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The Indispensable Man

Tre Jones’ injury leaves Duke in a tough position.

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NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Duke
Jan 14, 2019; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Tre Jones (3) reacts after colliding with Syracuse Orange guard Frank Howard (23) while going after a loose ball during the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium. 
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The most unkind thing about the injury that Tre Jones suffered Monday night against Syracuse was that he was playing at an incredibly high level.

Jones had forced four steals in the six minutes he played and pushed Duke to a 12-0 lead to start the game. When he went out, Duke was ahead 14-6 and looked ready to blow Syracuse out.

Less than two minutes later it was a two point game.

That suggests the impact that Jones was having on the game but only partially. He had two assists and four steals in six minutes and one basket which was fairly incredible as he was being chased down by 7-2 Paschal Chukwu.

For six minutes against Syracuse, Jones was transcendent and then, in the blink of an eye, in the crush of a shoulder, he was gone, which leaves the question: what now?

As we showed in a previous post, there are three gradations of an AC separation and we don’t know how severe his is. Presumably the team either knows already or will know sometime today and then will know just what to expect for his recovery. If we’re lucky it will be relatively brief; if we’re not, it could be season-ending.

And that would be a shame.

RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson have gotten the lion’s share of attention in the freshman class and Cam Reddish has shown flashes of brilliance that tantalize.

Jones has been quieter, content to be the driver of an exuberant Ferrari. But his ball pressure and his ability to keep it when he has it have been highly unusual. Recently Coach K placed him with great Duke point guards like Bobby Hurley and Tommy Amaker which is extraordinary for a guy who has played in 16 games. It’s fair though. Jones has shown he’s as good as anyone and is in the process of turning what is traditionally a conservative position into an attack position.

Most point guards are about steadiness and conservation. A relative few like Jason Kidd or Magic Johnson have a brilliance that allows them to dominate on offense without necessarily scoring much. But dominating a game defensively? It just doesn’t happen too often. Billy King did it at Duke as a versatile forward and Gary Payton did it as an NBA guard. At his best, Kawhi Leonard does it but he’s 6-7 with a 7-3 wingspan.

There are some key differences here.

King was 6-6 and could defend four positions on the floor and often had a size advantage. Leonard is 6-7 and has a 7-3 wingspan. David Robinson and Patrick Ewing, the most intimidating defenders we can recall, used great height and athleticism to control the lane. But point guards? It’s really rare to see a point guard dominate defensively. The best we’ve seen in person might have been Maryland’s great Juan Dixon.

It just takes immense energy to dominate from that position. You have to run the team on offense and deal with being defended yourself.

The level of energy Jones expends is phenomenal and perhaps not surprisingly, his injury came in pursuit of the ball: he had just knocked it loose from Chukwu and was diving after it when he was hurt.

Duke did many good things without Jones. We can’t remember the last time that three guys on the same Duke team had double doubles (a triple double double?) as Barrett, Williamson and Marques Bolden did. If Jack White hadn’t been ice cold or if Reddish had been able to go at least a few minutes, things might have been very different. But we’ll never know.

It’s a shame for Duke, because the freshmen were toughening up and hitting new levels and the entire team was coming together, showing great chemistry and potential for further growth.

It’s also a shame for Jones. He’s been having a brilliant season and people are going to have to think of him when they think of the nation’s best point guards. On offense he’s really taken care of the ball and on defense he’s simply off the charts good.

Duke is going to have a tough time replacing him for however long Jones is out although Barrett did a tremendous job in many ways. His scoring probably suffered as he switched to primary ball handler, but he finished with 20 points, 16 boards and nine assists. As any random Plumlee might say, that’s a man’s game.

But as brilliant as he is, Barrett can’t do what Jones does. If he’s out for long, the Blue Devils will have to do some creative tinkering. Fortunately, Duke has a master tinkerer in Mike Krzyzewski.

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