Two Years Removed from Duke Stardom, Tyus Jones Swimming in NBA 'Choppy Waters'

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IFebruary 22, 2017

Some analysts were skeptical of Tyus Jones' decision to declare for the 2015 NBA draft. This season, Jones is making the doubters think twice.
Some analysts were skeptical of Tyus Jones' decision to declare for the 2015 NBA draft. This season, Jones is making the doubters think twice.Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

Tyus Jones had his cellphone pressed to his ear on draft night in 2015just like every executive, agent and first-round prospect in basketball.

Flip Saunders was on the other end.

He offered some very good news: Jones, the darling of Duke's latest national championship team, was about to get drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 24th pick. But Saunders also had even better news: The Cavs were making the pick for him.

A trade was in the works, and Saunders was bringing the Minnesota native home to play for the Timberwolves.

"I already had a previous relationship with Flip," Jones said. "And being able to come back home and getting picked by my hometown team, it was just a surreal moment."

Through the most tragic of circumstances, Jones' taste of the unstable side of NBA life would soon take a terrible turn. In October, before Jones' rookie season had even begun, Saunders died of cancer at the age of 60.

The up-and-coming Wolves—a renaissance in the making forged by Saunders' steady hand—had to regroup, from the top of the organization all the way to the new kid from Apple Valley, Minnesota, less than 20 miles to the south.

"He wanted to bring me back home and have me be part of his team and part of his organization," Jones said. "That meant a lot to me, just because of him believing in me. It was definitely tough; not a situation you wish upon anybody."

The Wolves needed a new leader and hired former Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau as coach and president of basketball operations in 2016. Just like that, in less than a year, Jones' basketball world had spun off its axis.

From a star at Duke, in the bastion of stability in Durham, North Carolina, to NBA limbo before his career had even gotten off the ground.

The friend and mentor who'd acquired him on draft night was now gone, and there was a new sheriff in town—a grumpy, gravelly-voiced, take-no-prisoners sheriff.

"It's a great example of how nothing stays the same in the NBA," one rival executive told Bleacher Report. "He could still be at Duke, and everything would be very calm, stable and known. And he probably would've ended up in the first round whenever he left.

"Now," the executive said, "he's out in the choppy waters of the league."

NCAA national champion and first-round pick status hasn't guaranteed Tyus Jones anything on the Minnesota Timberwolves.
NCAA national champion and first-round pick status hasn't guaranteed Tyus Jones anything on the Minnesota Timberwolves.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The tide became more treacherous in June when Thibodeau's new regime used the No. 5 pick to select another point guard, Kris Dunn of Providence. Not only does Dunn play the same position, but he's the opposite of Jones. At 6'4", 210 pounds, he has at least two inches and almost 20 pounds on his smaller counterpart.

"I really didn't know what to think," Jones said. "I just decided to look at it as just another reason why I had to prove myself."

If nothing else, Jones has this going for him: Thibodeau is close with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski from their days together with USA Basketball.

"Because of that," one executive said, "Thibs will look out for him."

But as one personnel scout in the league pointed out, the point guards who've been successful under Thibodeau are built a lot more like Dunn than Jones: Rajon Rondo in Boston, Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich in Chicago. The lone exception, perhaps, would be Aaron Brooks.

"That's how you go from darling to brutal reality," one of the executives said. "What's going to become of Tyus Jones?"

Then came the persistent rumblings on the front-office grapevine that Thibodeau is open to trading starting point guard Ricky Rubio. While some within the Wolves hierarchy believe Dunn and Jones could at some point play together in the backcourt, there's a consensus among rival executives about who would be the clear heir apparent if Minnesota did, in fact, ship Rubio out.

"In any scenario that's not completely out of what the ordinary should be, Dunn is their future," another executive in the league said. "It couldn't be more clear-cut. You don't draft him there without that in mind."

Minnesota arrived at the All-Star break a mere 3.5 games out of the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference, and rival front offices are becoming more skeptical that Thibodeau will pull the trigger on a Rubio deal. One thing about Thibodeau: He has a visceral need to win games, and there's a feeling both inside and outside his organization that he lacks the patience to turn the team—and the season—over to an inexperienced point guard.

"It's not like Kris Dunn is knocking the door down," one of the rival executives said.

