HAMPTON, VA — The Nike EYBL tour continued this past weekend as session 2 took place in Hampton, Virginia, and BDN was once again there to cover the grassroots event. One of the players who continues to impress with his hustle and great footwork is Devin Booker, a 6’5″ WG from Mississippi.
Many have wondered aloud if Grayson Allen’s recent commitment to the Blue Devils would affect Booker’s recruitment. We sought out the answer to that in our chat with Booker.
Duke Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski [private] watched him play in his last game yesterday and Booker showed well. Before that, Steve Wojciechowski took in one of his games.
Booker told Blue Devil Nation that Duke is still in contact with him and that the Blue Devils are still on his list. But he also admitted that the verbal from Grayson Allen does have some effect. At the same time, though, he followed up quickly by saying he is not afraid of competition and having to earn a spot wherever he decides to go to school. The most important factor in choosing a school will be the trust he feels with his eventual coach.
Booker said this his recruitment would slow in the summer while he just concentrates on getting better. Michigan State, Michigan, Missouri, Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and some others have continued to show interest. He is set to cut his list by the end of summer but at this point he doesn’t know how many teams would make the list.
As for camps, it looks as if he will attend one of the Nike Skills Academies, but he was undecided on which one. He also mentioned a desire to compete with USA Basketball.
It remains to be seen what the future holds with concern to Duke recruiting him, but sources close to the situation indicated he was still on their list. [/private]
In the final game of his freshman campaign, 6’3″ guard Isaiah “Boogie” Briscoe scored a team-leading seventeen points for St. Benedict’s against eventual ESPN National High School Invitational Champion Findlay Prep. Throughout the season, Briscoe demonstrated a maturity and fearlessness that belied his youth.
Playing for a program that starts very few freshman, Briscoe nevertheless started in the Gray Bees backcourt with the New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year, 6’2″ Tyler Ennis, and 6’3″ future Miami Hurricane Melvin Johnson. Under the guidance of Mark Taylor, they elevated the program to a 36-3 record, with Boogie averaging over thirteen points and over five assists against a challenging national schedule. For his efforts, the Union, New Jersey native was named to the MaxPreps Freshman All-American team, along with his close friend, 6’11” Karl Towns, also of New Jersey.
Briscoe received scholarship offers before he ever set foot on a high school court, and they have continued to rain in from across the country. He has already received offers from Syracuse, Connecticut, Arizona, Florida, Baylor, Cincinnati, Rutgers and Seton Hall, as well as interest from Duke, Kentucky, and Ohio State.
Briscoe’s bloodlines are long and deep. His dad, George Briscoe, was a standout for Stockton State College in New Jersey, and now works in Newark, NJ as part of a community action group. His older sister, 5’11” Iasia Hemingway, just finished her final season as a member of Syracuse’s women’s basketball team. Isaiah’s cousin, Kyrie Irving of West Orange, NJ and Duke University, was recently named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Boogie” Briscoe has other connections to Duke University. St. Benedict’s is the alma mater of 2010 National Champion and current Hornet forward Lance Thomas. Coach Mark Taylor coached former Duke All-American and current ESPN analyst Jason Williams for four years at nearby St. Joe’s of Metuchen, NJ. At a press conference at the NHSI, Coach Taylor reportedly said that he sometimes teases Williams that Isaiah may wind up developing into a better player than the former national high school player of the year.
There’s been no rest after the high school season for the promising young guard from the Garden State. He’s now played ten Nike EYBL games this AAU season for the New Jersey Playaz, the AAU program of former Duke guard and current Bobcat Gerald Henderson, and helped them qualify for next month’s Peach Jam in South Carolina. Briscoe participated in last month’s Mary Kline Classic, a charity basketball event dedicated to raising money for brain cancer research, named after the mother of his close friend Alex Kline.
