MEMPHIS – After the Timberwolves’ final game last season in Denver, point guard Tyus Jones looked at the “Minnesota” draped across the front of his blue jersey and caught himself in a moment of reflection.
Four years had passed since Flip Saunders made the move to draft him in the first round and before that game, the Wolves announced they were going to begin the process of seeking their next President of Basketball Operations. That person would decide Jones’ fate in restricted free agency. The Apple Valley native didn’t know what the future held, so he tried to soak in what could be his final moments in a Wolves uniform.
“I was just thinking it’s been a great four years if this happens to be my last game here,” Jones said. “If it doesn’t, so be it.”
So be it.
Gersson Rosas made the call not to match the Grizzlies offer of a three-year deal likely to end up around $28 million after incentives, and Jones was off to the next phase of his career away from home.
Jones said the free-agent process was “stressful” — it took about nine days from the beginning of free agency before he ultimately signed with Memphis — but there is no animosity between him and the Wolves organization.
“The Memphis organization, they believed in me,” Jones told the Star Tribune after the Grizzlies’ practice Tuesday in advance of Wednesday’s game between Jones’ old and new teams. “They showed extreme confidence in me. No ill will toward Minnesota or anything like that. I know it’s a business, and I knew going into it. So there’s no hard feelings on my end or anything like that. I know how it goes.”
It all made for a busy offseason for Jones, who was moving to a new city while trying to support his mother Debbie as she was going through treatment for breast cancer. But on that front, the Jones family got some welcome news in early October — Debbie is now cancer free. And as Tyus tries to continue his career with the Grizzlies, he at least knows his mom is back in Minnesota healthy and thriving.
“That was huge for me …” Jones said. “I’m not going to be able to be around her quite as much, not being down the street from her, and it’s definitely a big weight lifted off my shoulders that now I know she’s healthy.
“She can travel whenever she wants to. She can live her life again, and it’s just a great feeling. It’s something I definitely don’t take for granted.”
Nor did he take for granted being able to play for his hometown team, something Jones tried to cherish for much of last season, especially after his mother was diagnosed with cancer.
“It hit home that last year,” Jones said. “You just never knew what was going to happen in the offseason and what happened, happened. Last year it was like, ‘Man, I might not get this chance again to play for my hometown team.’ … It was just a cool experience, something I’m grateful for because not everyone gets to do something like that. It’s pretty unique and pretty cool.”
Wednesday will be an on-court reunion of sorts. Wolves coach Ryan Saunders called Jones a “player I care about and think very highly of,” while Karl-Anthony Towns — who arrived with Jones in the same 2015 draft class — showed the bond that still exists between them.
“First of all, more than anything, I’m glad his mother is doing well. That’s bigger than basketball. That’s bigger than anything we could talk about,” Towns said.
The Wolves decided not to retain Jones in part because they want to maintain salary-cap flexibility to attract an All Star-caliber player to Minnesota. Memphis believes it has that in rookie Ja Morant, also a point guard. Jones is only 23, but his demeanor is that of a more mature player, and the Grizzlies appreciate how Jones can use his experience to teach a roster full of players younger than him.
“He’s this great calming presence,” Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said. “He’s got such a high basketball IQ. He’s always talking in the timeouts. He’s pulling guys to the side one-on-one. Guys gravitate to him. … To have a guy that’s an extension of you on the floor and guys can talk to about a lot of things as they’re growing, it’s super beneficial for me and for our team.”
Jenkins’ words echo a lot of what Saunders has said about Jones, who is averaging 7.3 points and 4.5 assists in 21.3 minutes per game. His shooting percentage is down (36.2% overall, 9.1% from three-point range) but Jones isn’t showing signs of frustration and has embraced his role as a veteran leader.
“It’s been a good adjustment, something I’ve been ready for,” Jones said. “It’s just a new start, a fresh start for me.”
Even if it was hard to see it end in Minnesota.