NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — Almost two years ago to the day, Tyus Jones was a 15-year-old rising sophomore point guard playing in the Peach Jam, matching up against older, more experienced recruits.
He performed so well then that Duke offered him a scholarship. And since then, the Blue Devils havent had any other point guard targets for the Class of 2014.
The 6-foot-2 Jones, who hails from Apple Valley, Minn., is ranked as the top point guard and No. 3 overall prospect in his class by ESPN. He has court vision that cant be taught and toughness that comes innately, too. Theres also a good chance Jones will bring one other attribute to his future squad, something rare for major college basketball: his best friend.
Jahlil Okafor, a 6-foot-11 center from Chicagos Whitney Young High, is the No. 1-ranked prospect in the class of 2014 and has known Jones since the two were in third grade. After years of playing in the same summer AAU tournaments and a few trips abroad with USA Basketball, Jones and Okafor want to team up and play together in college. There are six schools on both of their final lists: Baylor, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Duke.
Theyre two great kids, said Chuck Okafor, Jahlils dad. It makes sense.
There hasnt been a package deal with nonrelated recruits this high profile since Greg Oden and Mike Conley chose Ohio State together in 2006. But those two attended the same high school in Indianapolis, living minutes, not hours, apart. If Jones and Okafor follow through with their plan to play together collegiately the two are expected to take their official visits together, significantly bettering the odds it could be the first long-distance package deal for college basketball. And if would instantly make the winning team a favorite for the 2015 national title.
Whenever Jones or Okafor was playing this past week, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski or assistant coach Jeff Capel was close to the court. When both played at 9 a.m. Saturday, Krzyzewski and Capel stood against the bleachers so they could see on both sides of the blue curtain dividing courts three and four (as did Kentucky head coach John Calipari). To their left, Okafor cleaned up around the rim, scoring 13 points and nine rebounds. To their right, Jones sacrificed his body and ended up on the floor multiple times as he posted 18 points and 11 assists.
The attention of college coaches isnt new both received their first offers as eighth graders.
From the start, Joness mom, Debbie, took the lead of Team Tyus, making sure her son wasnt bombarded or overwhelmed by the attention. Jones also has his father, Robert, brothers, aunts and uncles, all of whom frequently travel to his tournaments.
Debbie, a former basketball player herself, saw unusual ability in her son from the time he started playing in the YMCA leagues. Jones was almost predestined to end up on the hardwood Debbie took inspiration for his name from former UCLA point guard Tyus Edney, who led the Bruins to the 1995 national championship.
Because the way he sees the game, its almost like a game of chess, Debbie said of her son. You see ahead, before a play is even made, and I think thats what he has.
Jones always played with older kids, and he has been the varsity point guard for his high school since his eighth grade year. He spent that season mainly setting up his older teammates, he said, which helped solidify him as a well-rounded point guard.
Im someone who loves getting my teammates involved, Jones said, But I can also score the ball and knock down an open shot.
Coming into the Peach Jam, which serves as the finale for the prestigious Nike Elite Youth Basketball League, Jones ranked first in assists and steals per game (6.9 and 2.7, respectively) and second in points and minutes per game (22.8 and 30).
It was hard to miss Jones this weekend, as he was sporting neon pink Nike shoes. It also wasnt uncommon to see him in a USA Basketball warm-up shirt, a memento from his experiences representing the country, which he referred to as an extreme honor.
The shirt also dates back to the time when his friendship with Okafor grew remarkably strong. Starting at the under-16 level in 2011, Jones and Okafor won the FIBA Americas U16 Championship in Mexico and then the FIBA U17 World Championship in Lithuania in 2012.
Theyve been together for so long, since U16s for the USA team, going overseas about three of four times together, playing on different teams, talking on the phone, Chuck Okafor said. They grew up being the same thing as far as being No. 1 players, having the same pressure and same issues. Its good being able to speak to someone with the same kind of values and same kind of goals.
Okafor recently returned with a gold medal from the FIBA U19 World Championship in Prague, where he was on a 12-man roster with mainly collegiate players (Jones was not on the team, choosing to spend time with his ailing grandfather instead). During the June training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., Okafor roomed with current Blue Devil Rasheed Sulaimon. Krzyzewski was in attendance, too.
We spoke, but it was all about USA Basketball and how I could help the team, Okafor said. He didnt bring up Duke at all.
The time for Krzyzewski and the rest of the staff to make their recruiting pitch is from now until Jones and Okafor commit (both are expected to sign in November). Right now, the pair has one official visit scheduled, to Baylor at the end of August. At this point, most recruiting analysts consider Duke the favorite to land the duo. Until Jones and Okafor announce their decisions, though, thats merely speculation, as is the idea that the package deal will hold.
Just dont be surprised, though, if it does.
They get along amazingly well, Debbie Jones said, Theyre amazing on the court together, so I can definitely see it happening.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley