Originally posted on Fox Sports Midwest  |  Last updated 3/10/12
KANSAS CITY, Mo. The maligned star raised his left index finger toward the neon T-shirts in the crowd, his emergence marking Baylor's own. Bears sophomore forward Perry Jones III has been called soft. He has been called immature. And he has been called an unfulfilled player who is capable of so much more. But Friday, he walked off the court at the Sprint Center after an 81-72 victory over third-ranked Kansas in a semifinal of the Big 12 tournament worthy of another label: A rising talent who is playing his best basketball at the best possible time. For the second consecutive day, he willed the Bears to advance by scoring a team-high 18 points on a night when some expected Jones and Baylor to collapse against a top conference opponent. Not this time. Not with a team that is sometimes viewed as soft, immature and unfulfilled growing up in the week before Selection Sunday. "All criticism is good criticism," Jones told FOXSports.com. "Obviously, there must be something you are doing right if they say negative things about you. Some games, I underachieved. People just wanted me to be that type of player who had 30 points a game. I have a whole team that can score. Just being unselfish on the floor it's a good time to be unselfish." And it's a good time to be Jones. The Big 12 tournament has become a coming-out of sorts for the 6-foot-11, 235-pound Duncanville, Texas, native and his team. Yes, this is a different Baylor squad. It's a strong group that has played to its potential in ways against fifth-seeded Kansas State and top-seeded Kansas that were unseen during the regular season. It's a skilled collection of talent that makes a Big 12 tournament title and Final Four berth seem possible. As Jones goes, so will Baylor. And Jones can take the Bears far. "I'm just being confident because of my teammates," he said. "I'm trying my best to be as dominant as I can for my teammates. They said they need me the most right now. They tell me that without me, we're going to go back to Waco. They don't want to go back to Waco. They want to play." So does he. Despite Jones' quiet, unselfish demeanor, teammates have told him to be more selfish this month. He has responded by playing with aggression the past two days. On Thursday, he scored a career-high 31 points on 11-of-14 shooting against the Wildcats. And Friday, he was one of six Bears players with double-figure scoring and provided Baylor's offensive spark. Jones did so early against the favored Jayhawks, the Big 12 regular-season champions for the eighth consecutive year. With 10:36 left in the first half, he gripped an alley-oop pass from junior guard Pierre Jackson and threw down a strong slam dunk as Kansas sophomore forward Justin Wesley fouled him. Not far away, Baylor junior guard A.J. Walton watched the action unfold and thought, "Oh yeah, P Jones. You're here." At that point, Walton knew his teammate would follow a career-best day with more memorable play. "We expect him to take 12 to 15 shots plus that and just be a monster on the boards," said Walton, who finished with 12 points. "That's what he's doing. We know what he can do. We know what he's capable of doing. It's just on him to come out there and do it." If Jones continues to grow this month, there is no reason to think Baylor can't beat top-seeded Missouri on Saturday for the Big 12 tournament title and go far in the NCAA tourney. He represents the Bears' promise more than any other player. The past two days have shown how dangerous his team can be when he plays to his potential. "He has been taking heat all year for underperforming," said Baylor sophomore guard Brady Heslip, who finished with 12 points. "But I think he has been doing fine. I think he wants to prove people wrong and show that he is the player people think he is." But Jones' growth is a process. Inexperience means inconsistency, and his track record against the Big 12's best this season showed he had room to improve. He had 18 points in a loss to Kansas on Jan. 16, but he was held to five when falling to the Jayhawks on Feb. 8. He had eight points in a loss to Missouri on Jan. 21, and he was held to four when falling to the Tigers on Feb. 11. Those totals were used as evidence of Jones' weakness. They revealed that he had the look of an elite talent perhaps someone who could become one of the nation's best inside presences one day. But before this week, he was viewed as a player who wasn't ready to become what he could be. "With youth, you get inexperience," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "You get inconsistency. But at the same time, they get better with age. He's playing his best basketball at the end of the year. He's playing for his team. Perry's biggest strength is he is a great teammate. For his team, he'll do anything." Jones did everything to help the Bears clinch their second Big 12 tournament championship game berth. Like his team, he has grown this week. What better time to do so than now?
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