Tyus Jones's journey from WNBA scout team to Duke freshman star
CHARLOTTE—Tyus Jones doesn’t have any souvenirs to commemorate his stint as a scout team player for the two-time WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx—not a cap, not a T-shirt, not a pair of sweats. “Just good memories,” says Duke’s freshman point guard.
He calls them up with ease, perhaps because it’s been less than two years since the Apple Valley, Minn., native stopped going to the Target Center to help one of the WNBA’s best teams prepare for games. For three consecutive seasons, from 2011 to ’13, Jones took part in roughly a dozen practices as a member of the Lynx scout team. He might’ve done it more often if he weren’t challenging for AAU championships and winning a pair of gold medals on USA Basketball youth teams during that time, too. “It was just something that I looked at as being a positive for myself, as another way I could improve my game,” he says. “They’re the best of the best for women’s ball in the world.”
Perhaps this explains why he was so anxious about his first practice with the Lynx in the fall of 2011. It wasn’t the same kind of anxiety that attends him before other big moments, like top-seeded Duke’s Sweet 16 clash with No. 5 Utah on Friday in the South Regional in Houston. Pre-game jitters are just an extension of his innate restlessness—although with averages of 11.4 points, a team-leading 5.8 assists and 1.5 steals, he would seem to have little reason to get so worked up.
Back in 2011, though, Jones was just 15 years old, and while he had already spent two years on the Apple Valley High varsity and had been attracting Division I attention since he was 13, he was also a massive Lynx fan. TV vigils and family trips to games were a big part of his summer routine. “It was probably one of his first times playing against people that he recognized,” says Jadee, his older half-brother. “They were women, but it was still that first time kinda being like, Wow.”
These were no ordinary women either. This was arguably the WNBA’s deepest and most talented team, anchored by a pair of lottery picks turned All-Star perimeter players: Seimone Augustus, a 6-foot, 179-pound scoring bundle, and Lindsay Whalen, a savvy defender and distributor who plays bigger than her 5’9”, 150-pound frame. From 2011 to ’13, the Lynx dominated the WNBA’s Western Conference, going 80-22 combined in the regular season and reaching three straight WNBA Finals, winning in 2011 and ’13.
Soon after joining the Lynx as an assistant in 2009, Jim Petersen started rounding up talented young men to serve as Minnesota’s scout team. His wife, Tika, is close with Debbie Jones, Tyus’s mother, and in 2011 he invited Jadee, by then 25 years old and a couple years removed from his days as a shooting guard at Furman and Mankato State, to help out. Tyus tagged along. On this particular fall day, the scout team’s assignment was to impersonate the Atlanta Dream, the Lynx’s opponent in the upcoming WNBA Finals. Jadee would play Lindsey Harding, a decorated former Duke star and blur of a combo guard who ignited the league’s most up-tempo offense, a mix of breakneck transition and screen-roll half-court sets.
Tyus? He didn’t have a role. “Everybody was like, ‘What is Tyus doing here?’” says Augustus. “I don’t know if they just expected him to watch practice or what.” When Petersen invited him to jump in, Augustus continues, “Ty started putting his sneakers on, and the practice players started to get excited. And then we started to get excited, like, Oh, this is the young man that everybody’s been talkin’ about! Alright, let's see what he's workin’ with today!”
Jones was no ordinary scout team player. He was a basketball blue blood whose mother, father, two brothers, uncle and cousin are an impressive rotation onto themselves. What’s more, he was named after Tyus Edney, the UCLA point guard who authored perhaps the most heartbreaking play in NCAA tournament history. (Disclosure: I went to Missouri.)
“I'd heard of him for a lot of years just with him growing up in Minnesota and me being from Minnesota,” Whalen says. “Everybody was like, You gotta check this kid out.”
A typical Lynx scout team player doesn’t come with as much hype. Nor does he have much of a future on the court. But while their playing careers are over, they are simply not ready to abandon the habits or the desire that landed him a spot on a college team
If he’s lucky, Petersen can find 20 such men who are smart, skilled and altruistic (after all, these practices won’t be about them). He then turns them into women’s hoops evangelists, reminding them that their female counterparts “would kill any of you dudes.” While Petersen, who played in college at Minnesota and spent eight years in the NBA before retiring in 1992, can’t promise these players any money (they don’t get paid), he can promise them a spot on a dedicated scout team float in a championship parade. “They’re part of our family,” the coach says.
In addition to getting over the fact that his maiden voyage inside this pro basketball inner sanctum had put him on same floor with his hoops heroes, Jones also had to absorb all the scouting report information that Petersen was overloading him with about Atlanta’s personnel and tendencies. “They have to run a lot of action and they have to run it exactly the way that I show it to them,” Petersen says of programming his scout squadders. “They’ve gotta be able to remember the play sets as we're going through them. It is a lot to digest, and that's why we try to get 'em in training camp so they're kinda learning as our players are learning.”
