The Basketball Joneses: Tre Jones quest to climb out of brother Tyus’ shadow
NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- Tyus Jones was a celebrity in Minnesota by the time that he was in eighth grade.
Before he was even enrolled at Apple Valley High School, he was starting on the varsity team, calmly handling point guard responsibilities against kids four years his senior while playing in gyms so packed you couldn’t get in the door if you showed up at tip-off.
That wasn’t just for high school games, either. Summer league, fall league, local AAU and EYBL events. If Tyus was playing, people were watching. For five years, he was to the Twin Cities what LaMelo Ball was to Las Vegas last week.
“For the state, he galvanized a huge interest in basketball,” Jadee Jones, Tyus’ older half-brother, said. “Before he was a junior in high school, if you typed Apple Valley into google, it showed up Apple Valley, Calforinia. Now it shows up Apple Valley, Minnesota.”
Tyus never left his hometown high school, spending five years with the Eagles while winning a state title, getting named Mr. Basketball and becoming a McDonald’s All-American as a senior. He enrolled at Duke where he won the 2015 National Title and the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award before becoming a one-and-done, first round pick by the local NBA team, the Minnesota Timberwolves. It was enough that the town of Apple Valley, a Twin Cities suburb with a population of roughly 50,000 people and little previous basketball history to speak of, turned April 22nd, 2015, into Tyus Jones Day, where he received a key to the city, threw out the first pitch at a Twins game and had his number retired at Apple Valley High after a parade through the town.
For Tyus, that’s quite a legacy to leave.
For Tre, the youngest of the three Jones’ brothers, it only increased the burden of expectation that came with growing up in the shadow of a local legend.
Perhaps the most striking fact about the success that Tyus and Tre have had is that it is not the direct result of winning the genetic lottery.
Both brothers stand roughly 6-foot-1. Neither crack 200 pounds. Tre is more athletic than Tyus, but neither of them will ever be confused with, say, Russell Westbrook or John Wall or peak-Derrick Rose. From a basketball perspective, they are both very average when it comes to the kind of measureables that make NBA GMs salivate over potential.
Enter Jadee Jones.
A former Division I player himself -- Jones played two years at Furman before transferring back to Division II Minnesota State-Mankato -- Jadee is as responsible for the basketball development of both of his little brothers as anyone. He graduated from Mankato in 2009 with a degree in Health and Exercise Science and a dream of becoming a basketball trainer, making a career out of “blending improvement of the physical traits with skill development.” He’s also 10 years older than Tyus and 14 years older than Tre, an awkward age gap that slots the elder somewhere between father figure and best friend. That, however, ended up being perfect for the three, as Jadee has thrived in the role of coach.
Basketball is the life-blood of the Joneses. Mom, Debbie, won a state title as a point guard in North Dakota and spent some time playing in the Junior College ranks. Tyus and Tre’s dad, Rob, played at Division III Wisconsin-Parkside. Another half-brother, Reggie Bunch, played at Robert Morris University, while an aunt, Darcy Cascaes, and an uncle, Al Nuness, were all-conference players at North Dakota and Minnesota, respectively.
“All basketball, all the time,” Jadee said. “Gets to Grandma a little bit. She wants to be able to talk about different things.”
Jadee returned to Apple Valley at the time that his family started to realize that one of their own, Tyus, had a chance to be something special. There was no better guinea pig for Jadee, and after Tyus had completed his first season on varsity as an eighth grader, the two began training as if Tyus -- and Tre -- were already professionals. The specific workouts have changed over the years as Jadee has learned more and the younger pair continued to improve, but the core philosophy has remained the same: Monday-through-Thursday, it was weights in the mornings and skill sessions in the afternoons as they prepared for whatever tournament or tryout Tyus had the upcoming weekend. If there were no trips on the weekend, the workouts continued. During the school year, schedules changed as the boys had class and team practices to attend, but the dedication didn’t; it was not uncommon to see Tyus or Tre leaving the house before dawn to make it to a 5:30 a.m. workout.
