Duke’s Influencer: Tre Jones will be the most influential player in college hoops, if he has learned to shoot
The third edition of our memorable moments series has to do with Duke and Tre Jones.
The most embarrassing moment from last year’s season was when UCF almost beat Duke because opted to use 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall to guard Jones. On why that worked and what makes Jones the most influential player on this year’s Duke roster.
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UCF came so close, agonizingly close, to pulling off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history last season.
That’s how far the Knights were from knocking off Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett’s Duke team. If either B.J. Taylor’s runner or Aubrey Dawkins follow up tip roll through the hoop instead of off the rim, then Tacko Fall takes down Zion, Johnny Dawkins upsets his mentor Coach K and, for the second time in three years, a Duke team that entered the season as the consensus No. 1 team in the country goes down with a whimper in the second round of the NCAA tournament:
That clip is the moment that most will remember about UCF’s brush with glory. Others will remember this blown alley-oop, a missed dunk that turned a would-be six point UCF lead into a one point game after Cam Reddish buried a three not 10 seconds later. Still others will think back to a pair of non-calls on what turned out to be Duke’s winning possession. Zion wasn’t called for that charge. R.J. wasn’t called for that push-off. I think most would agree that UCF had a legitimate beef after the game.
But I’m not all that interested in re-litigating either of those calls.
Because that’s not the moment that stood out to me during that game.
For my money, the most memorable part of Duke’s near-miss against UCF - and perhaps the only part of Duke’s 2018-19 season that will have a significant impact on this upcoming season - was the fact that Johnny Dawkins felt totally comfortable using the immobile, 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall to “guard” Tre Jones for much of the second half.
If Duke had lost that game to UCF, the narratives about their season, the hot takes about how the Blue Devils are always overrated and never live up to the hype they have in the preseason, would have been unbearable.
The combination of Zion’s presence, the Duke brand and an early exit from the tournament would have made this the biggest story in American sports for a full two-day news cycle. That might have been enough to permanently drive me off the internet for eternity, because the truth is that UCF came a bad bounce away from picking off the Blue Devils because they just so happened to be the nut matchup.
As the saying goes, styles make fights, and there was no team in college basketball that played a style better-suited to beating last year’s Duke team than UCF did.
The secret was out before the season started. I wrote about it last July. Duke did not have nearly enough shooting on their roster, and by the time ACC play rolled around, everyone knew that the way to hang with all that talent Duke had was to pack bodies into the paint, dare Zion and R.J. to drive into a crowd and live with whatever happens when Jones and company shot from the perimeter. As a team, the Blue Devils shot just 30.8 percent from three last season, the lowest number in Coach K’s Duke tenure. It was so bad that Zion was actually the second-best three-point shooter on the roster.
UCF took that scouting report to the extreme for long stretches of the second half. They had Fall “guard” Jones, but instead of actually playing defense on the point guard, Fall was parked in front of the rim to act as Zion repellent. He completely ignored Jones defensively. They dared him to shoot. I’m sure at some point the UCF defense was screaming, “that’s the shot we want,” as Jones was teeing up a three-ball. Dawkins gets criticized for his coaching acumen from time to time, but there’s not doubting that this was a brilliant move that took some cajones to run and, frankly, probably should have earned him the win:
I bring all of this up because I firmly believe that Jones’ is going to end up being the key to Duke’s season.
“If we’re going to be really good,” Coach K told reporters at Duke’s media day, “he has to be really good.”
There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that Jones was just named captain as a sophomore who is really the only guy that is a clear-cut starter at a specific position. He’s going to play 35-40 minutes per night at the point guard spot. That’s a given.
And at this point, I think it’s the only given on Duke’s roster.
But it also plays into some of the many question marks surrounding the rest of the Duke roster.
I don’t mean to say that as a negative, either. Those question marks aren’t necessarily bad things. They’re just ... question marks.
Like, for example, what is going to happen with Duke’s frontcourt?
For my money, Vernon Carey is going to be the most productive player on Duke’s roster and quite possibly the best big man in the ACC when it is all said and done. I don’t think it’s out of the question that he’ll average somewhere around 15 points and 10 boards. He’s a burly, 6-foot-10 post presence with a soft touch, a knack for getting on the glass and the physicality that you would expect out of the son of an NFL offensive lineman.
The ideal pairing for him would probably be fellow freshman Matthew Hurt, a 6-foot-9 forward that is supremely skilled and a lights-out shooter from the perimeter but stuck somewhere between too slow and stiff to play the three and too slender to play the four. His shooting would create all kinds of space for Carey to operate inside, but the problem would be that Duke may not be capable of getting a stop when Carey is paired with Hurt.
Enter Javin DeLaurier, who, like Jones, was recently named a captain. He is the best defender in Duke’s frontcourt this season, the only guy that combines the ability to defend ball-screens with the ability to protect the rim, but he is exactly 1-for-10 from three in three seasons. Getting shooting on the floor any chance they can is going to be a priority for Duke this year.
