Tyus Jones didn’t even break a sweat. During a recent Apple Valley High School basketball practice, Jones carried out his assigned tasks with minimal effort. He jogged when others ran. When others jogged, he walked.
If Jones, 16, conducts himself with the cool air of someone who has already been places and done things, it’s because he has. As one of the nation’s highest-rated high school juniors, Jones has already compiled an enviable résumé. Last year, he led the USA Basketball under-17 team to a gold medal in Lithuania. At national camps across the country, the pass-first point guard has bettered his peers from Florida, New York and California, and launched himself to the top of every college coach’s wish list.
Basketball factories including Duke and the University of Kentucky are recruiting Jones, as is the University of Minnesota. Coach Tubby Smith began to woo Jones by showing up at his first varsity practice. At the time, Jones was in eighth grade.
“It’s something I’m getting used to now,” said Jones, whose team is one win away from qualifying for the state tournament beginning Wednesday at Target Center. “I just kind of take it in stride, and try to roll with it.”
Apple Valley coach Zach Doring remarked on the youngster’s ability to stay levelheaded, despite all the attention.
“You kind of forget that he’s being so highly recruited, because he’ll never tell you about it,” Doring said. “He’ll never talk about it, at all. He’s just a normal high school kid that happens to be exceptional at basketball.”
Fine then, we’ll tell you about it: As Jones drifted through practice late last week, a Kansas University assistant coach sat courtside, watching intently. Only once did the prospect put his athleticism on display. As an underclassman went up for a shot, Jones sprung into the air and rejected the attempt with violence, in a moment that brought to mind what happens when an unsuspecting rabbit happens upon a rattlesnake.
Though he’s quick on his feet, Jones’ greatest strengths are subtle, and require close observation.
“His basketball IQ is very, very high,” Doring said. “When you watch him play you get an appreciation for how fundamentally sound he is — he doesn’t make mistakes.”
Almost as unique is Jones’ on-court style, or lack thereof. Despite his abundant skills, he opts for a relatively dull, technical approach to the game, which overwhelms opponents without humiliating them.
“I think it’s just how I was raised, as a human being,” Jones said. “My parents raised me to be a respectable young man.”
In YouTube highlight reels that have, by now, attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers, Jones also exhibits a distinct feel for the game’s rhythms. Approaching a thicket of defenders, all eyes on him, he nearly always manages to turn, wriggle, stop, lean and dart through to some unseen opening, evading the defense like a wisp of smoke passing through a keyhole.
Said wispiness might be temporary for the spindly, 6-foot-1 teenager, whose biological lineage should quicken the pulse of scouts.
“My dad is 6-foot-7,” he said. “So there’s still a possibility that I might have a growth spurt.”
Still undecided about his college choice, the self-confessed gym rat is content to keep his head down and turn his future over to the basketball gods. With a bit of luck, that future includes shoe commercials, ESPN, contracts that end with lots of zeros and his likeness in a video game.
If and when that day comes, Jones will be a man of the world. But for the next 12 months, the next big thing plays basketball in Apple Valley, of all places, and belongs to us.
Minnesota State High School League Boys’ Basketball Tournament
When: Wed.-next Sat. Where: Target Center, 600 1st Av. N., Mpls. Tickets: $9-$14.