Tyus Jones received his first recruiting letter two years ago from the University of Southern California. He was 13. Today he has dozens of letters stacked in a black Nike shoe box that he keeps in his room. He chats regularly with college coaches such as Tom Izzo of Michigan State and Thad Matta of Ohio State. Gophers coach Tubby Smith frequently attends his games.
Jones, a 6-1 point guard finishing his freshman year at Apple Valley High School, is among the select invitees for separate summer skill camps hosted by NBA stars LeBron James and Chris Paul. Jones would love to attend, but the camps might conflict with a USA national team tryout, which is his top summer priority.
It's easy to forget he's barely a teenager -- he turned 15 on May 10 -- not even old enough to drive.
"I asked him one day, I said, 'What are you waiting on to leave practice?'" said Antwan Harris, coach of Jones' Howard Pulley AAU summer squad. "He said, 'I'm waiting on my mom.' I said, 'You don't got your driver's license yet?' He said, 'Coach, I'm 14.' On the court, he's not 14 years old."
The next three months will be intense, his schedule filled with elite AAU tournaments, select camps and the national tryout. His performance could have long-term ramifications.
Justify the hype that he is one of America's best young point guards -- and this state's most complete point guard since Minneapolis North star Khalid El-Amin in the 1990s -- and every major college will line up. Struggle, and his opportunities will diminish accordingly.
Jones says he is ready for the challenge.
"I try to be just mature about it," Jones said. "There's always those people that try to tag along if they think you're going to do big things in life. So you've got to surround yourself with the right people, which is family and close friends. You just got to keep it all in perspective and still work hard for your goals."
Don't expect early commitment
College coaches, per NCAA rules, can't initiate contact with Jones because of his age. But they can send him information, and he can call them if he chooses.
It's not unusual for a 15-year-old to make a verbal commitment. Indiana coach Tom Crean already has received commitments from two players who won't finish high school until 2014 -- the same year Jones graduates. Crean wants Jones, too. Florida and North Carolina are interested. Ohio State wants him to visit its campus. Minnesota and Iowa already have offered scholarships.
But don't expect an early commitment from Jones.
Every person with a basketball interest in him must first cross paths with his mother, Debbie Jones, who does her best to shield her son from the pressures. And she doesn't think an early commitment is a good idea.
"I just think now is too early [to commit]," she said. "Coaches change, kids come and go, you just really never know if you commit that early."
During a recent AAU tournament in Eagan, she rested on a set of bleachers underneath a basket as her son's squad destroyed another local program. Parents, coaches and other members of the basketball community greeted her.
Then she spotted her youngest son, Tre, roughhousing with two older boys. Debbie Jones glared in their direction, and all three boys stopped.
As the game progressed, Debbie Jones grew frustrated with the officiating. Disgusted by a no-call, she popped out of her seat and threw her hands in the air. During another game, she pointed to a spot on the court and urged Tyus to get back on defense.
Debbie Jones is a former point guard herself, having led Devils Lake (N.D.) High School to a state title as a senior. She also played in junior college.
Tyus often accused his mother of excessive fouling when they played one-on-one.
"I could still beat you," she chided her son recently.
She thought of the name Tyus while watching former UCLA standout Tyus Edney in the 1995 NCAA tournament.
She's the focal point for Tyus in a family filled with former basketball players. Tyus' father, Rob Jones, who is divorced from his mother, played for Division III Wisconsin-Parkside in the 1980s. Two half brothers, Jadee Jones and Reggie Bunch, also played college ball. His aunt, Darcy Cascaes, DeLaSalle High School's athletic director, earned all-North Central Conference honors as a point guard for North Dakota and also won a pair of state titles at Devils Lake. Al Nuness, a cousin whom Tyus calls his uncle, was a captain for the Gophers in the 1960s.
"It's kind of in the blood, I guess you could say," Tyus said.
His family knows how important it is that basketball doesn't become all-consuming and that he enjoy adolescence.
