Duke's Tyus Jones Was Born to Play in the Final Four

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterApril 3, 2015

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HOUSTON — Ten minutes into Tyus Jones' high school career, Tubby Smith was knocking on the door to see him.

"I think the word was out what an incredible ballplayer he was then," said Zach Goring, Jones' coach at Apple Valley High in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul. And so Smith, then coach at Minnesota, had come unannounced to see it for himself.

What he saw was a point guard who would go on to average 16.8 points and 8.1 assists that season. A prodigy almost every college coach in the country would eventually be after. Minnesota's basketball version of Paul Bunyan.

And here's the crazy part: Because the state of Minnesota doesn't require a high school varsity player to be in high school, the player Smith saw that day was an eighth-grader, a kid with two years left before he could get his driver's license.

Mar 29, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Tyus Jones (5) reacts after scoring during the game against the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the finals of the south regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODA
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Six years later, Jones is once again a kid playing on a big stage. An 18-year-old freshman at Duke, he is trying to become only the second freshman starting point guard to win a national championship, starting with Saturday's Final Four matchup against Michigan State and 22-year-old counterpart Travis Trice.

But don't expect Jones to show any inexperience on the big stage. He's been in the spotlight for six years now. 

"The five years he was here we consistently played in front of full gyms," Goring said. "Wherever he went, there was a big crowd. We'd play in events where there's games in front of us and three games before we would even play, the stands are packed just because they want a chance to watch Tyus play. 

"He's used to that. He's always risen to the occasion." 

Jones has been so good in marquee games this year that his teammates have taken to calling him Tyus Stones, a nickname they saw on Twitter after he buried a dagger three to put away then-No. 2 Virginia on Jan. 31.

"The bigger the moment," teammate Grayson Allen said, "the better he plays." 

The numbers match the moniker. 

Jones, who once made 18 of 18 free-throw attempts in a state championship game at Apple Valley, scored 22 points this season in an early-December win at potential finals opponent Wisconsin; and he averaged 16.2 points against opponents that ended up with a No. 7 seed or better, with most (65.7 percent) of those points coming after halftime. 

"Tyus never gets rattled. Never gets shook. Never gets too excited. Too high. Too low," his mother, Debbie, said. "He just knows when and how to step up and make it happen. If a bucket is needed or a big play is needed, he just finds a way. He's been doing that at every level." 

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The tenor from the Blue Devils' locker room last Sunday night as they celebrated a berth to the Final Four was that they got there because no one cared who got the credit or the numbers.

"Each guy in this locker room is in it for the right reasons," Jones said. "No one is in it for themselves. We all want to win a championship."

It's typical cliche sports jargon, but there's a sincerity in Jones' words, and he wouldn't be at Duke if he hadn't thought he was coming to a team where everyone was willing to play the right way.

When Mike Krzyzewski recruited Jones, it was clear he would come in right away and be the team's starting point guard. That could have been an awkward spot, considering the guy who had been the starting point guard the past two years, Quinn Cook, would be back as a senior. 

But Cook wasn't just willing to step aside; he was also on the front line recruiting Jones.

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

"I wanted him to come here, and he knew that," Cook said. "Everybody outside of the program was trying to make us enemies, and blah, blah, blah. That kind of made us closer."

Cook's move to shooting guard has allowed him to play the best basketball of his career—he's averaging a career-best 15.5 points and shooting 40.1 percent from deep—and that's not uncommon for anyone playing next to Jones.

"The thing with Tyus that all the guys like is he shares the basketball," Goring said. "He's not a me-first, I'm going to shoot every time I touch it. He gets everyone the ball and shares the ball, so all the kids who have played with him have benefited from his passing ability and his basketball IQ. He's able to put them in spots where they can be successful."

Duke has the technology to track how unselfish Jones is, beyond the basic numbers (5.7 assists per game). According to numbers the school provided, which were tracked by SportVU—a computer program that uses cameras above the court to track every movement on the floor—Jones averaged 73 passes per game in the 25 games played in venues with the software. If you add hockey assists—the pass that leads to the assist—and free-throw assists, his assists per game go up to 7.9.

Coach K trusts Jones so much that often instead of calling a play late in close games, he's simply told one of his big guys to set a ball screen for Jones and let him go to work.