There are similar question marks on the wing. Freshman Wendell Moore is probably the most talented of the group. He checks in at 6-foot-5 with a wingspan over 7-feet and the strength, athleticism and versatility to defend multiple positions. He’ll very likely be Duke’s best wing defender this season, but he’s also a guy that is known for being a slasher and a finisher more than a shooter and a scorer. Put another way, he’s not stretching out defenses. Neither is Cassius Stanley, a freak athlete that recently broke Zion Williamson’s school record in the vertical.
But then there is Alex O’Connell, who was very clearly the best shooter on the Duke roster last season, and Joey Baker, who might actually be the best shooter in the Duke program, but these are guys that struggled to get minutes on a team that was in desperate need of perimeter shooting last year. Let’s just say they aren’t exactly renowned for their defensive capabilities. Jordan Goldwire is, but he also shot 3-for-25 from three last year. Then there is Jack White who, in theory, is the kind of player that can make a lot of these pieces fit together. He’s a guy that can space the floor, can guard wings and bigs and protects the rim despite standing just 6-foot-7. But he shot 27.8 percent from beyond the arc last season. He went 0-for-10 in the loss to Syracuse. He missed 28 straight threes during a six-week stretch of ACC play. I’m not ready to trust him to have the confidence to be a consistent perimeter threat.
And that kind of sums up Duke this year.
They have a lot of guys that can go out and do a job in a specific role, but they don’t have a lot of guys that can do more than what they’re best at.
Put another way, Duke doesn’t have a lot of guys that thrive playing both sides of the ball.
Some of this is manageable through matchup-based lineup changes - for example, O’Connell’s defense can be hidden when he’s playing next to Jones and Moore; Duke’s spacing issues can be somewhat mitigated when their four, Hurt, is the best shooter and the most skilled offensive weapon on the roster - but for the most part, Coach K is going to have his work cut out for him figuring out how he can put a team on the floor that is going to be able to simultaneously be good offensively and defensively.
Which brings me all the way back to Jones.
I really do think we’re going to see him take a step forward this season. I believe that we are going to see so much more of what he can do to create, to lead. He deferred as a freshman. That’s what happens when the two best players in the sport are on your team and both of them happen to be at their best with the ball in their hands.
That’s not going to be the case this year.
This is going to be his team even if he ends up being the third- or fourth-leading scorer on “his team.”
But how much - and, perhaps more importantly, where, specifically - Jones improves as a sophomore will end up being what determines if Duke is a legitimate national title contender or simply one of those teams that finds themselves in that 3-5 seed range on Selection Sunday.
So where does he need to improve?
The obvious answer is in his perimeter shooting. I can roll through the numbers if you’d like. They aren’t pretty. Jones shot just 26.2 percent from three, and that was after hitting five threes against Virginia Tech in the Sweet 16. He shot 29.8 percent on all jumpshots. He shot just 27.4 percent on all catch-and-shoot jumpers and that number dropped to 16.6 percent when those catch-and-shoot jumpers were classified as guarded by Synergy’s logs. He actually shot 31.2 percent on off-the-dribble jumpers, but only two of the 24 that he mades last season came from beyond the arc. Making less than a third of your mid-range pull-ups is not exactly what analytics tells us is the most efficient way to play basketball.
You’re starting to see why defenses opted not to guard him last year.
Assuming Jones does become the shooter we want him to be, what does that change?
Again, there’s an obvious answer: Spacing:
It takes an extra body out of the paint. It makes it that much more difficult to figure out who to double off of if Carey goes into Marvin Bagley III mode. It makes playing a gapping defense more difficult. It strains a defense that gets put into rotation - if defenses need to run Jones off of the three-point line, it will create just that many more open looks off of ball reversals for Duke’s best shooters. Duke had one of the most efficient offenses in the country last season because of the fact that they had Zion and R.J. Those two can cover up a lot of flaws. They could go 1-on-2 or 1-on-3 and win because they’re awesome. As good as Carey and Hurt and Moore are, they are not the kind of players that will beat defenses that can pretend Tre Jones is Trey Wingo.
But what may be just as important is that it will open up more chances for Jones in ball-screen actions. If he can’t shoot then there is no reason for a defender to ever trail him over a screen, which more or less renders him useless in those actions. Going under a screen takes away chances to penetrate, it takes away the roll man and it limits the chances to play against a switch. It eliminates all the offensive advantages that ball-screens are designed to create. Defenses cannot go under screens against point guards that can shoot because ... well, it’s pretty obvious - you just give up wide-open rhythm threes.
And in theory, Jones should thrive in ball-screen actions. He’s a really good finisher in the paint. His in-between game - floaters and the like - is elite, and he finished last season averaging 1.157 points-per-possession finishing around the rim, and Coach K told reporters at media day that Jones has improved in this area in the offseason. Finally getting healthy has probably helped in that regard as well. He’s a good passer, a very good decision-maker and a guy who, in his high school days, was known for being someone that made good things happen with the ball in his hands.
We know how good Jones is defensively. His ball pressure at the point of attack is to Duke’s defense what photo editing apps are to Instagram models. We know that he’s a leader. We know that he’s a winner. I doubt you’ll find anyone that will argue against this statement: Jones does a lot of really good things on a basketball court.
And if he can find a way to be something other than a liability on the offensive end, we’ll start talking about them instead of laughing at the fact that teams decided not to defend him outside the paint.