The Apple Valley High School gym was eerily quiet Friday, considering about 750 people had arrived to see a consensus top-five national basketball recruit announce his college destination.
Tyus Jones, who had choked up moments earlier, thinking about his recently deceased grandfather, stood solemnly at a lectern, waiting for instructions through his ear piece from a television producer.
ESPNU had staged this moment so Jones and his close friend from Chicago, Jahlil Okafor, could announce their decisions together. Asked where they were going, Jones anxiously grabbed a charcoal colored hat from inside the podium and said, “Duke University.”
Seconds later, Okafor donned a blue cap and said those same two words.
The silence in both gymnasiums was gone, replaced by standing ovations and thunderous applause. Jones looked over at his family and exhaled.
“It’s over, baby!” said his older brother, Jadee.
Tyus Jones exhaled again. One of the most high-profile recruiting processes in Minnesota sports history finally had ended.
“It started four years ago,” Apple Valley coach Zach Goring said. “It was my first year as coach, so I’m nervous the first day, and there’s Tubby Smith from the University of Minnesota, coming over to watch our eighth-grader.”
Other coaches soon followed, including Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Kansas’ Bill Self, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Smith’s replacement at Minnesota, Richard Pitino. Jones never officially cut the Gophers from his list, but it had been assumed for months he would head out of state.
Okafor never listed the Gophers as one of his finalists. He and Jones had been planning to attend the same college together since 2011.
Okafor, a 6-11 center from Chicago’s Whitney Young High School, is the nation’s consensus No. 1 recruit in this year’s senior class. ESPN has Jones ranked No. 4 on that list. Their idea to attend the same school hatched in Colorado, during tryouts for the Team USA Under-16 squad.
“We became good friends, and we just kind of mentioned it one day, not seriously,” Jones said. “The more we both thought about it, the better the idea sounded.”
Jones said he and Okafor finalized their decisions Thursday.
“He’s like my best friend; he’s like a brother to me,” Okafor said. “If you take basketball out of the equation, he’s still somebody I wanted to go to college with.”
Jeff Borzello, a college basketball writer for CBSSports.com, said it’s rare for two elite recruits to announce they are going to the same school simultaneously.
“I think the chemistry they have is just going to be a huge advantage for Duke,” Borzello said. “It’s going to be one of the best point guards in the country, and the best big man in the country, and I think Duke immediately becomes maybe the national title favorite for next season.”
The Blue Devils’ starting point guard this year is junior Quinn Cook.
“He’ll be a senior next year, but it won’t be much of a contest [with Jones],” Borzello said. “Cook will have experience, and I think they’ll find ways to get them both on the floor, but I think Tyus Jones will start immediately.”
The 6-2 Jones averaged 20.9 points, 7.6 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 3.1 steals as a junior last year, leading Apple Valley to the Class 4A state championship. Krzyzewski, winner of four national titles at Duke since taking over at the Durham, N.C., school in 1980, cultivated the relationship for years.
Jones made the announcement one week after DeLaSalle forward Reid Travis picked Stanford over the Gophers. Travis ranks No. 23 on ESPN’s Top 100 recruits.
The only member of Minnesota’s “Big Three” left to make his college choice is Rashad Vaughn, who sits at No. 17 on ESPN’s list. The former Cooper shooting guard is playing his senior season at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev.
Jones said he and Okafor “feel that we can fit into [Duke’s] style of play right away as freshmen. And obviously Coach K — to have a chance to go and play under arguably the best coach of all time, and one of the best basketball minds out there, we felt like we would learn a lot under him.”
Emotions flowed for Jones throughout the half-hour announcement. The audience watched a two-minute video of his highlights, which ended with the words, “For Grandpa.”
Jones hung his head and wiped tears from his eyes. His mother’s father had passed away two days earlier. Jones also choked up several times when thanking his family, coaches, teammates, teachers and fellow students.
“The past four or five years — it’s kind of going through my mind, and I’m just thinking about all the phone calls, all the texts and all the trips,” Jones said. “It’s just been a long process, and I’m just excited for this day, to have this off my chest.”