Jalen Suggs is two wins away from joining Khalid El-Amin and Tyus Jones as local stars who not only help put Minnesota basketball on the map, but played starring roles as point guards on men's NCAA title teams.
El-Amin and Jones never had a chance to do what Suggs can with Gonzaga at this Final Four — lead an undefeated team to a national championship. That would certainly help make his case to be added to the Mount Rushmore of all-time great ballers from the state.
"Khalid-El Amin and Tyus Jones is pretty huge company," said Suggs' father, Larry. "Jalen's name even being mentioned with some of the greats is a huge accomplishment."
If the Zags were to finish the season 32-0, Suggs and his teammates would make history as the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976.
"It's hard not to think about it," Suggs said when asked recently about Gonzaga's pursuit for perfection.
Jones and El-Amin are watching and rooting for Suggs to follow in their footsteps. They hope Minnesota's latest point guard phenom can cement his legacy back home with a title run, starting in Saturday's national semifinal vs. UCLA at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"It's kind of a passing of the guard type of thing," El-Amin said Friday. "We all are one way or another going to be mentioned together. Because we're from Minnesota. We play the same position. We've been successful. I'm happy for him.
"I just think there's something in the water that guys are being able to play at a high level. That's what Minnesota's all about. Creating winners, coming from good basketball schools — no matter if it's from Minnehaha, Apple Valley or Minneapolis [North]. When it's all said and done, people remember winners."
Not to forget Jones' younger brother, Tre, who came so close to being in Suggs' shoes not long ago. But his Duke squad fell one win short of reaching the Final Four in Minneapolis in 2019.
Suggs has already been a winner, on a similar level to El-Amin and the Jones brothers since his days starring at Minnehaha Academy. Before becoming a freshman sensation for the Zags, the athletically gifted 6-foot-4, two-sport star won three straight state hoops titles. Tyus Jones led Apple Valley to its first state crown in 2013. Tre Jones won state titles in 2015 and 2017. El-Amin won four titles at Minneapolis North in the 1990s.
El-Amin, the Joneses and Suggs were all McDonald's All-Americans and ranked as the top point guards nationally in their high school classes.
"It just solidifies to me how special and how great Minnesota basketball has become," El-Amin said about Suggs putting a Minnesotan on the biggest stage again. "Watching Jalen play, he's so smart on the court. He makes difficult plays look easy. Sometimes watching him you're just in awe."
Owning the big stage
Now a Memphis Grizzlies guard and in his sixth year in the NBA, Tyus Jones still gets goose bumps watching the NCAA tournament. The pinnacle of his basketball career at the time came when Duke defeated Wisconsin in the championship game in 2015. Jones was the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.
"Obviously, I've been following Jalen," Jones told the Star Tribune on Friday during a video conference call. "I've known him since he was in grade school coming to watch my games. It's cool to see him continue to evolve and grow as a player and person. It's fun for me to watch and see him represent himself, his family and also the state of Minnesota. ... Continue to put Minnesota basketball on the map."
There's been no bigger Suggs fan than NBA Hall of Famer and TNT basketball analyst Charles Barkley, who covered Gonzaga during March Madness this year. Barkley said he'd take Suggs as the No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft.
Tyus Jones, who was joined in the NBA this season by his brother and fellow Minnesota native and point guard Tyrell Terry, said he's looking forward to seeing Suggs join him at the next level soon.
"It's a lot of fun to see where he came from growing up to where he is now," Jones added. "Just a lot of hard work and dedication went into it — just him wanting to be great. It's fun to track his progress."
Words of wisdom
Larry Suggs, a former standout athlete at Woodbury, played high school ball at the same time as El-Amin, who eventually left home to win the national championship at Connecticut in 1999.
Some advice El-Amin gave the elder Suggs when his son was in fifth grade turned out to be influential for Jalen Suggs.
"He said whatever you do just keep going out of town to play all summer long," Larry Suggs said. "So we started to crisscross the country. He said just keep doing what you're doing, and it will all pay off. Khalid [in high school] was always leaving, playing AAU with the [Long Island] Panthers and stuff like that. That did make a big difference when you are playing with other good kids across the country."
El-Amin said now that he did that "to not only bring attention to myself but to other great players back home who were coming behind me."
Six years ago, Jalen Suggs was in seventh grade, having finished his varsity basketball season at Minnehaha Academy. He was inspired by watching Duke win the national title. He and his family got chills when Jones did his now iconic celebration at midcourt that was pictured on the Sports Illustrated cover.
Now it's Suggs' turn to attempt to be celebrated as one of Minnesota's all-time great guards and college basketball champions.
But comparisons aren't on Suggs' mind right now.
"It's a great accomplishment to be mentioned," he said. "We're not chasing anybody or anything. We're just coming in and trying to get better every day and have fun with each other out here on the court."