The Middle Tennessee State basketball player with the most appearances on a highlight reel has perhaps the fewest words.

Shawn Jones, a chiseled 6-foot-8, 240-pound senior forward, is a high-flying, hard-dunking, shot-blocking play-maker matched by few in recent Blue Raiders history. But the story behind the makeup of the gentle giant is far more complicated and heart-wrenching than meets the eye.

“I keep everything bottled up inside me,” Jones said. “People say it’s not a good thing, but it’s how I am. I try to be humble. I don’t want people feeling sorry for me or bring extra attention to myself.”

Jones’ older brother, Joshua, died in a drowning accident when Shawn was 7. His father, Andrew, died about seven years later, leaving Shawn, then a 6-2 high school freshman, as the man of the house alongside his mother and little sister.

“It was hard and he was young, but he took on that role because he thought he needed to,” said Cynthia, Shawn’s mother. “He would sit down with me and talk about things and try to give me advice on what we should do in some situations. With Shawn, you have to pull things out of him. He’s so quiet. But I listened to his input, and a lot of times he was right about some things.”
Man of the house

Jones had to become a man before his time. But one of his greatest contributions to his family came from playing basketball. His prowess on the court helped the family move to a better area of Miami-Dade County, Fla.

His previous home was in Liberty City, a notoriously crime-ridden neighborhood in Miami that at the time touted a median household income of about $18,000, and only 9 percent of households had married parents.

Shawn’s father, a standout basketball player in his youth, eventually moved out after Joshua’s death. But when Shawn began developing into a talented player late in middle school, Hialeah High School coach Brian Palmer helped the remaining family locate to a safer area around Miami.

“When I would get kids to come to Hialeah High School through a magnet program or whatever, I would tell the parents that they can get their kids out of a tough middle school and into a better place,” Hialeah High coach Brian Palmer said. “I take care of them like they’re my own, and the parents don’t have to worry about their son getting involved in a gang fight or drugs or robbing or stealing or anything.

“So Shawn and his mom got out of there, and Shawn stayed out of trouble. To this day, I love to brag on Shawn because he came from a tough environment, but he turned out to be an outstanding young man, was a great player, and made the right choice going to Middle Tennessee.”

Cynthia moved out of Liberty City when Shawn was in eighth grade, and he enrolled in Hialeah High, where he became one of the best big men in South Florida’s high school hoops scene.

At home, he remained his mother’s constant companion, helper and protector.

“I got teased for being a mama’s boy, and I am perfectly fine with that,” Shawn said.

During his high school senior season, Jones averaged nearly a triple-double with 23.3 points, 14.3 rebounds and 9.1 blocks per game.

MTSU coach Kermit Davis was first introduced to Jones through a longtime coaching friend, former Florida International coach and Miami basketball guru Sergio Rouco. Jones’ raw athleticism was eye-catching, but Davis was especially attracted to the rigorous tutelage he received from Palmer, a stickler for teaching a well-rounded skill-set to post players.
Elite club

Jones was a valuable role player and crowd favorite for MTSU from day one, making ESPN’s “SportsCenter” Top 10 plays on numerous occasions with rim-rocking alley-oop dunks or one-handed jams over defenders.

But now a senior, he has grown into a well-rounded big man for the Blue Raiders. He still shows an array of eye-popping dunks — he has 43 dunks in 24 games this season — but last week, Jones became only the third player in MTSU history to record at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocks in his career, joining Warren Kidd (1990-93) and Lee Nosse (1997-00, 02).

Jones leads MTSU in scoring (15.2 ppg), rebounding (8.6), blocks (42) and field-goal percentage (59.7) this season. Heading into tonight’s home game against Tulane, Jones’ numbers in league games are even better, as he has become a viable candidate for player of the year in MTSU’s debut season in Conference USA.

Jones most appreciates the bond he has grown with teammates, something he often lacked back home.

“In my family situation, I didn’t have a lot of people. It was me, my sister and my mother,” Jones said. “So when I came up here, I grew a lot (of) bonds with my teammates. To this day, I still text teammates from my freshman year. I have a brotherhood here. I look up to some of them. Where I came from, there just wasn’t a lot of positive people to look up to, but I have them here. I have people that have made good decisions and taught me a lot. I can truly say Middle Tennessee has had a positive impact on my life.”
Opening up

Jones still pays no attention to his statistics, and his appearances on “SportsCenter” are only alerted to him via teammates or fans on Twitter (@Slim_J12).

Off the court, Jones still says little. Ink on his body tells his story more than he ever has.

Jones, a left-hander, has the names of his late brother and father etched in a tattoo on his left tricep. On his hands are inscribed “Humble” and “Hungry” — two traits for which Jones has been immensely blessed.

But Jones, who turns 22 in March, is steadily coming out of his shell. He finds humor in fellow students finally talking to him after years of keeping their distance from the reclusive basketball star. He admits keeping his guard up.

“I have a problem that I keep all my feelings to myself, so I don’t speak much,” Jones said. “I have a lot of bottled-up emotions inside me, and I keep them there. But once people get to know me, they’ll say, ‘I never knew you were like this.’ Once I get used to you, I’ll never shut up. It’s funny that it takes awhile.”