APPLE VALLEY, Minn. — John Calipari texts him. Mike Krzyzewski flies to Minnesota to see him. Tubby Smith has been watching him play since his first varsity practice as an eighth-grader.
Yes, Apple Valley High School junior Tyus Jones is one of the most sought-after basketball prospects in the country. So much so that those coaches from Kentucky, Duke and Minnesota, among others, have been clamoring to recruit the talented point guard for years.
Earlier this month, Jones said thanks, but no thanks to several programs who were hoping for a shot at him. He took to Twitter — his account (@tyusjones06) now has nearly 10,000 followers — to shorten his list of schools he’s still considering playing for.
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The three aforementioned programs made the cut, as did Baylor, Kansas, Michigan State, North Carolina and Ohio State. It’s certainly an impressive list of eight schools that includes storied basketball programs and four of the past five NCAA champions.
Then again, Jones is on a rather impressive list himself. According to Scout.com, Jones is the nation’s top-ranked high school basketball player in the Class of 2014.
“It’s a good feeling. It’s a very humbling feeling,” Jones said of the accolade. “But at the same time, it makes you want to work that much harder because now people see you as the one they’ve got to go get, the one they’ve got to be working harder than.”
It’s scary to think that Jones, already the best high school basketball player his age, is striving to get better.
With his Team USA backpack slung over his shoulder, Jones leaves practice and heads into a classroom near the Apple Valley gym to talk about his future. The classroom is a fitting locale for the interview, because Jones knows he won’t have a future in basketball if he doesn’t focus on his studies first. It’s something his parents, Debbie and Robert, have instilled in him and his two brothers since they were little.
“You’ve got to take care of business in the classroom, or else none of this would even be thought about,” Jones said. “You’ve got to take care of your grades and then go home after practice, knock out homework and make sure all of that’s taken care of and all the studying. After all that’s done, that’s where everything else comes in, in your free time.”
Now that Apple Valley’s season has started, there likely won’t be much free time for Jones. Especially not on game days. No matter where he and the Eagles play, high school gymnasiums are packed as everyone wants to get a glimpse of Jones.
Local tournaments are banging down the doors to try to get Apple Valley to play in their events, mainly because of the buzz that surrounds Jones. But no matter how frenzied things have become for Jones, no matter how often college coaches text him (which can happen often now, thanks to a recent NCAA rule change), no matter how many scouting services list him as the top prep player, Jones has stayed grounded.
“You’ve got to really talk to him and dig into him a little bit to get anything,” said Zach Goring, Jones’ coach at Apple Valley. “There’s been days when a new big-time school has offered him and he doesn’t share it. You’ve got to hear it from somewhere else.
“That’s just the type of kid he is. He’s just a normal high school kid with unbelievable basketball ability.”
Becoming a leader
For top players such as Jones, basketball is hardly confined to the high school season.
Jones spent this summer playing for the Team USA Under-17 team, leaving one week after his sophomore year at Apple Valley finished up. After leading Team USA in assists with 43 in eight games, it was time for Jones to join his AAU team, the Howard Pulley Panthers, for their summer season. Jones and Co. advanced to the Peach Jam, an elite tournament consisting of the top AAU teams in the country, and lost to the soon-to-be-champion Oakland Soldiers by two points in the quarterfinals in July. Jones led all scorers with 28 points in that game and had a team-high three assists in the loss.
Once AAU season was done, Jones turned his focus back to Apple Valley. He’ll once again be a captain on an Eagles squad that had just one senior a year ago. As the team’s best player last season, Jones became a de facto leader as a sophomore. Now entering his fourth year on varsity, Jones knows he’ll be called upon even more to lead — on and off the court.
It’s something the soft-spoken Jones is working on. Leading by example never has been a problem for the gifted guard. But Goring said some of the college coaches recruiting Jones have told him he needs to be a more vocal leader.
“He’s so cool and calm and collected. They want him to talk a little bit more,” Goring said. “I know he’s really doing a good job with that. He’s a captain for us again. He leads, kids follow, that’s for sure.”
Hope for the hometown team?
With his college choices whittled down to eight schools, the recruiting process will take a different approach during Jones’ junior season. He said he doesn’t currently have any plans to pare that list down even more. In fact, he’s not sure whether he’ll do so at all before making his final decision.
Then there’s the question of how he’ll announce it. Perhaps on Twitter, like he did with his eight finalists? Or maybe during a hyped TV appearance, which seems to be the way so many top recruits do it these days?
“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I’m just kind of focusing on the main process.”
When that time does come, there will be plenty of basketball fans in the Land of 10,000 Lakes waiting with bated breath, hoping Jones decides to stay home. Many will look at his list of his eight finalists and say that Minnesota doesn’t belong with the other seven. The Golden Gophers haven’t made the NCAA tournament the past two years and haven’t been to the Final Four since 1997 — when Jones was just 1 year old.
Gophers fans would love for Jones to stay in the state and help Smith’s squad perhaps reach national relevance again. Most also take that approach with the belief that Jones will leave for the greener pastures of a more established program.
But Jones said there’s a reason the Gophers were among the eight teams to make the cut.
“If I wasn’t strongly considering them, they wouldn’t be one of my final eight,” he said. “They’re definitely a school I’m looking into, (my) hometown school. I grew up here watching them. It’s definitely a school that I’m strongly considering.”
Jones is a Minnesotan through and through. He grew up in Apple Valley, playing in the city’s youth basketball leagues before reinvigorating the basketball program at a high school known best for routinely winning state titles in wrestling. Jones watched the Gophers from a young age and already has been spotted at a game at Williams Arena this season.
In the end, Jones will have a tough decision to make, one that he’ll make by weighing more than just each school’s basketball program. Academics are among the top priorities, he said. But of course, he’ll be looking for the team and the coach that best fits his needs as a basketball player.
Regardless of any pressure he might feel from those in the state of Minnesota, Jones knows the decision is his and his alone.
“I’ve got eight very good schools,” he said. “That’s why it’s kind of like wherever I end up choosing to play college basketball, I’ll be happy with it because I’ve got eight very good schools I’m considering. You can’t really go wrong with any one of those.”