Here’s How Duke Has to Adjust Without Injured Point Guard Tre Jones

    Duke's freshman point guard Tre Jones might be the fourth Blue Devils player mentioned in highlight shows and casual conversations when the nation's No.

    January 16, 2019

    Duke’s freshman point guard Tre Jones might be the fourth Blue Devils player mentioned in highlight shows and casual conversations when the nation’s No. 1-ranked team is discussed, but he’s as important as any player on their roster.

    That will soon become apparent – if it’s not already – after Duke announced Monday night that Jones will be sidelined indefinitely after suffering an acromioclavicular (AC) joint separation early in the Blue Devils’ 95-91 home loss to Syracuse in overtime.

    Jones, the younger brother of former Final Four Most Outstanding Player and current Minnesota Timberwolves guard Tyus Jones, is at the forefront of Duke’s attack on offense and defense.

    He orchestrates an offense that features future NBA lottery picks RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish while posting a 5.69-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

    For perspective, the best single-season assist-to-turnover ratio recorded since the NCAA started tracking the stat in 2008 was former Iowa State point guard Monte Morris’ 5.17 ratio in 2017. There have only been 13 seasons since ’08 in which a Division I player finished with a ratio above 4.00.

    Defensively, Jones has harassed opposing point guards and cut off passing lanes, which has established Duke’s defense as one of the five most efficient in the sport. The 6-2 point guard forces a steal on 3.7 percent of opponents’ possessions, which ranks 72nd nationally per kenpom.com, and allows the nation’s fourth-most efficient offense to score easily in transition with its elite athletes running the open floor.

    Despite playing just six minutes against Syracuse, Jones had four steals and in a bit of grim irony, it was his defensive awareness and hustle that led to his AC joint separating as he collided with Syracuse’s Franklin Howard after stealing the ball from Syracuse’s 7-2 center Paschal Chukwu.

    Here’s a look at what Jones brings to the table for Duke, what went wrong against Syracuse on Monday and how the Blue Devils will have to adjust without him.


    Jones has a keen awareness of where the ball’s at on defense and on a play prior to suffering his injury, he jumped a passing lane as Chukwu tried to save the ball from going out of bounds by throwing it to Howard at the top of the key.

    Jones intercepted the pass and immediately turned to lead a three-on-three fast break in which he played it perfectly by slowing down, looking the defense off to his right before hitting a streaking Barrett in stride to his left for a layup.

    Watch the play below.

     

    That wasn’t the first time Jones’ defense has led to transition offense this season. His three-quarters-court pressure led to an alley-oop to Barrett against Stetson. He clogged passing lanes against Texas Tech, leading to a thunderous oop to Williamson at Madison Square Garden.

    Jones had a season-high six steals in the win over Texas Tech and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said his freshman point guard is the best perimeter defender the Blue Devils have had since Chris Duhon, who finished his college career in 2004. That makes Jones almost a once-in-a-generation defender for Duke.

    Now Duke will look to its only other scholarship guards – sophomores Alex O’Connell, a 6-6 shooting guard who’s a 43.7 percent three-point shooter on 87 career attempts, and Jordan Goldwire, an unproven former three-star recruit who’s listed as a “quick guard with good court vision” on Duke’s roster – to help replace Jones’ minutes.

    O’Connell is eighth on the team in minutes at 14.4 per game and Goldwire is averaging 8.8 minutes per game this season, but has played just 11 total minutes in Duke’s five games against ranked opponents this season.

    While Williamson and Barrett might be selected No. 1 and No. 2 in the 2019 NBA Draft in some order and Reddish could also be a top-five pick, Jones might be the team’s most irreplaceable player considering his skill set, his leading role on both ends of the floor and the lack of depth behind him at the position.

    Goldwire immediately replaced Jones in the lineup when the latter left with the injury, but Goldwire played just eight minutes, finishing with zero points, zero rebounds, one assist, one steal and two fouls.

    Goldwire missed two open looks from three, including an airball from the left corner that led to a Syracuse runout and dunk, which puts him at 0-of-12 from deep this season.

    O’Connell scored 16 points and had three assists in 34 minutes, all of which were career-highs, suggesting that he’s the more efficient offensive replacement of the two reserve guards even if he’s a much different player than Jones.