"Coach has the ultimate confidence in him," assistant coach Jon Scheyer said. "That's from Day 1. I think you saw that in the Wisconsin game and saw it in a lot of games, but especially the big ones this whole year."

The numbers, again, suggest giving Jones so much freedom is a smart move. He scores 1.145 points per possession using ball screens, which ranks seventh nationally (minimum 50 possessions), according to Synergy Sports.

"From a basketball standpoint, he's years ahead of his age in terms of how he understands the game and how he sees the court," Kevin Cullen, Duke's basketball director of information technology, said.

Those were the same thoughts Goring had when he coached Jones as an eighth-grader. Jones did things that made the game easier for his teammates—he'd keep his dribble alive a bounce or two more in transition to wait until his big man was in position to just have to catch and finish at the rim. He'd pull a defender off a shooter and hit his teammate perfectly in his shooting pocket. And when he caught an outlet pass, he would often pass it ahead right away if he saw an open teammate.

"Most high school point guards catch it on the outlet pass, and 99 percent of them put the ball on the floor first," Goring said. "He pitches it ahead so well, and he's always looking for that guy streaking for a layup."

"He's everything a point guard is and should be from every aspect—not just scoring—and I think that sets him apart from basically all the other point guards," Debbie said. "Where that comes from is probably always playing the game the right way from the very beginning." 

SYRACUSE, NY - FEBRUARY 14:  Tyus Jones #5 of the Duke Blue Devils looks to pass the ball during the second half against the Syracuse Orange on February 14, 2015 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York.  Duke defeats Syracuse 80-72.  (Photo by Brett Car
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Debbie, who coached Tyus from kindergarten until he got to high school, was also a point guard, winning a state title in North Dakota in high school and going on to play at Lake Region State College in North Dakota. Jones' father, Robert, also played college hoops at University of Wisconsin-Parkside. They met playing basketball at a health club in Minnesota, and their boys never had a choice.

Older brother Jadee played at Furman University and Mankato State University. And his younger brother Tre was the starting point guard at Apple Valley as a freshman this year and won a state title.

"My life since I was little has always been consumed with basketball," Jones said. "Basketball's just been what really my life is, and there's always talks about basketball in my house, and you had games on TV and just dissecting certain plays and things like that.

"Growing up, fundamentals were stressed. And talking about basketball all the time, you really get to be familiar with how basketball should be played. I would consider myself a purist just because I like basketball being played the right way."

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 12:  Justise Winslow #10, Jahlil Okafor #15 and Tyus Jones#6 pose for pictures before the game against the World Team on April 12, 2014 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
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That's why Jones was so attracted to playing with Jahlil Okafor. The two, who got to know each other well playing for USA Basketball, made the decision in high school that they would play together in college. Both are throwbacks in a sense—Okafor, the true low-post scorer, and Jones, the pure point guard—and neither strays out of his lane.

"He's a back-to-the-basket post player who just wants to be a back-to-the-basket post player and be as dominant as he can at his position," Jones said.

Knowing who he is and what his strengths are is the reason Jones should have a chance in the NBA, even though multiple scouts told Bleacher Report they worry about his size (6'1"), defense and athleticism.

"He has the self-awareness and confidence of an NBA player," one scout said.

"To be a shorter guy in the league, you've got to have a certain amount of tenacity to make it. Obviously, he's propelled his team towards wins," another said. "You never count out someone with tenacity and skill."

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 29:  Tyus Jones #5 of the Duke Blue Devils goes to the basket against Gary Bell Jr. #5 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the South Regional Final of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at NRG Stadium on March 29, 2015 in Houston, Te
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

There's another famous Tyus in college basketball lore, one who is responsible for one of the clutchest of moments in tourney history.

Former UCLA point guard Tyus Edney went the length of the court in 4.8 seconds to beat Missouri in the round of 32 in 1995. The Bruins would go on to win the national championship.

Later that year, Debbie got pregnant, and she named her son after the UCLA guard.

Jones has had a great NCAA tournament—he was named the South Region's Most Outstanding Player and has hit plenty of clutch shots already—but he hasn't had his "One Shining Moment" yet.

But he's aware of the history.

So, 20 years later, a point guard by the name of Tyus... It's all just too good not to happen, right?

"I've seen that play a lot," he said. "It would definitely be cool to have a play like that."

It wouldn't surprise anyone if it happened.

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.  


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