Mental improvements spawn on-court success for Duke's Matt Jones

Duke guard Matt Jones will be called upon to consistently make open shots and contribute on defense.
Duke guard Matt Jones will be called upon to consistently make open shots and contribute on defense. cliddy@newsobserver.com

“Why not me?”

That’s the message Matt Jones wrote in black marker on his shoes.

“Basically,” he explains, “It’s just reminding me of last year and, ultimately, having a great sophomore year. I mean, why not me? Why can’t I be a top player in the ACC, comeback player of the year, stuff like that. It’s just reminding me to always keep me motivated.”

As Jones is talking, there is more confidence in his voice than there was at any point last season. He loosely swings his arms. He’s relaxed, comfortable, and why not? He has played his way into Duke’s starting rotation.

With the offense centered around big man Jahlil Okafor, the Blue Devils already have matchup nightmare Justise Winslow and elite point guard Tyus Jones – that won’t leave opponents with many resources to defend Duke’s off-ball guard. That should create opportunities for open shots, so the Blue Devils need someone to hit them consistently, and then turn around and make his main contributions on defense.

So far, Matt Jones has fit that mold perfectly.

“He is a guy that guys like to play with,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He doesn’t need the ball long. He does dirty work. He hits his open shot. He makes big-time plays, and he is tough as can be.”

Last season certainly tested Jones’ resolve. He arrived at Duke as a decorated prospect, a McDonald’s All-American, where he teamed up with his future roommate, Jabari Parker. Jones remembered the fact as Parker became a first-team All-American while Jones, to use his terms, sat “at the end of the bench.”

“You start to compare yourself,” Jones said. “That’s immaturity in itself.”

Those thoughts festered into doubt, as Jones wondered if Duke was the best place for him. And all of Jones’ personal struggles were compounded by the team’s struggles, as the Blue Devils were bounced in their first NCAA tournament game against Mercer.

It was a season well below Duke’s historically high standards.

“To hear Shane (Battier) go 133-15 (during his four-season Duke career), I’m thinking, man, I lost nine games my freshman year,” Jones said. “I definitely have a lot of work.”

Jones’ numbers were well below his standards too: an average of 7.3 minutes per game, a .294 shooting percentage – including a 3-of-21 mark (.143) from behind the arc – and 1.8 points per game.

After last season ended, it was time to begin building Jones back up. Assistant coach Jon Scheyer, who had drawn on his own challenging freshman year to try and help Jones throughout the season, played a large part. So did Krzyzewski.

“Coach telling me that he still has confidence in me even though I basically tanked last year, that definitely is a great thing to hear,” Jones said. “There are a lot of people in my corner right now, and I’m really blessed to have that.”

Talking to his family and others who have struggled, along with prayer, helped Jones rediscover his mojo. And the remade Jones was on full display in Duke’s first exhibition game against Livingstone on Nov. 4.

Jones made his first four 3-point attempts in the first half – surpassing his total from last season – en route to 17 points.

“He’s a good 3-point shooter, not a great 3-point shooter,” Krzyzewski said. “But when he’s taking great shots, you go from good to very good.”

Thanks to the attention Duke’s other players will command, those great shot opportunities should be available all season.

Throughout the preseason, Krzyzewski has been asked several times how Jones has been able to improve so much in such a short period of time. The answer doesn’t have to do with anything physical.

“He is a sophomore. Knowing himself better,” Krzyzewski said. “A lot of guys in college, they have to find out who they are and be comfortable with who they are. He is real comfortable with who he is.”

Jones has said as much himself.

“I’m just more confident, to be honest,” he said. “Mentally, I can say that I’m in a good place where I can knock down a shot or take a charge, be there when my team needs me the most. That’s definitely a great feeling.”

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