. He still dives on the floor at least once a game (no one on American causes more jump balls). He still crashes the glass on both ends of the court (his 19.8% defensive rebounding rate is the best of his career, 11th in the league, and best of anyone 6-4 or shorter by a whopping 4.4%). And he still hesitates to shoot, but then takes and makes big ones (Jones' 3-point shooting percentage by year: 31%, 37%, 45%, 33%). Jones is shooting 67% on 2s, good for 30th nationally.
It's impossible to come close to listing all the non-box score plays Jones has made this year, or any of his four years, but we hope the video Sam put together (embedded above) does his contributions just a little justice.
And how about this for statistical evidence of how important Jones has been to the Eagles as his career nears its conclusion?
Charlie Jones has played a Patriot League-high 95.7% of available minutes in conference play. That's even more than teammate Sa'eed Nelson (95.2%), who for much of the season has been in the top five nationally in minutes per game.
Charlie Jones is important. Charlie Jones has always been important.
No one who's followed American the past four years would deny this.