DURHAM, N.C. – The decision to return to school became clear in the first moments Tre Jones truly had to himself after the end of his freshman season. On a flight back home to Minnesota, shortly after Michigan State ended Duke’s run at a national title, Jones was alone with his thoughts.
He was headed toward a city where the Final Four would be held that weekend, just half an hour from where Jones grew up, but without his team in the mix. That same weekend, the Timberwolves would recognize his mother, Debbie, in her ongoing battle with breast cancer.
Jones is playing a second season under head coach Mike Krzyzewski to win an NCAA championship. Tre’s decision is unlike that of his older brother, Tyus, who played for the Timberwolves before signing with the Grizzlies this offseason. It is also different from those of lottery-pick classmates Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. It is uncommon for players with pedigrees similar to Jones’.
“Trying to bring a national championship back here, I want to be one of those guys that kind of changes the way of how things are going – not going to the NBA if it’s not the perfect fit right away,” Jones said. “Everyone just wants to go straight to the NBA no matter what, they don’t think about the long-term decision or what’s really best for themselves.”
The underclassman and team tri-captain was Duke’s “heart and soul last year,” according to associate head coach Jon Scheyer.
“Tre’s going to be as key a person as we have and a leader,” Krzyzewski said. “(In) the leadership aspect and so much more, we depend so much more on him.
“If we’re going to be real good, he’s got to be really good.”
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The third-ranked recruiting class lacks the level of savvy and basketball IQ that Krzyzewski’s unprecedented newcomers arrived with last year. (Yes, even in Krzyzewski’s grandson, walk-on Michael Savarino, bringing the bloodline to the class.) This year’s group joins two sophomores, three juniors and three seniors.
“Everyone feels like they’ve got a chance to play, because they do,” Krzyzewski said. “This group has maturity and talent, along with the talent and immaturity of the young guys, (it) makes it a more balanced team.
“We’ll have more guys capable of playing, I think, at the level we need to win.”
Jones is expected to either instinctively call plays or go make plays himself, carrying more scoring responsibility than his team needed him to have last season.
“He’ll have the ball more,” Krzyzewski said. “You make less mistakes if Tre has the ball.”
Becoming the leader and scorer Duke needs him to be requires Jones to have a quicker trigger when shooting. The 19-year-old spent significant time this offseason watching film with a focus on seeing opportunities to get a shot off more readily and running drills with repetition to make that decision more natural.
The 6-3 point guard’s ability to adapt to the strength of his team led him to set the Duke single-season record and Atlantic Coast Conference freshman record for assists/turnovers (3.62). Despite Jones’ 9.4 points per game in 36 starts as a freshman, his coaches are confident he will easily show more of his skill as a scorer as a sophomore.
“His thing is translating that (shooting ability) into the game because his mind-set is always to distribute and to pass and to drive,” Scheyer said. “It’s as much his mental approach as it is anything else. We make sure he’s shooting the same way every time.”
A right hip procedure May 1 and hernia operation May 24 caused Jones to delay working on layups this summer. But Krzyzewski still believes Jones’ strength in how he finishes driving the lane will differentiate the point guard this season.
“My job was holding him back,” Scheyer said of keeping the competitive Jones patient post-op. “We’re able to be really creative because he’s got right-hand, left-hand, up-and-unders and reverses – he’s got all of that stuff.”
Jones has better vision and more of an understanding of the nuances of what Krzyzewski wants as a sophomore point guard than Scheyer himself says he had heading into his fourth season as a Duke point guard in 2009-10.
“If (Jones) delivers the ball to people where the defense is not set, that gives our guys the advantage of making an easy decision,” Krzyzewski said. “(Jones has) the confidence to not only call plays, but to make plays. The best time to make a play is in transition because of mismatches and defense not being set. I’m anxious to see how that will go.”
Krzyzewski expects to see Jones with double-digit assist numbers in multiple games as a product of defensive rebounding and his nationally recognized ability to pressure the ball. Jones should lead the team defensively just as he is projected to on offense. His emotional role has also grown.
The year Tre has endured with his family makes him a more understanding teammate, he says.
Over one week last January, Debbie Jones learned she had breast cancer, Tre separated an AC joint in his shoulder playing Syracuse and Tyus sprained an ankle.
Tre returned to Duke’s starting lineup after missing just two games. Tyus missed 13 games. Debbie’s battle against Fbreast cancer continues.
“She is doing extremely well, her levels are good and she’s in good spirits,” Tre said in updating his mother’s status after her eighth radiation treatment. Debbie began chemotherapy and underwent surgery this summer. In mid-October, her chemotherapy sessions were reduced from daily to once every three weeks continuing through April.
The brothers kept the news about their mother private for about seven weeks before sharing it. Tre’s coaches say they then saw a player who seemed less engulfed by a sad circumstance and more by the joy of playing basketball.
“We’ve always been about basketball our whole life,” Tre said. “Once this came up, it definitely brought us closer. We had to be there for each other in a more serious way. She is our rock; she’d do anything for us. We knew it had to flip and had to be there for her and do anything for her.
“Our whole life, we’ve been her focus and she’s put us first in everything. This time, we put her and her health first.”
In what is “a testament to his mother,” according to Scheyer, Jones’ passion began to show clearly through his play in March again as he and Duke pursued a title.
Jones, like this season’s Duke team, is a bit old school, from his aspirations of winning a title to the belief that doing so could affect a steady trend of one-and-dones.
“This is more old fashioned, that blend of old and new,” Krzyzewski said of this team. “I really like the group and that dynamic of guys who’ve been through it. I like that this is a more old-fashioned dynamic for us.”