When Tre Jones hit the deck during Duke’s loss to Syracuse last week, Blue Devil fans everywhere held their collective breath. As he walked off the floor clutching his right shoulder, hopes of a historic season seemed to follow him off the court.
Although this team has no shortage of talent, Jones has been labeled by many as the most important player on the floor, a tenacious defender who leads the offense with a maturity not typically seen in a true freshman.
However, it was revealed last week that the injury—a shoulder separation in his shooting arm—was not as serious as initially thought, and on Thursday he was listed as “probable” for Duke’s contest against Georgia Tech. Finally, just ten days after the injury, Jones walked back onto the floor in uniform Saturday to a thunderous ovation from the Cameron Crazies.
“It felt amazing,” Jones said. “I just felt all the love from them. I really feel like they’re the best fans in the world, and the fact that they’re there cheering me on from the moment I stepped out on the court meant a lot.”
Jones and the rest of the Blue Devils overcame possibly their worst half of the season to rebound after halftime and dispatch the Yellow Jackets at home 66-53. In 35 minutes of play, Jones finished with six points on 3-of-7 shooting from the field and dished out four assists while committing one turnover.
While he didn’t have his strongest performance offensively on a day when the entire team struggled for much of the game to find the bottom of the net, Jones certainly made his presence felt on both ends of the court.
Georgia Tech’s starting backcourt combined for eleven turnovers, including five each from Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe. Although he recorded just one steal, Jones played a major role in harassing the Yellow Jackets guards and fueling Duke’s stifling man-to-man defense, particularly in the second half.
“It’s a great feeling [to have Tre back]. Tre brings that defensive intensity that we need, and it showed a lot in the second half once he got back in his groove,” said fellow freshman Zion Williamson.
Indeed, having Jones on the floor was critical early in the second half after Georgia Tech went on a 6-0 run to stretch its halftime lead to eight barely two minutes out of the break. Williamson got the Blue Devils going with a dunk after coach Mike Krzyzewski called a timeout, but it was Jones who found Cam Reddish for a critical 3-pointer—one of only two Duke hit in the game—that cut away at the Yellow Jackets’ lead.
Following Reddish’s three, Jones took over again off an Alvarado turnover to finish a layup at the other end of the floor. At that point, the Blue Devils were off and running again, playing their style of basketball to perfection in the span of a 12-minute, 29-9 run that effectively put the game away. Through it all, Jones ran the point as he has all season, and was key in helping Duke pick apart a zone that had given them some trouble in the first half.
“That [run] is definitely how we wanted to come out into the game. We were prepared with everything except the emotion and the energy so coming out of that timeout our coaches challenged us to have that and get back to playing like ourselves,” Jones said. “From then on we started playing with energy, locking down on defense and it opened up everything.
Beyond the intensity and leadership he brought during that run and for much of the game, Jones also showed he was not only back, but back to his usual form. It was initially unclear how many minutes he could be expected to play, and Jordan Goldwire came in for several minutes to give him a break in the first half. In a tighter game than many anticipated, however, he stepped up and played nearly the entire game without issue.
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“Once the game starts, you get all the adrenaline and everything, you tend to not think about it at all unless you get hit, unless you make a movement that tweaks it a little bit,” Jones said. “It feels great, no pain no issues after  minutes of play so I’m extremely happy.”
The Blue Devils have a quick turnaround before their game Monday night in South Bend, Ind. against Notre Dame, but having Jones back and playing like himself is a huge boost that most could not have imagined in the throes of the Syracuse loss nearly two weeks ago. With a tough stretch of conference games looming in February, seeing the floor again and getting back into a rhythm will be key for Jones and Duke going forward.
“The game was all of a sudden taken from me, so [sitting out] just helped me appreciate the game of basketball so much more and how much it means to me,” Jones said. “So being able to go out there and play again, it means a lot.”