Finding a pickup game on the recreation courts at the University of Iowa was never a problem last semester, but it wasn’t the same.
Jalen Jones wanted more.
He wanted to be part of a team working toward goals beyond becoming a noon ball hero.
He wanted to feel the energy of a crowd again as he knocked down a big shot or grabbed a critical rebound.
Playing competitive basketball for the first time since his senior season at Clinton High School in 2014, Jones has found what he was looking for as the newest member of the men’s basketball team at St. Ambrose University.
He joined the Fighting Bees over the holiday break and has led St. Ambrose in scoring in four of the five games he has played for the NAIA program.
“If it was going to happen, it was going to happen now or it was never going to happen,’’ the 22-year-old sophomore said. “It feels good to be part of a team again.’’
It’s been quite a journey for Jones, who initially signed a letter of intent to play at Nebraska-Omaha.
He left the NCAA Division I program before ever beginning classes, returning home to Clinton.
“Things just didn’t feel right there. I was a long ways from home. It wasn’t the right time or place for me,’’ Jones said. “I know I could have played there, but it was timing as much as anything.’’
Jones enrolled at Kirkwood Community College, but did not play basketball there, and took classes over the past two years at Clinton Community College before enrolling at Iowa last fall.
It was there where he realized that he wanted something more.
“I missed the competitiveness, the team atmosphere,’’ Jones said. “There was decent competition at the Field House and the rec center, but it wasn’t the same. Halfway through the semester, I knew I wanted more. I wanted to get back at it and I wanted to find someplace to go play.’’
It took some time for Jones to embrace a return to the game.
“I went back and forth with it a couple of times, but this is what I want to do,’’ Jones said. “I missed the game. It’s always been a big part of who I am and I’m glad to be back on the court now.’’
Jones didn’t lack opportunities before selecting St. Ambrose.
Fighting Bees coach Ray Shovlain attempted to recruit Jones in high school and reached out to him on several occasions after he returned home from Omaha in the summer of 2014.
“I’m glad he finally said ‘Yes.’ He’s a good fit with our program. He’s close to home and family, and I think he’ll have a chance to work on his athletic skills here,’’ Shovlain said.
“He’s a gifted player. He always has had unbelievable versatility, a player who can play almost anywhere on the floor. He’s a good ballhandler, a good shooter and rebounder, and he is going to help us in a lot of ways.’’
Shovlain wasn’t alone in attempting to bring Jones back to basketball.
Jones said coaches from Augustana and Clarke were interested in him as well over the past seasons and once he began looking for an opportunity last fall, Clarke and Grand View joined St. Ambrose in offering the versatile 6-foot-6 player an opportunity.
Family members and his coaches at Clinton encouraged Jones to return to the game and to continue working toward his degree.
“St. Ambrose is a good fit for me, close to home so my family and friends can come to the games, and academically it is giving me a good chance to complete my degree,’’ Jones said. “It’s everything I was looking for and it’s a good situation for me.’’
A mathematics major, Jones is a junior academically but is regarded as a sophomore from an eligibility standpoint.
That gives him two-plus seasons to continue to work and refine his game.
“I can create some mismatches with my length and ballhandling and that is part of what my role is on this team, to help put us in a position to win games,’’ Jones said. “Ultimately, I would still like to play professionally once my college career is over and I feel like St. Ambrose can help me get there.’’
In his initial games with the Fighting Bees, Jones has found the competition to be good and appreciates the way his teammates have helped him adjust to his return to action.
Through five games, Jones has averaged 17.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while shooting 58.7 percent from the field. He has also dished out seven assists and recorded seven steals for St. Ambrose.
“The guys on the team here have been great, helping me get back into it and I can’t say enough about how they’ve helped me,’’ Jones said. “There’s some good young players on this team and I’m looking forward to working with them the next few years.’’
But first, Jones had to get back into game shape.
That started with a lot of running, all designed to help him get his “basketball lungs’’ back.
“I’m seeing areas where I need to get better, too, and that’s good. That’s what this is about,’’ Jones said. “I've got to get used to getting back in defensive stances, work on my defensive angles and get more consistent shooting free throws. Mostly, I’m just trying to get back in the flow.’’
He doesn’t mind any of it one bit.
“It’s good to be playing the game again,’’ Jones said. “I’ve missed it a lot. It just feels great to be back out there helping a team win.’’