Take a talented 6-7 athlete with a pure shooting stroke, add hard work and determination, sprinkle in a new mindset and a few fortuitous breaks and what emerges is the feel-good story of the men’s basketball team. After spending his first three years at Cornell mired on the bench –– he played just over 100 minutes total during the three seasons –– senior tri-captain Jon Jaques has perfected that formula. Seemingly out of nowhere, Jaques has emerged as a starter and vital cog on a Red basketball team that has taken the Ivy League –– and the nation –– by storm.
“It’s the most amazing situation I’ve ever coached where someone who’s deep on your bench, not only becomes an integral part of your team, but [becomes] a kid who makes you substantially better,” said head coach Steve Donahue. “I give [Jaques] a whole lot of credit for the three years that he worked so that, if this opportunity came, he was ready.”
While Jaques deserves a great deal of the credit for his transformation as a player, partial credit also goes to Donahue, who brought in sports psychologist Joe Dowling to speak with his team about some of the mental aspects of the sport.
“[Dowling] came in and talked to us about the importance of forgetting the last play –– whether it was good or bad –– and moving on to the next one as a fresh start. That kind of hit home with me,” Jaques said. “I’ve always been my biggest critic. That’s probably been one of the reasons I’ve not had a lot of confidence in the past.”
Thanks in part to Dowling, Jaques learned to relax as a player and maintain confidence in his game even after a mistake. With the improved attitude, Jaques’ game began to flourish.
However, the Red only began to fully make use of its sharp-shooting forward as the result of what seemed like a bit of misfortune. Senior tri-captain Alex Tyler, who has been a major contributor for the Red since his freshman season, suffered a series of minor injuries that have combined to limit his effectiveness this season. As a result, there was a void created in Cornell’s rotation at power forward.
While Jaques fits the mold of a traditional small forward, there has been a trend throughout basketball in recent seasons where more and more teams are utilizing “stretch-4s,” a term that refers to power forwards who are less physical than the prototypical player at that position, but provide value in their ability to “stretch” defenses with their outside shooting. The most famous example is Dirk Nowitzki, but NBA players like Antawn Jamison, Rashard Lewis, Troy Murphy, Andrea Bargnani and Charlie Villanueva also fit the mold. Jaques is the Ivy League version of that type of player. Donahue saw the opportunity to remake his lineup in Tyler’s absence, and did so by inserting Jaques into the rotation.
In late November, Jaques played 15 minutes in a close win over Drexel. Two games later, he had a coming out party in his first start, during which he scored a then-career-high 15 points in an impressive Cornell win over Saint Joseph’s.
One week after that, Jaques connected on five-of-six 3-pointers to lead Cornell with 20 points in an exciting win over St. John's, a Big East squad that had only lost to Duke before facing Cornell. That game concluded a three-game stretch where Jacques averaged 13.7 points per game –– a somewhat shocking output from a player who had previously never scored 13 points in an entire season.
“The biggest improvement in my game is my individual confidence,” Jaques said. “You can be as talented as you want, but if you don’t have the confidence to go out there and perform in a game, you’re going to struggle a little bit. When you’re not playing during games, you struggle with your confidence a little bit. Once I realized I was in the rotation, my confidence just grew and has taken off from there.”
That confidence was lacking for Jaques during the early part of his tenure at Cornell, when he rarely saw game action. While Jaques claims he never seriously considered quitting the team, he says the thought often crossed his mind when he was discouraged by a lack of playing time. His coaches and teammates helped him through the tough times.
“Every year, one of the coaches would say, ‘We realize you’re working hard and just keep your head up,’” Jaques said.
Jaques’ perseverance has been hugely beneficial for the Red this season. Cornell is 23-2 since Jaques began to see significant playing time, and it’s unlikely the team would have defeated St. John’s without him.
“He’s just a good pick-and-pop guy, someone who gets after it defensively, and he’s really helped us stretch the defense,” said senior guard Louis Dale. “When we throw the ball into Foote, we’ve got four shooters on the court now.”
Jaques is hoping to add a Hollywood-worthy ending to his storybook season. A win in the upcoming NCAA tournament would do just that, but Jaques is trying not to put too much pressure on himself –– an outlook of which Dowling would surely approve.
“You can’t control whether you’re going to shoot well every game or if you’re making the right decisions because everyone screws up,” Jaques said. “You can control how hard you’re working and how well you’re playing defense by diving for loose balls, rebounding and making hustle plays.”
That sounds like another formula for Cornell success.