The Duke Blue Devils operate with sky-high expectations on an annual basis and the 2018-19 season is no different. In fact, Duke’s dismantling of Kentucky in the season opener only served as a jumping off point for Mike Krzyzewski’s team to become the traveling circus they were always destined to be and, even with a close loss to Gonzaga in Maui on their resume, the Blue Devils are seen as the betting favorites to cut down the nets in Minneapolis in early April.
Of course, that makes complete sense when glancing at Duke’s roster and NBA-focused observers have been monitoring the Blue Devils quite closely through the first 14 games of the college season. It would be stunning if Duke did not place three players in the top-10 of June’s draft and, while it may not be a probability, there is a legitimate chance that Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish are the first three players off the board.
That is a headline-grabbing narrative and, even if Barrett and/or Reddish slip a bit, the overwhelming consensus is that Williamson will be the No. 1 pick and provide optimism to the organization that selects him. Still, there is an overlooked factor for Duke, both at the college level and through the lens of the NBA Draft, and that is the presence of a legitimate first-round talent in Tre Jones.
Obviously, it is ludicrous to consider that a team’s “fourth option” would be a first-round pick, and only Duke seems to have that kind of talent this season. With that said, Jones operates as anything but a minor piece for the Blue Devils, using his off-the-charts basketball IQ to engineer Duke’s offense on a regular basis. Jones, who stands at 6’2 and 185 pounds during his freshman season, isn’t a ridiculous athlete like Williamson or a wildly productive player in the way that Williamson and Barrett have been. What he is, though, is a strong contributor across-the-board and the piece that unlocks the rest.
Jones fits snugly within Duke’s scheme, using his unselfish playing style to make others better. As noted above, he isn’t a physical specimen or a quick-twitch athlete that stands out in any situation, but Jones uses ball screens well and can get downhill in penetration. He doesn’t run as many pick-and-rolls as Jones likely will at the NBA level when he arrives, simply due to the nature of Duke’s talent and the constraints of the college game. The freshman is quite polished, though, and his combination of ball-handling and strong passing acumen lead to an intriguing package.
With any draft prospect, there are questions about Jones, the biggest being his long-distance shooting. Because Jones has been in the public eye for a long time (he is the brother of Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Tyus Jones), it comes as no surprise that this uncertainty exists, and he’s done little to assuage doubt at this juncture. Jones hasn’t been a disaster in shooting from beyond the arc, making 32 percent of his attempts, but he has launched only 25 threes in 14 games, making it something of a point of concern. He has a low release point and, when paired with his lack of elite size and burst, Jones’ upside is directly tied to whether he can develop a reliable, off-the-dribble shooting game to go along with the fact that he does virtually everything else at a relatively high level.
Defensively, Jones likely won’t reach elite status in the NBA, simply because point guards with his measurables and athleticism rarely do. He does bring great hands and fundamentally sound positioning to the table, though, and there have been moments during his brief college stint in which Jones has made a significant impact at the point of attack. Point guard defense can be tricky to evaluate, but there is something to be said for the fact that Jones doesn’t take anything off the table on that end of the floor.
Any high school All-American would face pressure at the helm of a blue blood program and, in some ways, the attention paid to Williamson, Barrett and Reddish might make it easier for Jones to operate in the shadows in Durham. That can be a good thing for a point guard’s development but, in the same breath, Jones also faces a supremely difficult task in facilitating with three lottery picks on the floor together. The full package makes for an interesting NBA Draft evaluation but, at the very least, it feels safe to say that Jones has cemented himself as a player deserving of a first-round investment in this point guard class.
In the NBA, Jones probably isn’t going to be a star, much in the way he doesn’t exist as one in college. By all accounts, though, he is a high-character player that checks a ton of boxes and, at the very least, Jones brings a lot more value than his box score numbers (8.6 points, 5.9 assists, 1.9 steals per game) would indicate. In the last four games, Jones has exploded as a passer with 27 assists against only two turnovers and, with ACC play now in full bloom, there will be plenty of opportunities to monitor his progress against increasingly impressive competition.
Most observers tune into Duke’s games to watch Williamson and, to be honest, that is an easily justifiable decision. He is, after all, a generational talent that provides eye-popping highlights on a nightly basis. It would be wise, though, to pay a bit of extra attention to the sometimes overlooked point guard, though, because while Jones may end up not averaging 10 points a game in Durham, he should still be a first-round pick come June.