    When Goldwire was on the bench, Barrett became the de facto point guard. Even with Goldwire in the game, Barrett was often situated atop Duke’s zone offense as the team’s primary creator.

    Despite Barrett’s near-triple-double of 23 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists against Syracuse, having Barrett operate as the team’s primary ball-handler for significant stretches has the potential to leave the Blue Devils too frequently settling for inefficient shots after stagnant offense. Barrett showed strong chemistry with Williamson, who was positioned in the middle of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, but the former took almost 40 percent of the Blue Devils’ shots in the game.

    Barrett attempted a team-high 30 shots on Monday – 10 more than Williamson and 20 more than any non-Williamson teammate.

    While leading the team with 23.4 points per game, Barrett has attempted 313 shots through 16 games, which is far more than Williamson (198), Reddish (170) and Jones (122). Jones’ injury removes the middleman between the ball and Barrett, so while Barrett is the team’s second-best creator, Duke’s offense could turn predictable if late shot clock situations frequently result in Barrett taking advantage of his green light from deep.

    Here’s how Barrett compares to Jones as a creator.

    Assist Rate Assists Per Game Turnover Rate Turnovers Per Game
    Tre Jones 27.5 5.7 11.6 1.0
    RJ Barrett 22.7 4.1 13.3 2.6

     

    One game after an incredibly efficient 32 points on 10-of-19 shooting against Florida State, Barrett was just 8-of-30, including a 4-of-17 mark from three-point range, against Syracuse. With Jones in the game, Barrett was 3-of-4 and he scored twice off of assists from his point guard. He was 5-of-26 without Jones.

    Duke’s three-point woes weren’t limited to Barrett. Junior Jack White was 0-of-10 and Williamson was 1-of-5 as the Blue Devils finished 9-of-43 (20.9%).

    Maybe Monday was the perfect storm of Duke playing without its best three-point shooter in Reddish, losing its starting point guard early in the game and playing Syracuse’s long 2-3 zone for the first time in some of its key players’ careers.

    But while Reddish will presumably make a quick return from his illness and Syracuse’s defense is unique, Duke will have to restructure its offensive and defensive attack while Jones is out.

    Here’s a look at the difference Jones made in his short time on the floor Monday and how Syracuse fared better with him off the court.

    Minutes Duke’s scoring margin Syracuse shooting Syracuse turnovers
    With Jones 6 +8 2-of-8 (25.0%) 5 (.83/minute)
    Without Jones 39 -12 33-of-72 (45.8%) 10 (.25/minute)

     

    On Duke’s last possession of the first half, the Blue Devils were up by four with the ball and the chance to extend their lead. But their offense looked out of sorts, and White held on to a pass from Barrett for too long and Duke committed a shot clock violation.

    That set the stage for Syracuse guard Elijah Hughes to hit a buzzer-beater from the opposite foul line, cutting Duke’s lead to one in a potential six-point swing before halftime.

     

    After a slow start with more than twice as many turnovers (5) and missed shots (6) than made field goals (2) to start the game, Syracuse outscored Duke by 12 after Jones left the contest.

    Syracuse guards Tyus Battle, Elijah Hughes and Franklin Howard combined for 68 points on 26-of-56 shooting (7-of-19 from three) as they were individually and collectively efficient without the hounding presence of Jones.

    Duke found success defensively playing zone last season and if the Blue Devils struggle to replicate the on-ball pressure of Jones, Krzyzewski could once again implement a zone defense, which could be effective given the team’s length.

    On offense, expect to see even more forward-heavy lineups from Duke with at times even four of the following forwards – Barrett, Williamson, Reddish, White and DeLaurier – on the floor at once. Unless Goldwire can close what appears to be a sizable gap between he and Jones, O’Connell could see a significant increase in minutes, potentially cracking the starting lineup, while playing off the ball alongside Barrett.

    Even if he’s playing out of his natural position, Barrett will need to be a more willing passer when acting as the team’s lead ball-handler, and his teammates will need to help the cause with aggressive cuts off the ball.

    With undefeated Virginia traveling to Durham for a game on Saturday, we’ll find out quickly if Duke still looks like a national championship contender without Jones.

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