Tre Jones has played but 11 games in Duke uniform. He’s only been a Duke student for seven months.
It only seems longer, like he’s a grizzled veteran, when he wills the Blue Devils to wins with his defense. He only seems like a four-year starter rather than a freshman when he makes in-game adjustments on offense, deftly putting his team in the best position to score.
Mike Krzyzewski has a word for Jones.
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“What he did tonight was one of the best performances,” Krzyzewski said Thursday night after Jones scored 13 points and recorded six steals in No. 2 Duke’s hard-fought 69-58 win over No. 12 Texas Tech. “It was a big, big-time performance by that kid.”
Yes, Jones is a kid in the college basketball world. He’s one of four freshmen starters that have No. 2 Duke (11-1) looking very capable of winning national championship come April in Jones’ home state of Minnesota.
But he’s more thanks to his talent and circumstance.
His older brother, Tyus, led Duke to the 2015 NCAA championship, winning Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors.
Tre Jones watched it all. He and Tyus speak regularly, giving the younger Jones knowledge beyond his years about playing at Duke and playing in big-time situations like he found himself in Thursday night at a packed Madison Square Garden.
Jones sees things on the court, during live game action, other players don’t. He’s already shown the ability to make adjustments for Duke without the benefit of a timeout.
“Tre gives me the opportunity to do that,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a godsend for me. I’m so excited about coaching him. It’s like coaching the U.S. team, you have LeBron, Chris Paul. They make real-time adjustments. There aren’t many who can get their teams to do that. Tre can do that. He’s got it. He’s got it.”
He’s also got a gift and an appetite to play defense. He’s yet to slap the floor like one-time national defensive player of the year Steve Wojciechowski did two decades ago.
But Jones is playing defense at that level.
“That’s what he does every day,” Duke freshman forward Cam Reddish said. “It’s overlooked I don’t think it should be. He’s the best defender in the country, especially on the ball. I mean, I don’t think it should be overlooked, especially after a night like tonight.”
Jones’ six steals against Texas Tech were one shy of the Duke freshman record of seven, set by Shane Battier. He only won national defensive player of the year awards three times in his four seasons at Duke.
Duke’s list of national defensive players of the year includes more than Battier and Wojciechowski. Tommy Amaker did it at the guard position. Grant Hill did it at small forward.
Chris Duhon never won the award but finished his career in 2004 with a school-record 300 steals.
Krzyzewski freely placed Tre Jones among those elite Duke defenders after his performance against Texas Tech.
“He did a hell of a job, as good on the ball as we’ve had starting with Amaker, (Bobby) Hurley, Wojo, Duhon,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s right there and, tonight, maybe better.”
On offense, Jones is comfortable setting up his teammates to score. Fellow freshman RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson both average more than 20 points per game.
But, against a Texas Tech team that entered the night leading the nation in field goal percentage defense (32.2 percent), Jones starting seeking his own shot when others faltered.
Barrett made just 3 of his first 16 shots. Reddish finished 1 of 7 from the field and the Blue Devils as a team made just 3 of 20 3-pointers.
Yet Jones made six shots, second on the team to Barrett’s seven, while also handing out five assists.
“There were more open lanes for myself,” Jones said. “They defense focuses on RJ, Zion and Cam. My shot is going to be there a lot more. I feel like in game like this they were plugging gaps a lot. On the second drive (of a possession) my shot was there a lot more.”
It was another example of Jones finding an opportunity and using it to help Duke succeed.
“He’s usually a guy who shoots from eight feet, jump stop, whatever,” Krzyzewski said. “Against this team, he had to do that and kick or take that shot. That’s his game. That’s what he does in the half court.”
All of these talents add up to give Krzyzewski and Duke something the program has lacked in recent seasons. A true point guard adept at setting others up to score, Jones is also the best on-ball defender the Blue Devils have had in years.
With the 2018 portion of the schedule done, Duke now looks to ACC play and preparation for the NCAA tournament.
With Jones on his side, Krzyzewski has a group capable of attaining the biggest of accomplishments.