The Minnesota Timberwolves rookie talks life in the NBA as a teenager, Flip Saunders and improvement
Zekriah Chaudhry also contributed with this story.
AS RISING STARS Zach LaVine and Karl Anthony-Towns competed in an oddly matched but entertaining one-on-one game on one court, as veterans Ricky Rubio and Tayshaun Prince rained down uncontested 3-pointers on another, and as too many shoes to count squeaked across the Minnesota Timberwolves practice facility, one player stayed off to the side, shooting free throw after free throw.
Rookie Tyus Jones kept shooting until he was the last player in the gym, always the same routine: Dribble dribble dribble, eyes on rim, rise up, follow through.
Success is something Jones, a Minnesota native, is accustomed to. A point guard, Jones first started for Apple Valley High School’s varsity team as an eighth-grader. He received his first Division I scholarship offer as a freshman.
In 2011, he started playing for Team USA’s U16 National Team and went on to win three gold medals for U.S. national teams (U16, U17 and U18). He won a state championship with Apple Valley in 2013 and finished his career as a three-time AP Minnesota Player of the Year and a three-time Gatorade Minnesota Boys Basketball Player of the Year. He finished as one of Minnesota’s all-time great high school players.
As one of the top high school basketball players in the nation, Jones went on to win a national championship at Duke, as well as earn the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player award, in 2015.
In June, Jones was drafted 24th overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers and then traded to his hometown team: the Timberwolves. This season, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound point guard averaged just more than 4 points per game and almost 3 assists. After a December run in the NBA Developmental League in which Jones averaged almost 25 points and five assists per game, he made his return to the Wolves (29-53) and finished the season with the team.
In March, during the first weekend of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, ThreeSixty Journalism had the chance to talk with the Minnesota phenom about life as a teenager in the NBA, his family of basketball players, March Madness and more.
Aidan: What is it like to be a 19-year-old in the NBA playing for your hometown team?
Tyus Jones: It’s great. It’s a true blessing. I mean, it’s just a dream come true, to be from Minnesota and to be a 19-year-old and to be able to call yourself a professional basketball player, there’s nothing like it.
A: Can you describe the adjustment for you from the college game to the NBA?
TJ: It’s a big adjustment, just the speed of the play, the tempo. Obviously there are bigger, stronger athletes. Just the pace of the play—the windows are smaller, you’ve got to make decisions a little bit quicker and get your shot off quicker. Just different stuff like that where it’s just an adjustment. You’ve got to get used to it if you’re going to be playing.
A: You had a stint in the D-League in December and really tore it up. What did you learn from that experience and did it help you get in a groove with the Timberwolves once you returned?
TJ: I learned to just keep working hard on the stuff I’ve been working on in my workouts and in practice. Carry it over to a game, that was good to see for my confidence. It definitely got me into a little bit of a groove when I came back.
A: You’ve been playing more minutes lately, shooting above 42 percent from the 3-point line, which leads the team, and you have a solid assist-to-turnover ratio. How do you want to build on your game moving forward?
TJ: Just continue to try to improve in all areas of my game. Continue to shoot open shots with confidence when my teammates give me a good pass. That’s them believing in you to knock it down, so just believe in yourself, have confidence and just continue to try to get better. Each day I’m trying to be better than yesterday, so I think just continuing to try to work on all areas of my game.
A: What is it like to play on the same team as Kevin Garnett, a future Hall of Famer and a Timberwolves legend?
TJ: It’s unbelievable. It’s kind of surreal, especially for me growing up in Minnesota and being a Timberwolves fan and a “KG” fan. I just always remember coming to the games and, you know, KG was and is the biggest deal in Minnesota, so to now be a teammate of his is kind of crazy and doesn’t feel real sometimes when I take a step back and look at it. He’s been great to me, a great teammate and a great big brother to me, and someone who’s helped me adjust my rookie year.
A: Your coach Sam Mitchell was recently quoted as saying you’re doing well but that you still have a long way to go. Do you take that as a personal challenge, or how do you react to that?