Jones, an outstanding middle school quarterback, is thinking about playing high school football for the first time in the fall. He's also an outstanding baseball pitcher and shortstop and is being courted by Apple Valley track coaches.
He plays NBA 2K11 on Xbox 360 against his friends. He wears monster headphones between AAU games, listening to hip-hop. He smirks when he's asked if he has a girlfriend. Oh, he's also an honor student and eager to get his driver's license.
"It's one of those things you get when you're a teenager," he said. "You're getting older, you're more mature. You have new responsibilities. It's good."
Talent evident at young age
Rob Jones took his son to his pickup games when he was in elementary school. By the time Tyus entered fifth grade, he played next to his father. Tyus would stay outside and shoot threes and Dad, who is 6-6, would work inside.
"After time, they learned to respect the little guy," Rob Jones said.
Tyus is still dominant when matched up against older players. He starts on Howard Pulley's 17-and-under squad. His teammates say he makes them better with his passing skills and court vision. And he's crafty enough to cut through defenders and score when his team needs a bucket.
"He's really gifted. ... really, really gifted," said Kyle Washington, Jones' Howard Pulley teammate and a standout forward at Benilde-St. Margaret's. "He makes all his teammates better. When I'm right there, I have to just keep on running, keep my eyes up and he hits me every time."
Jones scored 45 points against a Seattle squad in a Dallas tournament earlier this month. His performance prompted ESPN.com recruiting analyst Dave Telep to tweet: "I know it's early but there can't be many more PGs with a better overall feel for the position than 2014 Tyus Jones of Pulley."
Antonio Curro, who runs camps through a company called NY2LA.com, called Jones "the best point guard in the country in his class." Clay Dade, who operates the Sophomore All-American Camp in Atlanta, said Jones is "recognized as a phenomenal talent, a young player who plays beyond his years."
In early June Jones will travel to Colorado Springs to vie for a spot on the USA Men's National Developmental Team. In October, he survived a cut. The top 12 players will represent the United States in the FIBA Americas U16 Championship in Cancun, Mexico.
If Jones makes the team, he'll face some of the best 15- and 16-year-olds in the world. And if he doesn't, he'll try out again next year, part of USA Basketball's two-year relationship with its players.
James McAdoo (North Carolina), Adonis Thomas (Memphis) and Brad Beal (Florida) -- three athletes who have played for the developmental team the past two years -- are projected lottery picks in next summer's NBA draft, according to NBADraft.net.
"What makes this stand out is what they wear on their chests: USA Basketball," said Don Showalter, head coach of the U16 team.
Too much on his schedule?
If Jones makes the USA team, he'll be on the road for two weeks starting June 10, adding to an already packed travel schedule. From mid-April through late July, he and other top players tour the country with their AAU teams. Jones usually leaves Friday morning and returns Sunday night for tournaments outside of the state.
He practices with his Pulley team a few days a week. He works out with Jadee on the off days.
Earlier this month, his Howard Pulley squad competed at 10:10 p.m. on a Saturday night, then played the next morning at 9.
The workload clearly affected Jones. He missed most of his shots in that Sunday outing. He didn't have a lot of energy. During one stretch, he walked toward his mom and asked for some painkillers because his shins hurt.
"I like to hang with friends on the weekend," he said. "There's not really a lot of time during the week or on the weekends. ... Since we're on the road every weekend, staying in hotels every weekend, there's a couple times, I tell my mother, I just want to stay home."
He doesn't, of course. In fact, his mother says that on the rare weekend with no tournament, her son finds his way to a gym. Jones clearly embraces the stage that his skills have put him on. He allows himself to fantasize about where it all might lead, openly talking about his plan to play in the NBA.
He focused on the high-definition TV in his kitchen this month as Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose -- one of his idols -- chopped up the Atlanta Hawks defense. Jones' eyes never left the screen, even as he chatted with other people in the room.
"I do sometimes take a step back and just think about everything. It's crazy, going all these places," he said. "The USA team just kind of happened. That goes to show that working hard pays off even more than you'd expect. It's crazy, but it's paying off. I try to put in as much work as I can."