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Will hometown prodigy Tyus Jones ever get off the bench?

Can the former Apple Valley and Duke star play in the NBA?

Can the former Apple Valley and Duke star play in the NBA? NBAE/Getty Images

The extraordinary shot was launched from inches outside the three-point line, dead center. Its author was Apple Valley’s Tyus Jones.

He fell on his back as the ball dropped effortlessly through the hoop, then scrambled in transition. The 2015 NCAA Championship game was on the line.

“How ’bout this kid!” CBS announcer Jim Nantz raved.

There was 4:08 left. The Wisconsin Badgers had been in control for most of it. But the Duke Blue Devils freshman was wresting authority away.

In attendance at Lucas Oil Stadium that evening was Tyus’ mom, Debbie Jones. The paralegal was a point guard herself in high school, part of the North Dakota state champ Devils Lake Satans. That her son would also play for a Mephistopheles-inspired team could only be described as serendipitous.

Debbie is a woman of striking confidence. But on this night, all composure would be put aside.

Unless you are a surefire NBA starter out of the gate, leaving college after a single year is a risky undertaking.

Unless you are a surefire NBA starter out of the gate, leaving college after a single year is a risky undertaking. Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune

“He had hit some tough shots throughout the year and even in that game,” she says. “But when he hit that shot, it was so emotional. We were jumping and hugging and yelling and screaming. It was pure joy.”

As the final seconds ticked away, Duke became national champions. Tyus was named the tournament’s outstanding player. He would soon declare himself for the draft.

Though his single year at Duke was a downpour of laurels, his viability as an NBA point guard would be a topic of much speculation. 

Tyus has spent the better part of his life under the microscope of basketball wonks in search of the Next Big Thing. Despite the ceaseless attention, there remains a disarming humility about him.

Yes, he may have entertained thoughts of playing in the NBA while still in the seventh grade, but one discerns no hubris, just a gracious and affable sincerity rarely seen in a man of 20.

He is the second of Debbie’s three sons, bookended by the younger Tre and the older Jadee. Jadee serves as his brothers’ trainer in all things basketball.

Ball-handling skills are the calling card of an NBA point guard, and the Jones brothers work tirelessly at dribbling and shooting — mostly from outside the perimeter. In the offseason, they work mornings and afternoons, focusing on poise and control of the basketball.

“They were at it at 6 a.m. this morning,” says Debbie. “It’s definitely a family affair.”

Tre is something of a gem in his own right. Like Tyus before him, he is a point guard at Apple Valley. He won’t graduate until 2018, but he’s already fielding scholarship offers from Duke, Arizona, Baylor, and the University of Minnesota. He is a dangerous shooter from beyond the paint, not afraid to rush the rim, sacrificing his body against those much bigger.

Apple Valley High sits on Hayes Road. This is where an eighth-grade Tyus ran a basketball team of boys some five years his senior.

Coach Zach Goring first saw Tyus as a second grader playing a few grades up in the Valley Athletic Association. “What really stuck out to me was his understanding of the game at such a young age,” says Goring.

Tyus displayed an exceptional ability to see the court as his own personal playground. He honed his outside shooting, worked on his inside game, and was a perpetual nuisance to opposing defenders.

He’s fast and frenetic, marching up the court with seeming nonchalance, only to rush the defense. His energy and intensity makes coffee nervous.

Goring would later discover much more. “I’ve never seen anything like him in high school. I don’t think we ever will. Besides being incredibly gifted on the basketball floor, he handled himself with such maturity that people just gravitated toward him.”

In class, Tyus maintained a steady diet of A’s and B’s. “Anytime you walk the halls of Apple Valley and Tyus’ name gets brought up, the first thing that comes up from other teachers and staff is respect,” says assistant coach Greg Olson. “He was a leader and always did the right thing in classes and in the school.”

Despite the ceaseless attention, there remains a disarming humility about Tyus Jones.

Despite the ceaseless attention, there remains a disarming humility about Tyus Jones.

In his five years at Apple Valley, Tyus led the Eagles to a 120-27 record.

It was a heady journey, played before capacity crowds. “No matter where we went — on the road, at home, neutral site, and Christmas tournaments — every gymnasium that Tyus Jones played at was packed,” says Olson.