This June, “Boogie” Briscoe headed to Long Beach, California to participate in the Pangos All-American Camp. Although he was one of the youngest participants, his fearless play resulted in his being named a Pangos Cream of the Crop Top 30 selection. Last weekend, Briscoe participated in Nike’s Elite 100, a St. Louis-based showcase designed to find and enhance some of the best young talent in the country.
Isaiah “Boogie” Briscoe spoke with Blue Devil Nation about Coach Taylor’s comparison to former NBA lottery pick Jay Williams, about fighting complacency, and on the advice he received from Kyrie Irving, among other things.
Let’s talk about your season at St. Benedict’s and how it went overall. [private]
You know I had a great first year. I think I finished with 517 (points) playing with Melvin (Johnson, a Miami commitment) and Tyler (Ennis, the Gatorade Player of the Year for New Jersey). It was a great experience. We went 36-3, went to ESPN Rise, and I just think we played well.
You had a chance to play on national television this year in the NHSI.
It was a great experience to play on ESPN and going against great guards like Dominic Artis. Just playing in front of everybody and competing is just great and I had fun. We competed.
Did you feel any added pressure being on TV?
I don’t believe in pressure so playing on TV is like playing here or on the playground or anything like that.
What did you think when your coach at St. Benedict’s, Mark Taylor, said you may wind up better than Jason Williams. How do you feel about that comparison? That’s some pretty high praise.
Yeah, it is and it’s a blessing. You know I’m a freshman and comparing me to the second overall pick in the draft, it’s just a blessing and as I continue to work hard maybe I can follow after him. I mean he was a lottery pick and the player of the year in college. It’s a lot to live up to. He’s a tremendous player.
Speaking of Jason Williams, another Duke guard, your cousin Kyrie, just won the Rookie of the Year award in the NBA. You must be very proud of him.
You know that’s great. I work out with him sometimes when he’s back home so him winning rookie of the year is just great for the family and everything. I just want to follow in his footsteps especially and keep it in the family.
Does he give you any advice?
Yeah, he always gives me advice. He tells me to keep working hard, do right in school, keep my head straight and everything else will follow.
What are your goals for the rest of the summer?
Well, you know we’re going to the Peach Jam. I want to do well in the Peach Jam and perform well. And just get in the gym and work on my speed and agility with my father and that’s probably it.
You were mostly a combo or two guard on the St. Ben’s team, but what do you view yourself as long-term?
I’m a point guard, but, with Tyler there, he’s one of the top point guards in the country. I’ll do whatever I have to do for us to win. If Coach wanted me to score more, I scored more. Pass more, drive more, whatever, I’ll do it. With Ty and me in the backcourt, we’re gonna be tough next year too. After he graduates, I’ll move over to point guard. It’s his time to shine.
What’s it like playing with Tyler? He had a great year in his own right. Gatorade Player of the Year. You guys are relatively close in age, but is he able to mentor you a bit?
He’s been great to play with and we’ve got a good chemistry. He shows me some things.
He’s an efficient player.
Oh, yeah, definitely. He makes great decisions. He takes good shots and he can find the open man. He makes it look simple.
People are always interested in recruiting. I know you’ve already got a lot of programs after you. Can you list some of the programs that are interested in you?
Yeah, I’ve been blessed. UConn, Arizona, Syracuse, Florida, Rutgers, Seton Hall, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Baylor have all offered so far and schools like Duke, Kentucky, and Ohio State have shown interest.
Are you in a rush to decide?
No, I guess I’m not in a rush, but I’d rather decide sooner than later. My mom would like to take my time. I’m not sure, but I don’t think I want to take, like, four years to decide.
What do you consider some of your strengths and weaknesses right now?
My strengths are that I’m an all around point guard. I can play combo, so anything that coach needs me to play I can play. I can score, penetrate, pass. I’m competitive. My weakness, I’m not going to tell you my weakness, you’re just going to have to find out (laughs). I’m working on getting on my handle, my outside shot, getting quicker, and some footwork.
