Why the Tre Jones Experience has renewed Duke men's basketball's defensive identity

Tre Jones won't be winning any individual defensive awards, but the freshman is the reason Duke's man-to-man has gone to a new level this year.
Tre Jones won't be winning any individual defensive awards, but the freshman is the reason Duke's man-to-man has gone to a new level this year.

Imagine turning up court, only to see two brown eyes staring right back at you. Except, they aren’t looking at you, but rather the basketball between your hands.

For opposing point guards, there has been a near constant this season—Tre Jones and his 6-foot-2 frame, ready to make for 40 of the most miserable minutes you’ve ever had on the hardwood.

Jones has often made his man look meek. Georgia Tech’s Jose Alvarado logged more turnovers than field goals against Duke, scoring just two points after halftime and seven all game. St. John’s Shamorie Ponds—the third-leading scorer in the Big East—didn’t get his first bucket until nearly 25 minutes in. Boston College’s Ky Bowman, a second-team All-ACC honoree, took almost 15 minutes to get on the scoreboard and finished his night a meager 5-of-17.

All of that happened in three straight games.

Some coaches have hesitated to give credit to the Blue Devils’ floor general, instead attributing their players’ struggles to little more than an “off night.” But the Tre Jones Experience is real.

‘He’s got it’

It didn’t take long for Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski to acknowledge Jones’ defensive ability. Following the Blue Devils’ come-from-behind win against Texas Tech at Madison Square Garden in December, Krzyzewski compared his freshman leader to the likes of Tommy Amaker, Bobby Hurley, Steve Wojciechowski and Chris Duhon—Duke icons that can claim two National Defensive Player of the Year awards and three national titles between them.

“He’s a godsend for me. I’m so excited about coaching him,” Krzyzewski said of Jones Dec. 20. “One of the best things, whether I’m coaching the U.S. team or coaching the Duke team, is having the ability to have real-time leadership while the game is going on, and the ability to improvise or make reads, that you would make reads out of a timeout. Tre gives me the opportunity to do that.

“It’s like coaching, like the U.S. team, you have LeBron [James], Chris Paul, they make real-time decisions. A lot of kids, there aren’t many that can get their teams to—Tre can do that. He’s got it.”

When Jones went down with a separated AC joint in his right shoulder during the Blue Devils’ first matchup with Syracuse, Duke looked lost offensively. The Blue Devils chucked up 43 3-point attempts and turned the ball over 12 times en route to their first loss in nearly two months and just their second all season.

It’s not on the offensive end, however, where Jones’ impact is felt most. Duke is on track for its best defensive season since 2009-10, when it finished fifth in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency thanks to a duo of backcourt stoppers in Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith—both of whom are now members of the Blue Devil staff—and first-team All-ACC forward Kyle Singler.

Jones won’t be winning any individual defensive awards this year—he finished second to Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter in ACC Defensive Player of the Year voting and is not a finalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, an award for which Zion Williamson, however, is still in the running. Jones is also not in the top 10 of any of the advanced defensive metrics, such as defensive win shares, defensive rating and defensive box plus-minus.

But he can claim victory against his older brother, Tyus, who, for all his clutch shot-making was not nearly the same caliber of defender during his lone season at Duke in 2014-15, when the Blue Devils went on to claim their fifth national title.

“He’s been there like that for me, wherever I’ve been at with basketball,” Tre said of Tyus after winning the ACC tournament title Saturday in Charlotte. “Whatever level it’s been at, wherever I’m at in the world playing basketball, he’s always been able to reach out to me, and give me little pointers.”

The Jones brothers grew up together in Apple Valley, Minn., yet didn’t overlap much being four years apart in school. Tyus’ last season before coming to Durham, Tre joined the Apple Valley high school team as an eighth-grader, playing with his brother and then-freshman Gary Trent Jr.

“It really was just competing against [Tyus],” Jones said. “He never took it light on me or gave me an easy way out, he always scored on me if he could in one-on-one or if we were playing in the house or something. Obviously, when I was kid I didn’t like that at all, and would complain to my mom, but she didn’t care about that. She just told me to keep trying as much as I could, and I feel like that’s why I’m the competitor that I am today.”

Tyus Jones was named Most Outstanding Player of the 2015 Final Four after starring alongside future NBA lottery picks Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow.
Tyus Jones was named Most Outstanding Player of the 2015 Final Four after starring alongside future NBA lottery picks Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow.