ESPN came calling in 2013, televising to the nation a game that pitted Apple Valley against Chicago’s Whitney Young, which was led by Jahlil Okafor. Though Whitney won by 10, Tyus had 29 points and 7 assists.

“The fact that it was the first high school basketball game in Minnesota history to be broadcast on ESPN, it was a huge deal for our school and Minnesota fans in general,” recalls Tyus.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski arrived in Apple Valley in 2014. At the time, he had four NCAA championships under his belt, and was shooting for his fifth.

Tyus saw Duke as a small enough college to learn, while still playing basketball at the highest level. The fact that students and professors treated him no differently was a bonus.

On the court, the Blue Devils were predictably dominant. The “Les Diables Bleus” — their French name dating back to World War I — began the season on a 14-0 run. They played 12 NCAA tournament teams from the previous year and finished with a 15-3 conference record, ranking in the Top 5 the entire season.

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Tyus ran the point with aplomb. The brazen and steady attack he mastered in high school transferred to college as he fed the ball to standouts Jahlil Okafor and Justice Winslow. He also made the ACC-All Academic Team.

After the storied season, Tyus and Okafor declared for the NBA draft.

In the preceding weeks, Timberwolves head coach and president Flip Saunders made the rounds on local radio, fielding questions about whether to take Okafor or Kentucky star Karl-Anthony Towns should the basketball gods give the Wolves the first pick in the lottery.

But there was an undercurrent of thinking, a chance that the Wolves might also maneuver to land Tyus.

“I was at Target Center for draft day,” says KSTP radio host Judd Zulgad. “There was a big buzz that Flip was going to trade for Tyus.”

And indeed he did.

Flip orchestrated a trade with Cleveland. It was late in the day, quick, and simply done. The Cavaliers used their No. 24 first-round pick to acquire Tyus, and then traded him to the Timberwolves. In return, the Cavs received Minnesota’s No. 32 and 36 picks, as well as a future second-rounder.

The Jones family was only blocks away from the Target Center, holding their draft party at Bar 508. Flip showed up after the draft was finished. “We all celebrated and hugged — Tyus, Flip, and I. It was true jubilation,” says Debbie.

When Flip Saunders died, Tyus lost his patron saint.

When Flip Saunders died, Tyus lost his patron saint.

But that spring, Flip was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It was thought to be treatable. Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry was back on the field eight months after being diagnosed with the same condition. The thinking around Target Center was that Flip would once again take the reins of the team after an absence for recovery.

On a fall Sunday in late October, most of sporting Minnesota was watching the Vikings have their way with Detroit. Then Twitter exploded. Flip Saunders was dead.

The first game of the season was just three days away. Tyus was at the practice facility when he heard the news. The fact that Saunders had taken a keen interest in his development was not lost on him. He was shocked. “That’s a day I will never forget.”

His patron was gone. Tyus would now have to forge a career on his own.

The NBA traffics in the business of height. At 6-foot-1, Tyus falls short of the mean, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he conducts himself on the Target Center wood. What he lacks in experience he makes for with an innate and natural sense to lead.

“His ability to direct and lead and always know where the ball should go is uncanny,” says Karl-Anthony Towns. “Not just for a young player, but for any player. It’s something that not a lot of people possess in their skill set. It’s something he was born with and was gifted with that.”

Last season started out as expected, at once fun and disappointing. Tyus played in just two games early on, registering a total of 14 minutes before being assigned to the Idaho Stampede of the NBA Development League.

He took the demotion as a challenge, averaging 24.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 5 assists.

“He handled it the exact right way,” says WCCO play-by-play voice Alan Horton. “You look at it as an opportunity. You go down there, you’ve got a job. It’s to get playing time. It’s to play hard. I think he handled it great.”

The Wolves called him back to Minneapolis just a few days before Christmas. But his dry spell of seeing the court continued. It wasn’t until March, when injuries blew through the roster, that Tyus logged double-digit minutes.

In early April, the Timberwolves were on a western road trip, playing Golden State. Minnesota was down by 17 points at one point, but all that changed in the third quarter. The Tyus-led second unit went on a tear. They ended up with a 124-117 win in overtime. Tyus posted 7 points, 5 assists, and a steal.

“Even though he was an elite player in college, when you move to that next level it is an adjustment,” Horton says. “Especially in the point guard spot, because you are the quarterback, you’re running the show.”

