LAHAINA, Hawaii—In Zion Williamson's debut in the Maui Invitational, the young Blue Devil looked lost against a packed-in San Diego State defense. After two fouls in the first 10 minutes of play, Williamson was taken off the floor and Duke's offense began to stagnate.
But luckily for the Blue Devils, Duke got an unlikely jolt from one of its few freshmen that have largely stayed clear of ESPN highlight reels and Twitter clips.
Tre Jones was everything Duke could have asked for in day one of the Maui Invitational. Outside of staying true as the Blue Devils' steady floor general, Jones opened up as a scorer. The Apple Valley, Minn., native drove in the lane and cut through the Aztecs' staunch defense to earn a season-high 14 points when Williamson and R.J. Barrett found themselves stuffed in the paint.
The emergence of another reliable scoring option for Duke gives the Blue Devils a stunning degree of versatility on offense, where at a moment's notice any of Duke's prized freshmen can explode to spark a run.
"I was just reading the defense," Jones said. "They were helping a lot off of me, trying to plug gaps on Barrett. and Cam [Reddish] and Zion's drives and that left open lanes for me to either attack or cut, and my teammates did a great job of finding me so I was able to make those plays."
All afternoon, Jones' offense built where the rest of his team came up short.
While the Blue Devils were still trying to carve out early separation in the opening minutes of the game, the 6-foot-2 guard struck. After Javin DeLaurier swiped a bricked shot from Reddish out of the air, Jones slid back with a beautiful floater to ensure Duke didn't come out of the possession empty handed.
The freshman point guard again took the offense into his own hands again when Duke faced a field goal drought with just over five minutes left to play. After San Diego State trimmed the Blue Devil lead to 10 and Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski subbed out Williamson due to foul trouble, Jones responded with back-to-back driving layups to keep Duke's engine running. In both instances, the young Blue Devil tormented Aztec guard Jordan Schakel, drawing a foul on his first drive and leaving Schakel on the ground in the second.
But the biggest contribution Jones provided for the Blue Devils came in sparking a run that ultimately sealed the game for Duke.
Right out of the locker room, San Diego State came out gunning, making two easy layups on the Blue Devils to cut Duke's lead down to 13. However Jones responded with a fast break scoop followed by a vintage Tyus Jones pull-up jumper from downtown to spark the offense, giving the Blue Devils a lead that they would never relinquish.
"I thought the end of half was crucial," Krzyzewski said. "We got a perfect two for one. We had six points and ended. And then we started the second half poorly, then all of a sudden we rebounded and our transition game got going and we kind of exploded."
Although Duke showed signs of slowing down throughout the game, the Blue Devils can take solace in having reliable options outside of their big three. Williamson, Reddish and Barrett posted 13, 16 and 20 points, respectively—normally big numbers for any player but a bit low for a Duke squad that relies heavily on its freshman firepower to spearhead the offense. However, Jones' contribution of 14 and 6-for-7 shooting from the field proved to be the difference maker for the Blue Devils, keeping Duke firmly in control of the momentum of the entire afternoon.
And for a Blue Devil squad that echoes many of the same beats of the championship-winning Duke squad of 2015, it definitely doesn't hurt to have shades of Tyus Jones come through on Tre Jones' play.
"They're really good basketball players," Krzyzewski said of this year's team. "So because they're not positional, they, if you're positional you usually get anxious to touch the ball to score because you don't know how many times you're going to touch it. When it's position-less you're touching the ball and you're playing basketball and that's, that's our team this year. It's, so the ball finds the best shot and they like that because they're basketball players and their futures will be fine whether they average 18 or 14, as long as they keep learning how to play."
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