Tyus Jones: Close encounters of the Coach K kind

  • Article by: MYRON P. MEDCALF , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 22, 2011 - 12:08 PM

Apple Valley's Tyus Jones got the attention of many of college basketball's top coaches with his play at the Peach Jam tourney.

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NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. - The middle-aged men in khaki shorts and polo shirts with team logos -- Thad Matta, Tom Izzo and Jim Boeheim among them -- whispered to one another whenever 15-year-old Tyus Jones whipped a pass across the court or zipped by a defender.

They proved to be more than casual admirers.

In the days after last week's Peach Jam AAU tournament -- in which Jones scored 31 points in a critical game and accumulated assists throughout the four-day event -- he received scholarship offers from Ohio State, Michigan State, Marquette, Providence, Arizona and Iowa State, adding to earlier tenders from Iowa, Minnesota and Baylor. Humbling, he said, but a phone call with Duke's Mike Krzyzewski floored him.

"It was crazy, I couldn't really believe I was talking to him. It probably took like half the day to really sink in," said Jones, who will be a sophomore at Apple Valley. "I just kept saying to my mom, 'I just talked to Coach K.' He was just a normal, cool guy and told me to keep working hard and that he liked what he saw."

Jones' national profile went from a blip on the radar a couple months ago to an explosion following a series of successful summer outings on the national and international stage.

Jones won a gold medal in the 16-and-under world championships in Mexico last month as a member of USA Basketball's national team. He recorded a team-high 28 assists in the tournament and helped his team qualify for the 2012 17-and-under championships in Lithuania.

His exploits continued at Peach Jam -- a grass-roots event held during the open recruiting period where most of America's top coaches gathered in search of talent. NCAA rules prohibit college coaches from discussing specific players, but were able to talk in general about the importance of summer events such as Peach Jam.

"Sometimes, you can certainly fall in love. You end up having love at first sight," said St. Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli about the event. "A kid's recruiting landscape can dramatically change here for the better."

Added Gophers coach Tubby Smith: "Everybody's looking for that diamond in the rough."

• • •

Peach Jam's sounds -- squeaking sneakers, screaming parents, fuming coaches and boisterous fans -- ricocheted throughout the four gyms at the Riverview Park Activities Center. Some of the nation's top 17-and-under recruits played to impress coaches and earn scholarships -- or to convince those who'd already offered them full rides that they'd made the right decision.

"I think it definitely is [motivation]," Jones said. "You want to always prove something. At the same time, you can't let it affect your game."

College basketball's powerbrokers eyed a variety of prospects from Canada to Texas. Roy Williams, John Calipari, Josh Pastner, Bill Self, Sean Miller and Rick Pitino sat in folding chairs surrounding the courts. Others huddled in doorways.

"We never had anything like this," said NBA legend and Florida International head coach Isiah Thomas. "Recruiting was very local and only the big schools, again who had the budget, they could travel and see kids all across the country. ... But the way this is now, everyone gets a look, so it's great."

Local fans arrived early, forcing some of the coaches to park on a far-off grass field and walk through heat that reached 103 degrees. But the tournament's talent justified the trek to this small town on the South Carolina-Georgia border. So did the fresh peaches and chili dogs.

For $200, coaches could buy a program with the names of every player and AAU coach at the Nike-sponsored event. It was a small fee considering the stakes.

"It's just about punching one of those tickets. It's about $300,000, $250,000 tickets [scholarships], ready to get punched," said Marlon Williamson, head coach of a Detroit-based AAU team, The Family.

Few tournaments boast Peach Jam's level of talent. If history is any indicator, Peach Jam's best players -- alums include LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant -- will compete in the NBA one day.

"For high school summer basketball, this is the NCAA championships. This is the NBA playoffs," said Howard Pulley founder Rene Pulley.

• • •

From the start of Howard Pulley's first game, it was obvious that the young men weren't in Minnesota anymore.

Sim Bhullar, a 7-5 center from Canada, dwarfed Kyle Washington, a 6-9 forward who played last year for Benilde-St.-Margaret's, in Howard Pulley's 94-79 upset of CIA Bounce. Bhullar's younger brother, Tanveer, is a relative midget in the family at 7-3.

Observers debated the NBA futures of such high school stars as Chicago's Jabari Parker, Boston's Nerlens Noel and Texas' Julius Randle, all juniors who excelled at Peach Jam.

Jones never let the high-pressure atmosphere alter his focus.

"We're not trying to get individual looks. We're trying to make everyone look at Howard Pulley basketball, not just a single player," he said.

And that's what coaches love about him.

"I'd take him right now," said one Division I coach. "He's going to be good," added a top assistant.

In his first four games, Jones was good but admittedly inconsistent. But with his team facing elimination in its final matchup of the tournament, he put together a memorable performance. Jones had 31 points, hitting three of four from the three-point line, with six assists and no turnovers during an 84-80 win over eventual Peach Jam champs BABC of Boston.

Pulley finished 3-2, but failed to qualify for the final playoff round.

The scholarship offers that followed didn't surprise those close to Jones.

"It's almost like certain things are just expected. I expect Tyus to play well," said Rob Jones, his father.

After a final summer tournament in St. Louis -- another opportunity to impress Division I coaches -- Jones will return to Apple Valley, where he's already a star.

His mother purchased golf clubs for her son Sunday and young salesman Adam Petterson tweeted, "Just sold stuff to tyus jones mom."

"I'm a little concerned," Debbie Jones said about her son's growing stature.

Sam Jacobson and Khalid El-Amin, state prep stars at an early age, won multiple accolades in college and secured NBA contracts. But they never achieved Jones' national acclaim at such a young age.

Jones' potential convinced him to scrap plans to compete for Apple Valley's football team this season. In October, USA Basketball will fly him to Colorado Springs, Colo., for another training camp with his national team. After that, he will lead a young Apple Valley team when the high school basketball season begins.

Many will be tracking his progress.

"I've been blessed with talent, I just gotta cooperate with it and keep a level head and make sure I'm not messing up because everything's there for me," Jones said. "So I just gotta keep working hard. Hopefully, everything will pay off."

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