Unless you are a surefire NBA starter out of the gate, leaving college after a single year is a risky undertaking. Youth is your enemy. So is a lack of physical development. The game is faster, defenders bigger. And Tyus’ lack of minutes last season put him behind in a substantial way.

NBA writers are intrigued, but there are questions.

“I do think he will be viable, as a solid backup at the very least,” says Chris Dempsey of the Denver Post. “Needs to improve shooting for sure. But he’s got the big game makeup to be a success. I’m sure his size will be used against him and it will come into play as he tries to defend bigger point guards.”

The Timberwolves apparently harbored the same reservations. With their first pick of the draft, they took yet another point guard, Kris Dunn. Known for his defense, the older Dunn has already grown into his body.

“It’s not an indictment of [Jones’] ability,” says Dave Sinykin, co-host of KFAN’s In the Zone. “It feels like the first few years of his NBA career are serving as the rest of his college career. He needs to get stronger and improve his defense and outside shooting.”

Erik Gunderson, who covers the Portland Trailblazers for the Columbian, echoes the concern. “From what I’ve seen, he could be a good backup point guard. Size presents some limitations.”

The Timberwolves’ 2015-16 season was an anomaly. Flip died. The two No. 1 draft picks, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, shined during a season of lost causes. Head Coach Sam Mitchell was put in the unenviable position of replacing Flip. Kevin Garnett was a non-factor as a player, and Nikola Pekovic was injured. But there was still hope.

After the season, owner Glen Taylor relieved Mitchell of his duties. Taylor seemed to recognize that the abundance of young talent made the Wolves coaching job arguably the most desirable in the NBA.

Enter Tom Thibodeau, who led the Chicago Bulls to a 255-139 record in his five-year tenure.

The NBA Summer League is like a college All-American tournament 2.0. Upcoming stars and younger players compete with a sprinkling of tenured pros.

Dunn suffered a concussion early on; the point guard baton was handed to Tyus. He didn’t disappoint.

He led the Wolves to the championship game against Chicago, averaging 20.4 points and 6.3 assists. It ended in a loss, but Tyus once again found himself making an off-balance three-pointer with just seconds to go, sending the game into overtime. He was named the tourney’s MVP.

The Wolves are currently one of only nine NBA teams carrying three point guards. So far, the minutes have largely gone to Ricky Rubio and Dunn.

Tyus has been an afterthought, playing reasonably well for a backup when given the chance, then relegated back to the bench. Nearly two years after winning the national title with Duke, the same questions remain. 

“I think he has the smarts, instincts, and feel to be a very good point guard in the league for a very long time,” says Jon Krawczynski, who covers the NBA for the Associated Press. “The only question will be if his body matures physically enough so he doesn’t get overwhelmed on a night-in, night-out basis against guys like Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and John Wall. If the physical side of things ever catches up with the mental part of his game, he will be in great shape.”

But what also must change is his situation with the Wolves. Thibodeau is notoriously Spartan with his substitutions, preferring to ride starters until they drop. With Dunn and Rubio ahead of him, Tyus’ likely prospects for playing time seem to come only from injury or trade.

Rubio’s name has been bandied in trade rumors since the draft. Dunn’s arrival wasn’t by happenstance.

“He’s the kind of guy that fits Thibodeau,” says Jerry Zgoda, who covers the Timberwolves for the Star Tribune. “A defensive, really quick guard. Some in the league had Dunn rated one or two; the draft loved him. I think Thibodeau was one of those guys.”

Meanwhile, Tyus’ Summer League performance pricked the ears of the basketball media, whose thinking was that he was on the trading block.

The Wolves’ season has not gone as planned. Despite predictions they might rise to at least a .500 record this year, they’ve thus far been subjugated to the depths of the Western Conference. And Tyus has been left to make the most of what’s amounted to a front-row season ticket. 

Yet believers remain.

“There is an argument to be made that Tyus has played the most consistent of any of the three point guards this season,” says Krawczynski. “He is the best shooter of the three and his feel for the game, instincts, and understanding of the NBA competition are all very impressive.”

“One of the reasons Flip Saunders drafted him,” adds Zgoda, “is that he’d been watching him since he was 13 or 14. He was a believer. Some guys are just born to be point guards. Tyus is one of them.”