Xavier Basketball: Rising junior Colby Jones is the next star ready to lead the Musketeers

Xavier’s second Sean Miller era is about to begin. Rising junior Colby Jones is among the Musketeers’ returning core, and he has a high probability of a breakout campaign in 2022-23.

Xavier basketball is ushering in a new era. Out with Travis Steele as head coach, in with Sean Miller. (Wait, again? Yes, again.) Coach Miller is entering his second stint with the Musketeers, having previously guided the program for five years in the mid-2000s. He achieved a 120-47 record during that stretch and made four NCAA Tournament appearances. His string of success led to the head coaching job at Arizona, where he won three Pac-12 Coach of the Year awards.

Now back at the helm of Xavier, expectations are high for his first season. Not only does Miller carry a strong track record of success, but he also has a good roster in Year 1 (or Year 6, depending on your perspective). The Musketeers return All-Big East Honorable Mention big man Jack Nunge to be one of the team’s leaders this season along with former All-Conference forward Zach Freemantle, who struggled with injuries last season. Coach Miller added guard Souley Boum, who averaged 19.8 points per game at UTEP last season, via the transfer portal.

Perhaps the most important player on the roster, though, is Colby Jones.

Jones flew a bit under-the-radar last season as a breakout performer in the Big East. He increased his averages across the board and could be set for another leap heading into his junior year. Uniquely skilled as a scorer, rebounder and playmaker, Jones simply does so much well for the Musketeers.

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Xavier is already garnering some hype as a fringe top-25 team next year. Jones is the type of player who might be teetering on breaking into stardom and propelling Xavier to exceeding those expectations. With only three first- or second-team All-Big East players returning from last season, the door is open for several breakout stars to ascend in 2022-23 — including Colby Jones.

Let’s a dive deeper into his game and determine how he could blossom into an all-conference performer.

A hot finish ignites optimism

Colby Jones entered this past season fresh off being named to the Big East’s All-Freshman team in 2020-21. His baseline skill was already high, particularly as one of the better rebounding guards in the nation. As a result, it did not take anyone by surprise when he immediately started posting double-digit scoring outings to begin his sophomore season. While he did experience a dip in production during the beginning of Big East play, Jones turned on the jets over the final 11 games.

Jones reached double figures in each of those final 11 contests, including all five games of the NIT. He averaged 14.8 points per game on 55.6 percent shooting in the NIT, en route to winning the event’s MVP award. He increased his scoring output in each of the five games, culminating with a season-high 21 points in the Musketeers’ one-point championship victory over Texas A&M.

Overall, Jones averaged 14.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.8 assists for the final 11 games of Xavier’s season. The NIT stretch is particularly important for determining a possible breakout because his improved numbers also correlated with team success. Xavier lost eight of its final ten pre-tournament games, and it led to missing the Big Dance. The NIT, though, saw Xavier string together five consecutive wins. Jones recorded three of his nine 15-point scoring games at the event; on the whole, the Musketeers went 8-1 in games when Jones reached that threshold.

If the way he closed 2021-22 is any indication, the percentage of games in which he reaches 15-plus points is set to increase during his upcoming junior year. Add in his impressive rebounding and playmaking, and an all-conference season might be on the horizon.

The NIT matters

The NIT is not a headlining event in the college basketball landscape. I get it. For many programs – Xavier included – seasons are defined by reaching the NCAA Tournament or not. As a result, it is easy to gloss over Colby Jones’ performances throughout the event instead of recognizing them as signs of a possible breakout. 

Yet, while NIT performances do not receive a ton of attention at the time, they can be important for projecting future successes. In fact, many of the recent NIT MVP winners were able to use that platform to launch into another breakout the following season (assuming they returned to college). 

That jump did not come for 2021 winner Landers Nolley, but it did for the three prior winners who returned to school. Penn State’s Lamar Stevens, who won the award in 2018, is a prime example. The 6-8 forward was already a strong performer when the Nittany Lions won the NIT during his sophomore year. He then proceeded to return to Happy Valley and turn in back-to-back All-Big Ten seasons. He has since played over 100 career games in the NBA.

Kenrich Williams also returned to school after winning NIT MVP with TCU. He followed up his strong postseason with an All-Big 12 season in which he increased his scoring average and shooting efficiency. He parlayed that post-NIT breakout campaign into 200 NBA appearances. Tyler Cavanaugh won the season before Williams and followed up his award with a second-consecutive All-A10 season before playing some in the NBA.

Some recent NIT MVP winners who did not return to school immediately made the jump to the next level. Chasson Randle (2015) and Pierre Jackson (2013) both went on to play professionally and made NBA appearances.

Next steps for Jones to reach stardom

Colby Jones finished as Xavier’s third-leading scorer last season behind Jack Nunge and Paul Scruggs. Yet, he ranked only sixth among Xavier’s eight rotation players in usage rate at 18.8 percent. That number is bound to skyrocket for Jones’ junior season, particularly following the graduation of Scruggs and his team-high 22.9 percent usage rate. Dwon Odom and Nate Johnson are also gone.

Incoming transfer Souley Boum will help offset those departures, but Jones is the one primed to be the viable second star next to Nunge. Jones already averaged 33.5 minutes per game last season and will presumably continue to shoulder an even larger number of minutes. The necessary jump for him will be to increase his offensive role – particularly as a self-creator – while maintaining or improving his current efficiency (55.6 true shooting percentage).

The now-departed Scruggs led Xavier in both assists and self-created scoring last season; 75 percent of his made field goals were unassisted. Jack Nunge, on the other hand, is a play-finisher rather than a creator. Jones and Boum – among others – will thus need to step into roles where they can create buckets for themselves as well as feed Nunge.

Jones has already displayed strong playmaking chops, finishing in the 92nd percentile for assist rate among 6-6 or taller players. However, scoring more often off-the-dribble would be a huge development. Creating a balance between creation and off-ball movement will be important for Jones. He is an elite cutter and should keep utilizing that strength in addition to more on-ball usage.

An improvement as a shooter would also help. He is a career 30.3 percent on 3-pointers and 69.6 percent at the free throw line. Given his elite free throw rate (ranked 100th-best nationally last season), improving his stroke from the stripe would be significant.

Jones is already rock-solid; upping his usage is the next step to stardom.

What might a Jones breakout mean?

A breakout season from Colby Jones would have a two-fold impact. First and foremost, he has the potential to significantly increase Xavier’s ceiling — not just as a possible NCAA Tournament team, but as a unit that could contend at the top of the Big East. Jones developing into a more high-usage scorer and creator would significantly clear up those weaknesses for Xavier following Scruggs’ graduation. 

Elite offenses guided many of Sean Miller’s best teams at Arizona. The same emphasis on efficient scoring will likely continue. Xavier ranked 37th in adjusted offensive efficiency last season, but replacing Scruggs’ creation will be a challenge. Jones is a prime target to take a leap into leading the Musketeers in both scoring and playmaking.

In addition to the simple effect of improving Xavier’s ceiling in 2022-23, a breakout season could also yield significant professional interest. Jones is already a big guard who rebounds exceptionally well for his position. Considering his secondary playmaking as well, improving as a scorer – especially from 3-point range – could bring scouts to the Cintas Center.

The Big East projects as one of the deepest leagues in the country next season. The vast majority of the conference appears poised to contend for NCAA Tournament bids. As a result, the stage for Jones’ potential breakout will be significant; making a leap could lead to more team and individual attention.