TJ: That’s just him being truthful and honest, and that’s what you want. I obviously have things to work on and I’m going to continue to do so. He’s been letting me know every day, he’s been on me, what I need to work on, what I need to get better at, and that’s what you want because you want to continue to get better, you want to know what you can work on and know that the coaches care enough to tell you what to work on. It’s good and it’s definitely something that I take as a challenge.
Zekriah: You’ve talked a lot about how your older brother, Jadee, has influenced your career as a basketball player. Now your younger brother, Tre, is tearing it up at Apple Valley. How are you trying to influence him in a way similar to how Jadee influenced you?
TJ: First by example. I knew for a number of years now he’s looked up to me. So just lead by example and know that he’s always watching me and what I do, and trying to emulate what I do, whether it’s on the court, off the court, no matter what it is. Secondly, now that he’s starting to get recruited and he is kind of coming into his own and kind of carving his own path, just be there for him to support him. Make sure he always has someone in me, as an older brother, that he can go to just like I always had. So I’ll just be there for him, support him and continue to be his biggest fan.
Z: Having been through the recruiting process, what kinds of things are you telling him right now?
TJ: To just enjoy it right now and take it slow, just because it’s the beginning for him. He’s still got a long ways to go before he has to go to college, so just enjoy it and take it slow right now. He’ll be fine.
Z: Dating back to your high school career, you had a close relationship with Flip Saunders. Now that he has passed away, how are you dealing with that? Are you still playing for him?
TJ: I am, I definitely am. It’s tough. It was a tough stretch for us all, everyone in this organization and on this team at the beginning of the year with him passing. And for myself, like you said, knowing him in high school and having a relationship with him. It’s tough for me just because I had that previous relationship with him and didn’t get a chance to officially play under him, but the fact that he had faith in me and trusted me to be a point guard on this team, to go make me a part of this organization, I’m definitely playing for him still because without him I wouldn’t be here. I just want to prove that he was right about me.
Z: It’s March Madness now. What kind of memories does that bring up for you? And a lot of brackets are busted now, so how’s your bracket doing?
TJ: It brings back a lot of great memories for me. It doesn’t feel like it was a year ago already, but I remember it like it was yester-day. Just a lot of great memories, something that I’ll never forget, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I wish everyone could experience and go through. A lot of great memories.
My bracket is doing okay—not great, but not completely busted, so there’s still some faith. (He picked Duke to win it all.)
Z: Take me back to draft night. What was that like?
TJ: Unbelievable. Once again, that is another moment in my life where I was extremely blessed and another time I will never forget and I will always remember very vividly. It’s just something that I have worked so hard for and to get to, and my family just was able to really enjoy that night. One of the best nights of my life, that Tuesday.
Z: What are you looking for in the future of this organization? Where do you see the Timberwolves going?
TJ: We are all working toward getting better and improving individually and as a whole. We see winning in our future. We want to win a championship one day, and you have to take steps to doing that. So right now we are just trying to build up a team and continually get better.
Z: What role do you play on that future team?
TJ: Just a point guard on this team. Someone who is in control at all times, being able to just set up guys—I’ve got a lot of talented guys around me. And also scoring when needed to, knock down shots, being able to space the floor and then put pressure on other teams’ point guards. So just someone who is a complete point guard for this team and fits in with the other talented guys that we have.
As a freshman at Duke University two seasons ago, Tyus Jones hit several big shots, including a clutch 3-pointer toward the end of the 2015 national championship game against Wisconsin that helped seal the Blue Devils’ fifth national title in school history. Jones, who finished with 23 points in the game and earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors, was given the nickname “Tyus Stones”–Pres. Barack Obama reportedly called him “Tyus Stones” during Duke’s ensuing trip to the White House—for his clutch late-game performances. Here’s what Jones had to say about how he approaches those situations.
“Confidently, confidently. Being poised is something that I’ve always prided myself on. As a point guard, you have to keep your teammates poised and they look toward you, you’re the leader on the court. So when it comes down to those, my teammates and coaches had always believed in me to take those shots and just make those plays, whether it be getting an assist, setting up a teammate, calling a play or taking a shot, they always trusted in me, and that’s big. I never wanted to let my teammates and coaches down so when it came down to taking those shots, that’s how I did it, is not wanting to let them down and taking them with confidence.”