At the ACC’s basketball media day last month, Tyler Thornton offered some unsolicited praise.
“ Matt Jones, he’s going to surprise a lot of people because of how smart he is,” Thornton said then. “He makes plays.”
At the end of the preseason, Thornton’s statement looks prophetic.
Jones, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard from DeSoto, Tex., averaged 24 minutes in the Blue Devils’ two exhibition games, and he made the most of his opportunity. He averaged 12 points on 8-of-19 shooting (4th-most behind Rondey Hood, Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson) and recorded four steals, second to only Thornton. It’s his defense that could be an asset that leads to more playing time.
“He's a good player, he plays defense, and he's tough,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said Saturday after the Drury win, in which Jones played 28 minutes. “He's played well in both of our exhibition games. Matt has played like he's practiced. Matt hasn't had any bad practices. So he's probably not going to have a bad performance because he rehearses well.”
Entering the preseason, it was hard to see where Jones could find minutes. Rasheed Sulaimon was a returning starter at the off-ball guard position, and Andre Dawkins was back from his redshirt year. But Sulaimon hasn’t played up to the coaching staff’s standards thus far, and it’s Jones, not Dawkins, who has taken most of those available minutes.
Everything has gone so well that Jones has even pleasantly surprised himself with his performance.
“I’m just happy that the hard work is starting to pay off,” he said. “I feel like I’m starting to create a role for myself, being able to defend and knock down shots when I’m needed. I definitely want to be a reliable person on this team, and I’m just happy that I’m starting to get more confidence and it’s starting to build.”
Putting too much stock into Duke’s preseason lineups would be foolish— Alex Murphy started an exhibition game in his redshirt year and both games last season and then went on to average just 6.3 minutes per contest (with no starts)—but given Jones’s defense in particular, it’s hard to imagine him dropping completely out of the rotation.
“I’ve learned more things about college basketball, how each possession is important,” he said. “I definitely feel like I’ve gotten better.”