Manning up

About two-thirds of the way through last season, Duke made the transition to a full-time zone defense. It was a dramatic decision for Krzyzewski, whose teams had been known for their hounding man-to-man D ever since the early years of his tenure.

The 2-3 zone, however, wasn’t brand new. The Blue Devils broke it out back in January 2015 during a crucial win at Louisville, a game that sparked their 21-2 finish to the eventual national title campaign. And they haven’t been afraid to use it ever since—the defense that Krzyzewski stole from Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim pushed Duke past the Orange in last year’s Sweet 16 and nearly got the Blue Devils back to the Final Four for the first time in four seasons.

This year, Krzyzewski has kept his team almost exclusively in man, and the Blue Devils have been able to do that because of Jones.

“[Tre] makes it a lot easier for us with the ball pressure he puts on the guards,” junior Marques Bolden said. “It makes them have to force tough passes. He generates a lot of turnovers and gets a lot of steals up at the top. I’m grateful to have a point guard who plays defense like Tre.”

For as good as Duke is offensively, it is also sixth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Blue Devils have held opponents scoreless for long stretches, perhaps most notably a nearly six-minute run at North Carolina as Duke nearly climbed back into a game which it trailed by 15 points.

Of course, that isn’t all of Jones’ making. Williamson—paired with the junior tandem of Bolden and Javin DeLaurier—has made the Blue Devils fearsome at the rim with a 16.3 block percentage, good for fourth in the nation.

But Duke is also fourth in steal percentage, and Jones averages more than two per game along with Williamson, putting them among the top 40 individuals in Division I.

And all the while, Jones has helped to develop another young defender for the Blue Devils in sophomore Jordan Goldwire.

“He can impact the game not only on defense, but on offense, too,” Jones said of Goldwire. “How aggressive he is, how guys are able to feed off his energy that he brings to the team. He’s just a sparkplug for us.”

Goldwire, a former three-star recruit, played all of 169 minutes last season and got double-digit minutes just twice once ACC play began in 2017-18.

This year, the Norcross, Ga., native seemed to have his shining moment in Duke’s thrilling 23-point comeback against the Cardinals. Goldwire, alongside Jones, rattled Louisville with a 2-2-1 full-court press that gave the Blue Devils a lift they desperately needed.

Yet Goldwire found a way to one-up himself, stepping into the limelight once more during Duke’s ACC tournament win against North Carolina. Krzyzewski gave the sophomore the assignment of managing first-team All-ACC swingman Cameron Johnson—and after the Tar Heel senior scored 14 points in the first eight minutes, Goldwire latched on, limiting Johnson to just nine the rest of the night.

It’s a credit to working with Jones, not just during games, but during practice every day this season.

“We feed off each other’s energy,” Goldwire said. “We both like to play defense, so when he sees me in the game, he gives me confidence, talks to me like, ‘Let’s go, it’s time.’”

Tre Jones scored a career-high 18 points in Duke's ACC tournament title game win, but his defense was equally key in the Blue Devils' second-half surge.
Tre Jones scored a career-high 18 points in Duke's ACC tournament title game win, but his defense was equally key in the Blue Devils' second-half surge.

'I wanted to be in that moment'

The Blue Devils’ ACC tournament finale gave college basketball fans a taste of what might be to come from Jones over the season’s final month. Duke’s point guard scored a career-best 18 points and ignited a Duke offense that got into the lane time and time again versus a long Florida State defense.

Maybe it’s just a favorite time of year for the Jones family. 

Tyus hit the iconic dagger triple over the outstretched arm of Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig that put the Blue Devils up eight with less than 90 seconds to play in the 2015 national title game. Tre, along with the rest of the Jones family, was in Indianapolis to see it unfold.

This time around, the championship game would be played in Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium, a mere 20 miles from the very gym where he and his brother played their high school games.

“I was a freshman in high school, and I remember almost everything from that,” Tre, who watched all of his brother’s NCAA tournament games in person, said Saturday night. “I put out a goal for myself that I wanted to be in that moment one day. Now that I’m here and I’m in that moment, it’s going to be fun to partake in it.”

Tyus would go on to be named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, and it’s possible Tre could do the same—even playing with a cast of future NBA superstars.

“He came here mature,” Krzyzewski said in January. “We’re lucky to have him. Tre is outstanding, just terrific. He’s a gift, and all these guys will do anything for him.”

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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