As time as passed things have changed. After returning to Minnesota from Duke, Tyus now lifts in the morning at the Timberwolves’ facility. The Monday-through-Thursday schedule is tailored around Tre’s summer travel. Jadee has turned working his brothers out into a successful business called Top Flight Basketball Academy, and those daily workouts now include a handful of other local high school, college and professional players.
But that hasn’t stopped the trio from finding some time almost every day to train.
"[Jadee] has sacrificed so much just trying to help me and Tre become the best basketball players we can be and achieve our goals and dreams,” Tyus said. “He’s someone who is extremely smart, knows the game, studies the game, knows the body. I’m thankful to have an older brother like that in my corner.”
“He’s the toughest on me as a coach,” added Tre. “I know that that’s because he sees the potential in me and he wants me to be the best player I can be, and I want nothing less than that.”
Tyus was a sensation as an eighth-grader, when he was the starting point guard for Apple Valley’s varsity team.
“We are playing every single game sold out. Most games were sold out at the JV game,” Jadee, who has worked as Apple Valley’s JV coach and an assistant for the varsity team, said. “It was a circus at away games. Every where we went, the other team, that was their biggest crowd of the season. It was wild. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
At one of those games, a little kid was plucked out of the stands at halftime to compete in the kind of challenge that you see at halftime of every basketball game: Make a layup, a free throw, a three-pointer and a half-court shot in 30 seconds. It seemed cruel. He was too small.
That little kid proceeded to make the layup. Then the free throw. Then the three-pointer. By the time he knocked down the half-court shot, the crowd had erupted. That kid was a fourth-grader by the name of Tre Jones.
That night seven years ago serves as an apt metaphor for Tre’s career to date. The attention always seems to be on his older brother, but when given his chance to shine, Tre has done just that. Tyus won Mr. Basketball in the state as a senior, but Tre was on the varsity roster as an eighth-grader that year, just like Tyus. When Tyus was in the process of winning that national title at Duke and taking home the MOP trophy, the one that earned him a parade, Tre was busy winning the first of two state titles for the Eagles. The second one came this past spring, when, for seemingly the first time in his life, all the focus was on him.
Prior to last season, Tre wasn’t even the most famous player on either his Apple Valley High School team or the loaded Howard Pulley EYBL team both brothers played for. Gary Trent Jr., a top ten player in the Class of 2017 and a Duke commit himself, was. But Trent transferred to Prolific Prep in California for his senior season, leaving Tre as the face of both teams.
He more than lived up to the hype, leading Apple Valley to their third state title in five years -- and his second state title, besting Tyus -- before leading Pulley to an impressive EYBL season and a spot in the Elite 8 at Peach Jam, the preeminent summer event on the AAU circuit. In the process, Tre staked his claim to the title of best point guard in the Class of 2018, rocketing up recruiting rankings. Last fall, he was generally thought of as a top 50 talent. He’s currently the 9th-ranked player -- and the top point guard -- in 247’s composite recruiting rankings.
“Tyus set the bar, and Tre came along. Everyone said Tre is playing in Tyus’ shadow,” Debbie said. “When you follow somebody, and your brother had that kind of success, people expect that stuff early. I think Tre maybe developed the accolades a little later.”
That wasn’t always easy on Tre.
“Early on in his high school career, maybe his freshman year and even sophomore year, it was tougher for him, trying to pave his own way and kind of do his own thing and earn his own stripes,” Tyus said. “The older he’s gotten, the less pressure he’s felt as the success has come.”
The irony of it all is that the cause of all this outside pressure on Tre -- the success Tyus has had, his local celebrity, the enormity of the footsteps Tre is trying to follow in -- provided the youngest Jones with the perfect blueprint on how to handle it. Tyus was the most famous basketball player in the Twin Cities at 14 years old, and he lived up to the hype. If anyone knows how to handle pressure, it’s him.
“It’s something we talk about quite a bit,” Jadee said. “Doing everything you can control to maximize the opportunities you have and being the best player and person that you can be is more important than outdoing someone else. Tre, he puts a lot of pressure on himself ... but I think he more gets wrapped up in the process of what he’s doing day-to-day instead of check marks for what he’s doing compared to Tyus.”
