Photo: Tre Jones
For all Cameron Indoor Stadium’s charm on television, it’s not a modern grandiose palace with plush accommodations tucked away from the masses. The hallway to the locker room is a few steps down the door from the very modest media room.
I happened to be standing in the doorway after the second of Duke’s two exhibition routs, this one against NCAA Division II defending champion Ferris State, 132-48.
Tre Jones, the least-heralded of the four Duke freshmen, was the first off the floor as he trotted past me. He’s the younger brother of Tyus Jones, who was the glue to Duke’s 2015 NCAA title despite being the third first-round pick of that season's edition of Blue Devils one-and-done players.
“You looked just like your brother,” I told him, referencing his all-around play that was more about setting up others than grabbing his own attention.
He turned his head to me, smiled and nodded, saying, “Thanks ... thanks a lot.”
If there were any doubts he was worried about lighting his own identity from his brother’s shadow, that response was an affirmative no. On a night attention was focused on Zion Williamson's dunks and 23 points, R.J. Barrett's 32 and Cam Reddish's 20, Jones was content to facilitate with nine assists and five steals to go with eight points. This kid knows who he is.
Duke winning NCAA titles is about keeping up with the Joneses.
Duke doesn’t win the 2015 title without Tyus Jones. Not only was he the team’s glue, he hit such a pressure-packed jumper in the final moments to essentially clinch the championship win over Wisconsin, when the Blue Devils visited the White House, President Obama shook his head in admiration, calling him, “Tyus Stones.”
Tyus Jones' value was an underrated on Duke's title team until championship night, but we're learning Tre Jones' value much earlier. He’s the most important player on Duke’s roster, even fellow freshmen R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish end up going some mix of 1-2-3 in the NBA draft as Duke’s 2019 one-done-class.
That was becoming clearer as the season progressed. There is no doubt after he was knocked out of the Syracuse-Duke game on Tuesday with a shoulder injury after his steal led to a collision.
At the time, Duke 14-6 with 14:24 remaining in the first half. Jones already had two points, two assists and four steals in six minutes. Without Jones, unranked Syracuse beat Duke 95-91 in overtime. It was the first time and team not named North Carolina beat Duke at home as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team.dd
Suddenly, Duke’s two November exhibition routs and 118-84 dismantling of Kentucky, college basketball’s other NBA combine team, seem to have taken place a season ago – not two months.
All that talk about position-less basketball and watching Barrett and Williamson smoothly handle the point guard duties when Jones needed a rest fooled us.
Think back to the 2015 Blue Devils winning the NCAA title with the No. 3 pick, one-and-done Jahlil Okafor'; No. 10 pick, one-and-done Justise Winslow; and Tyus Jones, the No. 24 one-and-done.
The 2019 Blue Devils appear to have much more talent, plus the younger brother of Tyus Jones, who appears to be a superior version with his defense and similar style of selfless play. The highlight dunks of Williamson and the sight of Barrett and Williamson handling the ball like point guards at times suggested Duke was unbeatable. Then the Blue Devils lost in the Maui Classic to Gonzaga when Barrett forced one drive to the basket too many in the final moments. He was blocked.
No matter how much talent a team possesses, there has to be a glue guy in crunch time. Don't let highlights fool you into forgetting that. Jones entered the game second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 5.93, but more than stats he has uncanny play-making ability to pass the glue guy eye test.
Against Gonzaga, Duke didn’t have Jones feeding the ball to the open man. Barrett forced a drive. It didn’t have a guy with the ball looking for Jones once as an outlet once he didn’t have a shot.
That was the situation when Tyus Jones beat Wisconsin. No one else had a shot when he hit a three-pointer for a 66-58 lead with 42 seconds left. Wisconsin’s hole was too deep. Later, with the ball in Jones’ hands, he was fouled and hit two free throws for a 68-63 that finished the night’s scoring.
Tre Jones is out for an indefinite time with an injury later diagnosed as a separated AC joint.
Duke (14-2, 3-1 ACC) missed Jones against Syracuse. The Blue Devils figure to miss him more when they try to avoid a second straight loss without him on Saturday at No. 4-ranked Virginia (16-0, 4-0 ACC). The Cavaliers are rolling with the ball movement of junior point guard Kyle Guy. A championship team needs a guy like that healthy.
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.