And there's this: One scout who has worked multiple Timberwolves games picked up on a sign of affection Thibodeau has for Rubio. He lets him call the majority of the plays, something he never did for Rose in Chicago.

"From a scout's perspective," he said, "that's a sign of respect in itself."

Even if the Wolves do trade Rubio, there's a belief among rival teams that it would signal Thibodeau's intention to pursue a veteran point guard in free agency, such as George Hill or even Rose himself—not that Dunn was ascending to the starting job.

And as the trade deadline approaches, reports have surfaced that Thibodeau already has his eyes on Rose as a trade target. "Thibs wants to do this," TNT's David Aldridge reported.

There are many scenarios, so many it makes the head spin. Yet they all have one thing in common: None bodes particularly well for Jones.

"He's in real limbo," one of the executives said.

One experienced scout already has Jones pigeonholed as a career backup. "If you wind up with D.J. Augustin," he said, "you've done pretty darn well."

Jones, 20, is just trying to manage whatever sliver of NBA life that's within his control. From all appearances, he's handling that job quite well.

One night over the summer, he let himself into the Wolves practice facility for some wee-hours shooting. It was 10:30, maybe 11 p.m. Suddenly, a balding, pot-bellied figure emerged; it was Thibodeau. They began to bond over hard work, something Thibodeau values like oxygen.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN -  JANUARY 9: Ricky Rubio #9, Tyus Jones #1, and Andrew Wiggins #22 of the Minnesota Timberwolves talk during the game against the Dallas Mavericks on January 9, 2017 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
David Sherman/Getty Images

"You don't really expect anyone to be in there at that hour," Jones said. "But Coach was in there. And he was working."

So was Jones. Don't think Thibodeau didn't notice.

That's why, as much as the deck seems to be stacked against Jones, things can always change. He's clearly endeared himself to the new boss, receiving copious minutes early in the season when Rubio was injured and before the break when Dunn was out with a hand injury.

The minutes are now coming in games that mean something, as opposed to those summer league tilts when rival executives say Thibodeau was clearly showcasing Jones and Adreian Payne—both acquired by Saunders.

"Thibs was hoping like hell someone would see something they liked and trade for them," a rival scout said. "If they could've gotten a second-round pick, they probably would've taken it."

So there you have it: your welcome-to-the-NBA moment for Tyus Jones. Once you get here, you're no longer the star of the NCAA tournament or the darling of Durham. Nine times out of 10, you're somebody else's asset, inherited by the guy who came next.

"That's something that everyone deals with at some point in their career," Jones said. "… I just decided to look at it as just another reason why I had to prove myself."

Read into it what you will, but as I spoke on the phone with Jones this weekend—All-Star Weekend—he was back in Durham, attending Duke's game against Wake Forest.

He speaks almost daily with his best friend and former teammate, Jahlil Okafor—who is experiencing NBA instability of the same kind, but of a greater magnitude. Okafor was the third pick in 2015 for Sam Hinkie's 76ers; now, new boss Bryan Colangelo is shopping him everywhere. Hinkie's perpetual asset collection led to duplication with Okafor and a finally healthy Joel Embiid, and now someone has to go.

"That's going to happen at some point in your career no matter who you are," Jones said. "There's only a select few who don't have to deal with that. It comes with the territory, and I think he's handling it great—staying ready, staying prepared and letting the rest take care of itself."

That's all Jones can do. As it turns out, he's developed a close friendship with his fiercest competitor for playing time. He and Dunn have made a natural connection, bonding over their common goal of executing Thibodeau's orders as best they can.

When one comes out of the game, the other gives an instant scouting report—what the defense is doing and how to counter it.

"I just want to get to that point one day where I can look back and see how far I've come as a point guard and as a player," Jones said. "And at the end of the day, I want to be a champion. The most important thing to me is winning."

Even for a first-round pick and national champion—even for the darling of Durham—the quest to replicate that in the NBA is, shall we say, complicated.

                                               

Ken Berger is a national NBA columnist who has covered the league since 1996 with the Associated Press, Newsday and CBSSports.com. His award-winning work has been honored in Best American Sports Writing, and he's co-hosted Eye on Basketball on CBS Sports Radio since 2013. Connect with Ken on Twitter (@KBergNBA) or Facebook (@kenbergernba).