Tre Jones remembers his jaw dropping during Duke preseason basketball practices last fall, before the entire country saw Zion Williamson’s out-of-this-world athletic gifts.
“Playing with a guy like Zion, there’s not really anyone like him,” said Jones, now a sophomore point guard. “You can’t really compare him to anyone or anyone to him.”
The former Apple Valley star said no one should compare this season’s Blue Devils, either, to the Zion-led squad that also featured fellow NBA lottery picks R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish.
That freshmen-led team fell short of winning the program’s sixth national championship under Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski. But Duke in the post-Zion era could be better equipped to make the Final Four with a mixture of newcomers and returning talent.
Michigan State is the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country, and the Spartans host fourth-ranked Duke on Dec. 3 in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The season opens with a doozy when Duke plays No. 3 Kansas in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden.
“It is a much different team this year,” Jones said. “I feel like this team is a lot more balanced. We have a lot more depth as well than teams in the past. That’s what we’re going to use to our advantage.”
Coming off a season in which Duke finished 32-6 and lost for the second consecutive year in the Elite Eight with arguably the most talented recruiting class ever, Coach K has another highly touted group of freshmen, including five-star Rochester John Marshall forward Matthew Hurt.
The versatility of the 6-9 Hurt and the leadership of Jones in his second year running the team are key components to the Blue Devils proving to be national title contenders in the post-Zion era.
“We’re trying to be ourselves,” Hurt said. “Last year’s class was great. Zion, R.J., Cam and Tre were phenomenal last year. We’re just trying to be ourselves and play our game.”
What exactly is Duke’s strength this season, with some new shiny pieces and solid old ones?
“This group is more old-fashioned,” Krzyzewski said at ACC media day. “We have to blend the old and new. I really like this group and that dynamic. [Senior forwards] Javin [DeLaurier] and Jack [White], they help these young guys, and [last year], what are you going to help Zion with?”
Williamson, Barrett and Reddish were the team’s top three scorers last season. Jones is the Blue Devils’ returning leader, averaging 9.4 points and 5.3 assists. A ballhawk defender and steady game manager, Jones showed in March he has scoring potential.
The 6-2 floor leader surpassed double figures in five of his last seven games as a freshman, including with 22 points on 5-for-7 shooting from three-point range, to go with eight assists and zero turnovers in a 75-73 Sweet 16 victory vs. Virginia Tech.
NBA draft analysts projected Jones could be a first-round pick if he went one-and-done, but he announced in the spring he was returning to college. There was some unfinished business in leading Duke to a title and developing his game. Jones is working on his jump shot, but he needed to stick to what he does best: driving to the basket.
“If you’re going to be a really good point guard, then you have to make layups, and so much of it is having that balance,” Krzyzewski said. “If we’re going to be really good, [Jones] has to be really good.”
Krzyzewski said Jones was often “reluctant to shoot” last season. Jones scored a team-high 18 points in Duke’s first exhibition game (Hurt had 17 points), but he isn’t just focusing on being more aggressive offensively this time around.
“I’m going to take on a bigger leadership role with the team this year,” Jones said. “Last year, I didn’t need to do as much for us in certain games. This year it’s whatever my team needs to win. It’s a leadership role to start off with and just whatever the team needs.”
Hurt has turned heads in practice as arguably Duke’s best all-around player. Fans have speculated they wouldn’t be shocked if he leads the team in scoring as a freshman. Sound familiar?
The Rochester native was joined by top recruits Vernon Carey Jr., Cassius Stanley and Wendell Moore Jr. in this year’s freshmen class. Hurt knows the Blue Devils will need a huge lift from them, but to ask for a Zion-type impact might be asking too much.
“I just want to win,” Hurt said. “So, whatever I can do to impact winning is the thing I’ll do, whether it’s scoring, playing defense or shooting. Whatever the team needs me to do, I’ll try to produce.”