CHICAGO – It’s about 420 miles, or a six-plus-hour drive, between the places, but former Duke star Tyus Jones can’t even begin to measure the distance from his Apple Valley driveway to Thursday’s NBA draft combine in Chicago, where he shared the gym with NBA legends Larry Bird, Jerry West and a former point guard named Jason Kidd.
Five years ago, he was a 13-year-old eighth-grade starter for Apple Valley High School.
Now he is six weeks away from hearing his name called at the June 25 NBA draft.
“It went by quick, but it has been a long journey,” Jones said. “It has been a lot of hours in the gym, a lot of shots put up, a lot of sprints ran and a lot of hard work put into it. To finally be right here, I’m blessed.”
NBA scouts might still question his size and athleticism, but not his heart or aptitude, not after winning a state championship at Apple Valley and an NCAA title in his one season at Duke. Projected as a mid- to late-first-round pick, he is on the verge of fulfilling what he calls a lifelong dream, reached by a player who measured in Chicago 6-2 in his sneakers and 184 pounds.
He’s not the most gifted point guard in a draft class where Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell and the Chinese pro league’s Emmanuel Mudiay are considered top five prospects. Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant and Murray State’s Cameron Payne likely will be chosen ahead of Jones as well.
Influenced by NBA stars Chris Paul, Mike Conley and Tony Parker, Jones calls himself a “complete point guard, a pure point guard, someone who is a leader and a winner.”
Duke’s victory over Wisconsin in the NCAA title game convinced him that the time is now to make the move from college to the NBA, even after just one season. A conversation with Wolves star Kevin Garnett at Target Field the day before he announced his decision didn’t hurt any, either.
“Just how I ended the season, how the team ended the season,” Jones said when asked how he knew the time is now. “It was the best opportunity for me and my family to fulfill a dream I’ve had even since I can remember. When you finish the season on top, there’s only two teams playing on the last day of the season and all eyes are on you. It was like we felt it was the best time for me.”
Jones traveled to Chicago to interview with teams and participate in physical and medical testing. He did not compete in five-on-five games that featured players trying to prove they should be first-round picks or should be drafted at all.
He interviewed with Boston and Milwaukee among other teams Wednesday, met with Utah, Portland, Phoenix and others Thursday, and is scheduled to talk with Timberwolves president/coach Flip Saunders and his scouting staff Friday.
The Wolves likely would have to package their two second-round picks (31st and 36th overall) in order to obtain another first-round pick with which they could select the hometown kid.
The Wolves also interviewed former Robbinsdale Cooper star Rashad Vaughn at the combine. Vaughn and Jones first played together on the same AAU team when they were in grade school.
“For us to both be here, getting ready for the NBA, is crazy,” said Vaughn, likely a second-round pick. “Time goes by so fast. We were both kids together and now we’re both here at the combine.”
And both are from Minnesota, where Jones said he first really imagined his NBA dream was possible when big-time colleges from all over started recruiting him, as early as the ninth grade.
“Every kid who plays basketball dreams it, but it’s one of those things that might not seem realistic,” Jones said. “You don’t necessarily see a lot of guys from Minnesota go to the NBA. Especially for me, being out of Apple Valley, it doesn’t seem like it’s possible. But it’s just one of those things: If you work hard, put your mind to something, you can do it. I’m proud to be from Apple Valley, Minnesota, and I’m very excited about this opportunity.”