This is the second of a series about Apple Valley teenager Tyus Jones, a sophomore-to-be who is considered one of the top players in the nation in his age group.
COLORADO SPRINGS — Tyus Jones enjoyed the luxuries afforded to elite youth basketball players -- a free trip, complimentary gear and an all-he-could-eat buffet -- during his tryout earlier this month for USA Basketball's 16-and-under national team.
The star point guard for Apple Valley's varsity squad since middle school didn't fully process the magnitude of the moment until he was standing next to 14-time gold medalist Michael Phelps in a cafeteria line at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"That was crazy. We were all eating, he was just in line just like us, eating. Then, he was sitting in the cafeteria a couple tables away. It was crazy," said Jones, who will be a sophomore next year. "It kind of puts it in perspective how big this is. You have to act like you've been here before. He's just here doing what we're doing, really: training, trying to get better."
Jones, the only Minnesotan invited to the tryout, made the final 12-man roster, earning an opportunity to compete for a gold medal at the FIBA Americas U16 championships in Cancun, Mexico, starting Tuesday. The 6-1 guard competed against 26 other highly touted 15- and 16-year-old American basketball players over three days of strenuous practices.
The players, most of whom had never before had to worry about surviving a cut, gathered the evening of June 12 in a classroom to learn their fate.
"Everyone was pretty nervous," Jones said.
"I can't even describe the feeling. [USA Basketball men's national team director Sean Ford] read like six names before mine."
When Ford finally called Jones' name, he went to a lobby and called his mom. Deb Jones drove a mile from her hotel to the Olympic Training Center and celebrated with her son.
Then, Jones consoled his teary-eyed friends who didn't receive a spot on the national squad and were sent home the next morning.
The real deal
Jones' selection to the national team was verification that national rankings placing him atop the list of point guards in the 2014 high school graduating class aren't embellished.
It's premature to assume Jones' talent will lead him to the NBA or even All-America honors at a major college. But he's definitely on the same path that some of the greatest players in the world followed to stardom.
"We like to think your involvement with USA basketball takes you to good places," said Ford, who told the youngsters stories about NBA superstars LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony competing in similar events when they were teenagers.
Jones emerged from a pack of players who have dominated their peers for years. They've all received scholarship offers and recruiting letters. They're used to media attention. They rarely try out for teams.
The tryout resembled a youth basketball version of the "X-Men," where players with freakish abilities converged on the same floor.
Beejay Anya, a 6-8, 295-pound freshman from Maryland with a 7-9 wingspan and the frame of a mountain, looked like a boulder when he charged down the lane.
Conner "White Chocolate" Frankamp, a 6-1 guard from Wichita, Kan., bounced a ball, caught it midflight, twirled 360 degrees and dunked leisurely while his teammates nodded in approval.
Johnathan Williams, a 6-9 sophomore from Memphis, made the 16-and-under squad by utilizing a precise left hook that proved indefensible. Williams, who has scholarship offers from Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida and Memphis, didn't even need the three-pointers he easily swished in warmups.
Before the Colorado Springs trip, Jones only knew that he belonged in the conversation with other nationally ranked kids. Now, he's preparing to lead them into international competition.
"It's been crazy just to take a step back and think about it," Jones said. "I'm playing for my country right now. I'm just blessed. I'm loving every moment."
Top of their class
Don Showalter, an Iowa prep coach leading the U16 national squad, issued his expectations prior to the first practice.
"We're going to try and get you out of your comfort zone," Showalter said.
That meant every drill became a competition. A three-man weave exercise turned into an intense battle between blue and white teams. The squad that failed to convert 21 layups in a minute lined up on the sideline for sprints.
The easygoing pace of the first day's practice didn't compare to the frantic tone of the sessions in the following days. The players' desires to take their talents to Cancun prompted an increase in their energy levels.
"Do everything you can to separate yourself," assistant coach Mike Jones, who leads storied DeMatha Catholic High School's program in Maryland, told the players.
They wrestled for loose balls. They fouled harder. They took longer breaths while adjusting to the thin air -- Colorado Springs sits 6,000 feet above sea level.
The athletes bullied the rims. The shooters found their sweet spots. The passers tried to set up their teammates for success, an obvious quality that fueled Jones' impressive audition.
The right-handed Jones threw a flick-of-the-wrist pass with his left hand to Paul White of Chicago on a fast break. He fired a bullet to New York City forward Dakari Johnson that sailed over the heads of three defenders.
"Ooohs" were heard throughout the gym after that jazzy play.
"You watch him play, you just like his demeanor on the court," Showalter said. "He could be a great player and not even score."
Jones also improved on defense, which has been one of the weaker parts of his game. And although he struggled to finish at the rim against the lengthy players standing in the lane, the offense always clicked whenever he ran it.
"What stands out to me is his feel for the game," said Jerry Meyer, an analyst for Rivals.com. "He does a great job delivering the ball to people. Timing, accuracy, he hits guys in the hands. He makes guys better shooters."
Those tools granted Jones an extended stay at the Olympic Training Center, a sprawling facility that speaks to the country's fixation with winning.
Jones and his teammates slept in dorm rooms furnished with TVs, DVD players and beds provided by Hilton. He ate in the facility's cafeteria, which posts nutrition information on every food item.
"We need to win championships. That's the only reason we're in business," Ford told parents during a meeting.
The stakes, however, couldn't strip the players of their adolescence. Jones cracked jokes about Johnson's size 17 shoes.
Trey Lyles, a 6-7 forward from Indiana, wore pink Nikes instead of the blue-and-white footwear provided by USA Basketball. When some of the boys spotted an attractive female athlete in the cafeteria, they whispered to each other and gawked.
"We just have a good time over at the dorms and stuff. Just a bunch of teenagers goofing around, having fun, hanging out," Jones said. "So it's a good time."
All 27 players invited to this month's tryout will gather again in October for another training camp. And if Jones' U16 squad is successful in Mexico, players will try out again before next summer's 17-and-under world championships in Lithuania.
Jones, however, aims to stand on top of a podium with his new teammates much sooner than that.
"We're trying to go get a gold medal now," he said.