It was a defeat, that happens, but Jonathan Jean showed what making a life as a pro is all about in a fascinating opening night performance for UCD Marian. Emmet Ryan on the diminutive guard and the role of the import in Europe’s lesser followed leagues
Four days. That’s how much notice Jonathan Jean had that he’d be running the point for a team that was a mix of kids, new vets, and whatever else coach Ioannis Liapakis could cobble together in his return to the sideline as UCD Marian head coach. On the upside, Jean had played for this side the previous season, and probably knew the youngsters Liapakis was trying to mould better than the veteran Greek coach did.
A couple of years before the pandemic, Liapakis ended a 40 year wait to bring a national championship to the club. Not one player from that roster remains barely four years on from that historic 71-70 win over Killester in the National Basketball Arena. The opponent was familiar but Liapakis would have known the players against him on this night more than the roster at his own disposal.
That’s the situation Jonathan Jean was brought in to not just aid but lead. He fits every stereotype of an undersized D2 guard from NCAA ball that’s over in Europe making a life. His confidence is beyond question, to a fault as there’s not a shot he doesn’t believe he can and will make. Every opposing pass is there to be intercepted and every one of his team mates is always open, whether they know it or not.
Jean wears 5 for UCD but wore 0 while playing with Lenoir-Rhyne, the go to option of every baller who believes they have been under rated or disrespected. It’s an old trope but one that seems to work, at least in reinforcing the unflappable self-belief required by a player in this role.
Jean is 26 and in his fourth pro season, he knows what the job of a player in his shoes is but it has never been quite as blatant before in his short career. The core that Liapakis is trying to bring through is built from the all-conquering U20 side the club had a year ago, going 29-0 and winning all four championships on offer.
Here he was with essentially some kids and a few veterans that had been brought in trying to be the gel that smoothed over all the obviously rough edges on a side that, with a championship still fresh in the memory, has to seriously think about battling relegation this season. It’s the job, time to get on with it.
After his outfit took a pounding in the first quarter, the role of Jean became more apparent as the first half wore on. There was no question that his job was to be more than a pure point guard or even a scoring PG at that, he was there to make the rest of the bodies around him feed off that unshakeable confidence and keep this side in the fight.
More tight games, more chances at picking up unlikely Ws. The more Jean can make a side believe they’re still in the fight, the more of those situations they will land in and potentially avoid some nervy moments in around six months.
By the half, Jean had carried the side to back within 4 points of their visitors and he was starting to bring a surprisingly full crowd into the game. With his main dance partner, Paul Dick, back from injury to start the second half there was a real battle to watch. Killester’s Dick is well travelled in the sport and has both the brains and the skill to ensure an interesting PG duel whenever he’s on the floor.
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Jean, of course, was not worrying about who was against him. A high volume shooter may be a dinosaur in other basketball locales but it’s exactly what was required of Liapakis. That belief meant that his relative inefficiency from the field was a net benefit in terms of firing up the aggression in those around him.
Jean was also making enough to more than compensate. A crossover followed by a made jumper led to him staring down the Killester bench during a run he got going to fire things up in the third. Then came a steal, time to go full hero ball and a three off the break to give his side their first lead since awfully early in the game.
The dimes were coming too as Jean’s efforts were clearly having an impact on his team mates, with even the previously stone faced Sergio Ires Fernandez getting fired up by the 5’10” (definitely a listed height) guard.
His side still trailing early in the fourth, Jean drove and flipped it out to Matthew McGrath for the three. Right after Killester responded, Jean was there with the steal and score to lead again.
Amidst all the energy of Jean’s performance, one of the best bank shots I’ve ever seen was made by Dick. The Killester guard couldn’t have measured the angle on the bank better if he had PhDs in engineering, maths, and trigonometry for the score. Splendid doesn’t cover it, it was a live science demonstration almost ignored by the masses amidst the excitement.
Dick was there to fight and a solid slap of the ball out of Jean’s hands led to both chasing it down and diving hard, neither succeeding in reclaiming it as it rolled out harmlessly for possession to go back to UCD but a sign of the fight expected by those in the lead roles in this league.
The 300 or so in the full UCD Sports Centre would go home disappointed as Dick closed out a narrow 84-82 win for Killester from the line. There was 0.1 of a second left as Dick deliberately missed his second, not remotely enough to get a shot off but that didn’t stop Jean trying to go with a hail Mary three attempt. The buzzer had clearly gone and shot wasn’t close but that didn’t matter. Until he was told the game was done, Jean was going to keep fighting.
That’s the job, to keep the fight in those around him until they simply run out of time. Do that, and Jean’s earned his crust. He knows it, he lives it, and it was a defeat but one where he showed his side that it may not have been. That’s what Liapakis needs, that’s what those kids need, and that’s what Jean delivered. It was a L on Saturday but Liapakis came out more confident of Ws to follow and that’s what it’s about on the fringes here.