“He has had some success and he grew into it, yes, but the foundation of the mentality was there. Tyus handled an immense amount of pressure as well, because when he was in eighth grade everyone in the state of Minnesota recognized him and wanted to watch him play. Everything was a circus, and you could never tell [by the way Tyus acted] that was the case. I saw him have one bad game in five years of high school. The pressure never bothered him.”
Tyus quickly learned the value of putting in the work. It dates back to a fall league game before his sophomore season, when he went up to dunk on an opponent. He missed the dunk off the back of the rim, but the difference was clear. After a full spring and summer of going through Jadee’s workouts, the improvement was right there in front of him. The results were tangible.
And Tre saw it all. He was in fifth-grade, doing the same things that Tyus was doing, watching his idol throw himself headfirst into a dream, using the day-to-day grind to block out that external noise.
“They would be getting up before school to work out, or they would be going two-a-days, and that’s when I didn’t need someone else to push me,” Tre said. “Someone else can only push you so far. Once I saw Tyus go through it all, and especially when his hard work started to pay off, that’s when I took it upon myself.”
Some believe Tre has a higher ceiling that Tyus simply because he’s a better athlete. He’s longer, he’s springier, he’s a better defender. At this point, Tyus is still a better shooter than Tre, but what has always set Tyus apart from other point guards is the way he sees the game. “He’s a general,” Jadee, who knows his brothers’ games better than anyone, says. “He can see what’s happening and initiate actions to manipulate what he sees. He does that on a level that you don’t see the impact that he has, because he’s moving the ball or himself at a certain time to a certain spot.”
“Tre goes at being a point guard with a lot of fire. With his feet, the things you can see, the hustle plays, the defense, the rebounding, taking charges, scoring in transition.”
Their play matches their personalities -- Tyus can be quiet and pensive, Tre is a busy-body that wears his emotions on his sleeve -- and part of the change in Tre’s perception had to do with how well both Apple Valley and Pulley did despite losing Trent.
Maybe Tre has more of Tyus’ ‘natural point guard’ ability in him than people realized.
Which means that maybe, one day, Tyus will be known as Tre’s older brother.
The question in recruiting circles now is whether or not Tre is a lock to follow in Tyus’ footsteps in college.
Is he going to Duke?
Many believe he is, but according to every member of the Jones family that NBC Sports spoke to, that decision will be left to Tre.
He wants to be recruited. He wants to develop a relationship with different coaching staffs. He wants to make sure that he is making the right decision on where to go to school. As it stands, Duke is one of five schools left on his list, along with UCLA, USC, Minnesota and Ohio State. The Buckeyes weren’t previously in the mix, but due to Tre’s relationship with Chris Holtmann and his staff when Holtmann was at Butler, he’s now considering the school; the coach was always on his list.
"[Tyus] is behind me, any decision I make, what I feel is best for me,” Tre said. “He went [to Duke], but at the same time he’s been through all this. He knows whatever the best fit for me is the best fit for me. He’s going to support me 100 percent.”
“We already got a lot of Duke gear,” Jadee said, chuckling, “but when all the cards are out there, if he feels like there’s another spot that’s better for him, we’ll support that.”
That’s how the family rolls.
When it comes to basketball, they always support each other. Blood is thicker than college. No questions asked. The traveling party that made it down to North Augusta for Peach Jam was nearly ten-deep, including Jadee, Tyus and Grandma. The closer the games are to home, the bigger the Jones’ section in the stands gets, whether it’s a high school game, a Pro-Am or a YMCA game for one of Jadee’s three sons.
“My oldest is going to start his four-year old YMCA basketball league stuff this winter, and we’ll probably have eight or nine people there,” he said. “First and last out of the gym.”
The only real sibling rivalry that Tyus and Tre care about?
Who ends up being the cool uncle.
“It’s me,” Tre said. “We both have a lot of fun with our nephews, but of course I’m going to say me.”