But Jones would prove a quick study, to the point of dropping every jaw in the gym. “I would teach him a play,” Petersen explains. “Once he ran it two or three times and [the Lynx players] started keying on the action, he would be like, ‘Do they ever counter this play by doing’—and it would be exactly the counter that Atlanta runs.”
Adds Augustus: “It was amazing for him to make those suggestions, to have enough courage to make those suggestions. Once he started countering, he picked us apart. When we tried to jam him into the screen, he would make a straight cut. If we tried to shoot the gap, he would flare cut. If we tried to sit on top of the screen, he would back cut. You could tell the brain was ticking.
“He knew where he needed to be going and how he was going to get there two or three steps prior to even defending him. Sometimes he was threading the passes before the people even made it to the spot. They didn't even think that the ball was gonna get there. He made some of our worst practice guys look very good that day. He made everyone around him better that day.”
Augustus, naturally, would have her moments, too. On one frenetic transition possession that same day, she caught an outlet pass as Tyus shadowed her up the sideline, buckled him with a crossover at the three-point line, and knifed past him for a layup. The oohs and laughter that trailed in her wake echoed through the gym and emanated mostly from Tyus’s fellow-practice squadders, who consider their humbling sequences on the court “like an initiation,” Augustus says. Still, as much everyone recalls the time The Great Tyus Jones got okey-doked by an Olympian, the part of the story Augustus never leaves out is this: “He was still back in the play,” she says. “He contested that layup.”
After that day, Jones’s place with the Lynx became clear: Anytime the team had upcoming matchup against a big-time guard—a Sue Bird or a Becky Hammon—Jones, if available, had to play the part. “If I could keep Tyus Jones in front of me on a pick and roll or just in a one-on-one and make him take a tough contested shot,” Whalen says, “I knew I’d be doing pretty well in a game. It made for just really fun practice days.”
Watching Jones on TV now requires a huge effort from Whalen, who’s determined to do so even while playing in Turkey. She had to buy an Amazon Fire Stick, which allows her to remotely access her DVR in the Twin Cities and record and watch Duke games. She has to turn off her phone—because if her friends and family don’t accidentally spoil the ending, Twitter most definitely will. And, most importantly, she has to pray that her dodgy Turkish Internet connection can summon and sustain its strength for at least three hours.
When all goes well, the player she sees before her isn’t that much different from the one she faced back inside the Target Center. Physically, Jones, who is 6’1”, 190 pounds, is a bit thicker—which is no surprise given how much of a workout rat he was even as a 10th-grader. After two-hour practices with the Lynx, he’d spend another 45 minutes at an adjoining health club applying his new tricks in pickup games.
His range behind the arc is deeper—a fact that Virginia found out the hard way on Jan. 31, when Jones channeled his namesake by burying a huge shot, an elbow trey with 4.8 seconds left that sealed the second-ranked Cavaliers’ first loss of the season. “I kinda feel like he does what you want your point guard to do: get everybody involved, feeding [Jahlil] Okafor and making sure [Justise] Winslow is getting touches,” says Whalen. “He’s meshed really well with Quinn Cook. They’ve played really well together.”
Jones’s canniness off the dribble is likewise improved—if a bit familiar to Augustus, who’s been watching him from afar, too. “Whalen has a knack for attacking the basket and getting into the post player's body and using that contact and still being able to get shots off,” she says from Russia, where she is playing. “I’ve seen a couple possessions where he attacked the basket and had a big post on him and used his body to draw the contact but also finish. He’s Euro stepping. That’s something you don’t see college players doing. That’s more of what we do over here because we play eight months out of the year in Europe.”
Jones didn’t need to dig deep into his back of bag of tricks in Duke’s NCAA tournament opener last Friday, a 85-56 walkover against No. 16 seed Robert Morris, whom he helped put away with 10 points and seven assists against just one turnover. When he struggled with his shot against a stifling San Diego State defense in the next round—going 3-for-9 from the floor—he still managed to contribute, registering a game-high six assists in another blowout. “Just because my shot's not falling doesn’t mean I should be a non-factor,” Jones said afterward.
On Friday he’ll face his stiffest tourney test in Utah, a balanced squad that boasts its own impressive workout legend—training with the Navy SEALs—and features another of the country’s top guards in Delon Wright. Of course, no one who watched him in those practices at the Target Center gym doubts Jones’s ability to rise to the challenge. “The biggest thing I've seen this year is just every big game that they've had, he really comes to play,” Whalen says.
Jones may not have any souvenirs to show for his time on the Lynx practice squad, or any stories about throwing beads from a float. (He could never make it to the parades.) But along with his treasured memories, there’s no question he picked up a bag of swag from his experience, too. The women who gave it to him take no small measure of pride in being able to say they knew him when.