(Update: On Sunday, Aug. 13, Tre Jones announced his commitment to Duke)
NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — When Tre Jones says Duke is not the leader in his recruitment, you can come up with reasons to take him at his word.
Consider one of the other programs pursuing him, Minnesota. Jones attends Apple Valley High School, which sits about a half hour south of The Barn, the Gophers’ 14,625-seat arena in Minneapolis. Under fifth-year head coach Richard Pitino, Minnesota projects as one of Michigan State’s top challengers for the Big Ten championship this season after increasing their win total by 16 games, to 24 from eight, in 2016–17. And the Gophers have received verbal commitments this year from three of Jones’s teammates on his Minneapolis-based Nike Elite Youth Basketball League team, Howard Pulley, all of whom hail from the North Star State: four-star center Daniel Oturu, three-star power forward Jarvis Thomas and three-star shooting guard Gabe Kalscheur.
Those factors amount to a compelling case for Minnesota as a serious contender to nab Jones, but they haven’t done much to shake the prevailing perception that he’s headed to a different school on the East Coast: Duke. Jones is the younger brother of Tyus Jones, who went one-and-done in Durham after finishing his career at Apple Valley as a five-star recruit in the class of 2014. Like Tyus, Tre plays point guard, and he’s ranked No. 1 at the position in the class of 2018, according to the 247Sports Composite. He and Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy’s Darius Garland are the only two PGs in the class known to have received a scholarship offer from Duke. “I would be very surprised if [Jones] doesn’t choose Duke in the end,” says Andrew Slater, a national college basketball recruiting analyst for 247Sports.
Sports Illustrated watched Jones take on one of the best prospects in high school basketball, power forward Marvin Bagley, at the EYBL Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C., last month. It was a high-profile, head-to-head matchup in the sense that two esteemed players were squaring off in the summer’s marquee grassroots event, but the final outcome probably doesn’t say much about the impact each player could have at the next level, in part because Jones had a much better supporting cast around him. With Blue Devils assistant Jon Scheyer looking on, Jones scored 18 points, recorded eight assists and pulled down eight rebounds to lead Howard Pulley to a 77–63 win over Nike Phamily and Bagley, who is reportedly considering reclassifying to 2017 from ’18 and playing for Duke.
Tre showed up to a postgame meeting with a group of reporters prepared to bat away a series of Blue Devils–slanted questions without revealing much about his feelings on the program. He discussed how Tyus was able to provide feedback about Duke during his one-season stint there and mentioned that he had been on campus several times. Tre also said that he’s not feeling any pressure from his family to follow in Tyus’s footsteps when picking a college, noted that he’s considering a few schools in addition to the Blue Devils (Minnesota, Ohio State, USC and UCLA) and indicated he planned to take official visits at the end of the summer or the fall. “I don’t have a leader right now,” Jones said. “I’m just taking the process slow.”
The biggest takeaway from the short session was that Tre is at least trying to make people believe he hasn’t made up his mind yet. If he’s being candid, then an as-yet-undetermined program could be on the verge of beating out one of the nation’s two premier recruiters (the other is Kentucky) for a top-notch point guard with a family connection. If Tre’s playing coy, Duke is about to bring in a slightly different version of the freshman floor general that anchored the backcourt of its last national championship team, in 2015. When you watch Tre, it’s difficult to block out Tyus. There is a temptation to view everything Tre does on the court through a comparative prism, to think about how his older brother would have handled similar plays in similar situations.
There are tangible differences in how Tre and Tyus play, though, even if they’re tough to spot at first. Antwan Harris, who coached both Tre and Tyus (now a reserve point guard for the Timberwolves) at Howard Pulley, including Tre’s 17-and-under team this season, said he thought Tre has superior “court speed” and a quicker first step than Tyus did as a high schooler, whereas Tyus was a superior pick-and-roll operator with a better feel for how to pace himself during games. Tre is a better defender than Tyus was, according to Harris, while Tyus topped him as a scorer. Characterizing the differences between the brothers’ games as “subtle,” Harris noted that Tre plays with more “overall tenacity” than Tyus did, while Tyus was “more savvy in his mind.”
Defense may be Tre’s biggest advantage over Tyus right now, but the former already has established himself as one of the best offensive point guards in the class of 2018. Though Tre’s still coming around as a perimeter shooter (he knocked down 24% of his 41 attempts with Howard Pulley in the EYBL this season), he can fly by defenders off the dribble and get to the basket with ease. Tre was named the circuit’s offensive player of the year for the regular season after averaging 19.3 points and 8.3 assists per game. “I think that they’re both tremendous passers, they both have ridiculous basketball IQs,” says Evan Daniels, an analyst for Scout and 247 Sports. “And you can tell that Tre has been able to take and steal a lot of stuff from Tyus and that they’ve really worked together.”
Jones would be a valuable addition to any college backcourt, but his game could be a particularly snug fit in a two–point guard setup with another highly ranked point guard in his class, Garland. Duke is keen on landing both of them, but it will face stiffer competition for Garland than it will for Jones, including from local option Vanderbilt and the flagship program in the state where Garland was born, Indiana. A dual-PG arrangement might scare off some prospects worried about playing time and shot distribution, but it’s a look that has worked exquisitely for recent national champions Villanova (2016), Duke (2015), UConn (2014) and Louisville (2013), and Jones described the idea of playing with Garland as appealing. “We both have talked about it,” Jones says. “And we’d both be fine with playing off-ball at times throughout the game because we’d be able to feed off each other.”
There’s a strong possibility Duke would need Jones and Garland to take on heavy minutes right away. Senior Grayson Allen is entering his final year of eligibility (yup, he’s still here), and the point guard recruit the Blue Devils signed in the class of 2017, IMG Academy (Fla.) five-star Trevon Duval, could jump to the NBA after one college season. That would leave Duke with a thin backcourt rotation. The Blue Devils are bringing in three shooting guards in their 2017 class, Prolific (Calif.) Prep’s Gary Trent Jr. and Georgia products Alex O’Connell and Jordan Goldwire, but only one of them (Trent Jr.) is rated in the top 50 nationally by any major recruiting service. Irrespective of how many of that trio are ready to handle a big workload as a sophomore, the Blue Devils wouldn’t have much behind them. Grabbing at least one other guard plus Jones in 2018 would alleviate the depth shortage.
Maybe it’s too soon to start thinking about what Duke’s backcourt would look like with Jones around. He hasn’t said he’s actually going there. It just feels like a matter of time before he does.