A few years ago, I heard about a conversation that Rick Pitino had about local prep star, Tyus Jones. I was one layer of hearsay removed from it, and it’s been a few years, but here is the general gist of what Pitino apparently said about the Apple Valley prospect:
“Tyus Jones is not a ‘one-and-done.’ He thinks he’s a one-and-done, but he is not a one-and-done.”
It wasn’t an earth-shattering assessment of Tyus, if you had seen what he looked like — scrawny and maybe not even six-feet tall — but I found the phrasing sort of interesting, especially from somebody in Pitino’s position. Pitino probably recruited Jones to play for him at Louisville, and in that process he came away thinking that the kid was more confident about his pro prospects than he should have been. (Also, Pitino’s son Richard had recently taken over the University of Minnesota coaching job, and he was definitely trying to recruit Jones. I’m sure father and son compared notes.) Despite his high hopes for himself, thought Pitino, Jones was not going to be ready for the NBA within nine months of stepping foot on whatever campus he chose. (Duke, as it turned out.)
A few years later, was Pitino right or wrong?
I mean, Tyus was, literally, a one-and-done. He went to Duke, won a national championship (and Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four honors) and was selected by Flip Saunders and the Timberwolves in the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft.
In that respect, Pitino was wrong.
But last year as an NBA rookie, in terms of Tyus’s actual production and overall readiness as an NBA player, Pitino’s assessment was probably validated too. Tyus was overwhelmed in many of his rookie-year stints on the floor. Sam Mitchell remained loyal to the unexpectedly-fallen Flip Saunders and committed to development over “win now” strategies. He played youngsters like Jones the minutes they needed to learn on the job. But in Tyus’s case more than anyone else’s, there was question of whether those minutes were constructive or discouraging.
Jones shot a miserable 35.9 percent from the field. Worse than his shooting percentage was the drop-off in Timberwolves quality of play when Jones manned the point instead of Ricky Rubio. With Rubio at the helm they actually outscored opponents by 1.1 points per 100 possessions, With Tyus, they were outscored by a whopping 10.0 per 100. That is like dropping from a 7 or 8 seed level of play down to the worst team in the entire league.
But watching Jones, three things stood out that gave some hope that his future might still be bright, even if it would require patience.
First, Jones’s struggles were purely physical and he had the look of a teenager who hadn’t matured or filled out yet. He looked like the 8th grader playing up on the varsity team. This was not John Wall, Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook. Physically, Tyus’s body looked more like Davidson Steph Curry. He needed time in the weight room before his future could be accurately projected.
Second, Tyus showed off a very advanced understanding of point guard play. Despite his physical inability to play defense or separate himself for efficient shots, Tyus limited his turnovers (2.1 per 36 minutes) and racked up a fair number of assists (6.8 per 36). Tyus would throw a push-ahead pass up the floor if there was a break to be explored. He would hold the ball and reset the offense if the Wolves needed to calm down for a possession. He knew how to play pick-and-roll offense.
Third, he finished the season stronger than he started it. In my season “fourth quarter” report card, I wrote this about Jones (who received a B grade for the fourth quarter):
In the final quarter of the season, Jones had a nice assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.5 to 1, with those precise averages of each per game. Per 36 minutes, those adjusted to 7.1 assists to 1.9 turnovers. His net rating, which was catastrophic for much of the season, improved to a “merely bad” level of (-3.8). It was not the worst among regular Wolves players. His big struggle in the final quarter was three-point shooting: he went on a stretch of 12 games without hitting a 3. (He attempted 18 of them in that streak.) But Jones had nice games when it mattered most, like his 8 points and 6 assists in a win at Washington, and — more impressively — his 7 points and 5 assists in the shocker at Golden State.
Jones is on the Timberwolves fan’s mind right now because he just finished his MVP campaign in the Las Vegas Summer League that concluded on Monday night. He was announced as the league MVP before the final game began, and then played one more great game, albeit this time in an overtime loss to the Bulls. As Kyle Ratke laid out in his recent story on Jones, he put up impressive stats across the board in the summer league. 20.4 points, 6.8 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game. He shot over 40 percent from three-point range.
When I watched Jones in the summer league, I was impressed by two things. One was his knack for pulling two defenders his way on pick-and-rolls, and then maximizing the amount of space his next pass’s recipient would have to play 4 against 3. He was working angles and outsmarting defenses. The second thing that stood out was the way Tyus was attacking in the lane, drawing contact, and finishing off the glass. This was a stronger player than we saw a few months ago.
But like many of the current players on this Timberwolves roster, we’re asking ourselves more about potential than present ability. With Tyus, there seems to be a consensus that his NBA ceiling (already defined despite his 20th birthday occurring two months ago) is a decent backup point guard. I find myself thinking this with some level of certainty. For me, last year, what seemed to temper my enthusiasm for Jones’s upside — aside from his shoddy play — was that he just seemed too SMALL to be a dominant NBA point guard. He was not blazing fast either, but I’m chalking up some of that perceived lack of burst to the physical immaturity thing. To me, I just thought he looked small.
Well, that’s something that can be measured.
On the indispensable Draft Express website there is an archive of prospect measurements that dates back many years. NBA teams often falsify player heights in game programs and in pregame introductions. To determine true player size, the DX website is something of a go-to source.
In it, Jones is listed at a hair over six feet tall (6’0.25″) without shoes on. With shoes — which until recently I didn’t realize is how player height is most often discussed — Tyus stands at 6’2″. Whether this is too short to play point guard effectively in the NBA is most easily analyzed by looking at heights of the game’s best point guards.
Here are some other point guard heights (without shoes), per the DX database:
- Chris Paul – 5’11.75″
- Stephen Curry – 6’2″
- Russell Westbrook – 6’2.25″
- Mike Conley – 5’11.75″
- John Wall – 6’2.75″
- Kyrie Irving – 6’1.75″
Kyle Lowry is not listed on the DX archive. According to Google, he is 6′ tall. Ricky Rubio is also absent from the site’s listing. He’s probably more like 6’3″ without shoes.
It seems that Tyus is about the same height as some of the league’s best point guards. He is slightly taller than CP3 and Conley. He’s a little bit shorter than Kyrie. He might be taller or shorter than Kyle Lowry.
While Tyus is never going to be a “big” point guard, he might be big enough.
Bringing this back to what Pitino said, it’s noteworthy that many of the NBA’s best “true” point guards — by this I mean the ones who don’t fly to the hoop like Russ Westbrook or Derrick Rose — stay multiple years in college. Steph Curry played three years at Davidson. Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry played two years at their schools. Mike Conley only played for one season at Ohio State, and he struggled as a rookie in the NBA.
So with Tyus, who really knows?
Maybe he is one of the many cases — usually reserved for ‘project’ big men — who is “ready to be drafted, but not ready to play.” Maybe this coming season — which could have been Tyus’s junior year at Duke — will be the one where he breaks out into an impressive NBA player, now able to handle the size and pace of the pro game. Or maybe it’ll be the year after that. Or maybe it’ll never happen.
What we know is that Jones can look like an outstanding player against competition that doesn’t physically overwhelm him, and that he was not suited to play in the NBA last year as a 19-year old.
What we don’t know is how much stronger he will get, and whether the skills that he shows off when playing with confidence will ever make their way onto the NBA game floor with consistency.