With seven characters, Tre Jones sent the Duke faithful into a frenzy.
“Year 2?”—Jones captioned a since-deleted Instagram post April 6.
The next day, the Apple Valley, Minn., native struck again, posting a picture of his uniform hanging in his locker, captioned with a blue heart and the crossed fingers emoji.
Less than 48 hours after the first post and eight days after the end of the Blue Devils’ 2018-19 campaign, it was official—Jones would be back manning the point for his sophomore season. Despite passing up an opportunity to be a likely first-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, the decision to return to Durham did not take much thought.
“It was a pretty easy decision for myself to make to come back here. There is no place like Duke,” Jones said during Duke's preseason media day. “As far as basketball goes, to be able to play for the greatest coach again and to be able to be with a group of guys like this, it’s tough to pass up…. It wasn’t a tough decision for myself. I knew pretty early after the season what I wanted to do and there was no reason to test the waters.”
‘We follow him into battle’
While Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett stole the show with their highlight-reel slams, the 2018-19 Blue Devils were clearly Jones’ team.
Duke had been Jones’ dream school since his brother, Tyus, helped lead the Blue Devils to the 2015 National Championship. And, after becoming the first Duke Class of 2018 commit, Jones created the group chat that lured the nation’s top three recruits to Durham.
Despite entering the program as an 18-year-old, Jones showed poise and maturity from the outset. The 6-foot-3 guard led the ACC with his 3.6 assist-to-turnover ratio and quickly emerged as one of the nation’s best on-ball defenders, stifling opposing guards. Perhaps his most impressive effort came in a six-steal performance at Madison Square Garden against Texas Tech Dec. 20, remembered for the embrace he got from head coach Mike Krzyzewski at the end of the contest.
Jones showed a love for the big stage, with an 18-point, six-assist performance in the ACC championship and a 22-point, eight-assist outburst against Virginia Tech in the Sweet 16. Given his leadership on both sides of the ball, it’s no surprise Krzyzewski named him a captain alongside seniors Javin DeLaurier and Jack White for this year’s squad.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
“There’s only so much advice I can give him because he’s been right there with us every step of the way,” DeLaurier said of Jones’ leadership. “Even though last year he wasn’t a captain, he was definitely one of our leaders. For us, it was huge having him officially as a captain. Our point guard, we follow him into battle every game and having him back this year is huge for our group.”
Battling on and off the court
While the Blue Devils fought through injuries and adversity on the way to their 21st ACC championship title, for Jones and his family, their biggest battle of 2019 was fought off the court.
Jones’ mother, Debbie, had been fighting breast cancer since the middle of last season. Her youngest son wore a special pair of Kyrie 5 sneakers during the NCAA tournament with a pink ribbon near the heel in her honor.
The Jones family recently received good news—Tre told the media following Countdown to Craziness that she finally "got through her treatment."
Jones took the opportunity to honor his mother during his player introduction at Countdown to Craziness. Instead of breaking out a dance to a top-40 hit, the youngest Jones opted to bring his mother down from the friends and family section and onto the court with him, where she promptly received an ovation from the crowd.
“I was trying to think of a song to come out to, but I feel like with what she went through the past eight months or nine months, whatever it’s been now, and how strong she is and everything she’s shown through battling her breast cancer and getting over it, I wanted to just bring her out and have her share that moment with me at halfcourt,” Jones said.
‘He has to be really good’
While Jones excelled in the big moment, his biggest weakness—perimeter shooting—was exposed down the stretch last season. Teams packed the paint against the Blue Devils to keep the ball away from Williamson and Barrett, preferring to leave Jones wide open on the perimeter. Unfortunately for Duke, Jones struggled to find his range. The current-sophomore hit a mere 26.2 percent of his shots from downtown.
Jones' return to Durham comes with added expectations and responsibilities. Last year, Jones was not relied upon to create offensively, rather serving as the main facilitator. Entering the 2019-20 campaign, Krzyzewski is relying on Jones not only to run the Blue Devil attack, but to aggressively hunt for his shot and become one of the team’s predominant offensive weapons.
“I think he over-passed last year,” Krzyzewski said. “I want him to produce scores, whether he’s passing them or not. He’s become a really good layup-maker. If you’re going to be a really good point guard, then you have to make layups, and so much of it is having that balance...and different angles…. If we’re going to be really good, he has to be really good.”
‘It motivates us all the time’
It’s not going to be an easy task for this year's Duke team to outperform its 32-win, highlight-filled 2018-19 season. The Blue Devils entered the NCAA tournament as the nation’s top-overall seed and lost three eventual top-10 NBA Draft picks.
Duke once again brings in a top-three recruiting class, but it will be the Blue Devils’ veteran presence that will have to be the difference maker. Those players, alongside Jones, enter the 2019-20 campaign with a chip on their shoulder after falling just short of the Final Four in back-to-back seasons.
Jones stood curled up near midcourt—his hands holding his jersey, wiping away tears, following Michigan State’s stunning 68-67 victory in the Elite Eight at Capital One Arena in Washington last March. Jones will get his shot at revenge Dec. 3 when Duke travels to East Lansing, Mich., to battle the preseason No. 1 team. Until then, Jones remains focused on giving his team another chance at a Final Four appearance.
“The loss last year is something that motivates us every single day. I know the ones that went through that loss last year, that are back this year, we talk about it all the time,” Jones said. “It motivates us all the time, every single day when we’re in here working. I wouldn’t say there is anxiety from the loss last year, but it is definitely something we feed off of.”
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.