Are there any players you try and model your game after?
Deron Williams, Chris Paul, and Tyreke Evans. Kyrie too.
Kyrie has taken over that motto of ‘humble and hungry.’ Is that something that you try to follow?
Yeah, yeah, I follow that motto. You know just try and stay level-headed, don’t get too big headed, and just continue to do what I’m doing. Stay hungry!
There’s always a concern that some young people who are ranked highly will become content and satisfied. How do you fight or guard against complacency and not rest on your early laurels?
Just never rest (smiles and laughs). You know whenever I get a chance to go in the gym I’m working hard. Everybody in Cali is always working hard when I’m sleeping so I just got to work hard when I get a chance. I know that there are guys in my class working on their game in Chicago and Vegas and Jersey. You can’t let your guard down.
What are you looking for in a program when you finally make a decision?
A great education, open court games, pick and roll, a great coach and system and things like that.
Are you a good student?
Are you, at least, a B student?
Oh, yeah, definitely. My family always pushes me.
How about your coach? What do you want your coach to be like?
I want him to yell at me and everything, but also understand the game. I want a hall of fame coach and things like that. I want a tough and fair coach. Coach Taylor has helped push me. I like that.
Where do you like to catch the ball most?
Usually on the wings… I can pass, shoot or drive. Tyler gets me the ball in good spots.
Your dad credited some of your toughness from playing a lot in Newark. Do you feel that has had an effect on you and playing with toughness?
It made me a tougher person. When I was younger, I would always hang out with older guys and they’d show me the ropes of the streets and everything.
Let’s discuss your defense a little bit. Where do you feel you’re at with that right now?
If it was graded I think I’m at a solid B. My defense is getting better and it got better dramatically during the high school season. Coach (Mark) Taylor (St. Benedict’s head coach) helped me a lot on my defense so it’s getting better.
Do you have any visits you’re taking this summer?
Yeah, I didn’t plan it yet, but I’m going to visit Arizona and Florida this summer.
Who do you think is the toughest player you’ve had to play against?
I’d say Dominic Artis (2012 Oregon signee) and Kyle Anderson (2012 UCLA signee), those are probably the toughest players I’ve played against.
There aren’t too many high schools that have produced an NBA player, let alone multiple ones at the same time. At Saint Benedict’s, you’ve got guys like J.R. Smith with the Knicks, Lance Thomas with the Hornets, and Samardo (Samuels) with the Cavs right now. Is there a lot of talk internally about things like legacy or looking to those guys as, sort of, role models?
Yes and no, we look at those guys like we want to get where they already are and we don’t want to let the program drop or anything, but we just try to work on our games and win right now. Hopefully, Melvin (Johnson) will make the NBA and then Tyler (Ennis) and then me. I definitely hope to join all of them in the NBA one day. I’m just trying to work on my game and, hopefully, one day I can get there too. That’s all I can do, you know, work. We respect all of them… a lot.
What are you hoping to show coaches this summer?
That I play hard and smart. I want to show them that I can play with the ball and without. I want to show them that I can score, pass, and that I’m an all-around type of player. I love playing basketball…and hopefully they can see that too.
Can you tell the audience a little bit about your family? Your dad works as part of a community group in Newark and I heard that your mom works in a financial business?
Yeah, my dad tries to help the community in Newark and my mom works in an accounting office.
So, that’s why you do well in school. She’s pretty smart?
Oh, yeah, she’s really smart. (laughs)
You played well in the Mary Kline Classic and helped with the games and some of the behind the scenes things.
Oh, yeah, well, it’s a great cause and Alex (Kline) is a great person. I just wanted to help in any way that I could. There were a lot of good players in that game. I mean Alex has been great to me and helped me a lot with advice. It was a lot of fun and we helped to raise a lot for an important cause. I talk to Alex almost every day.
What about the Pangos All-American Camp?
Well, it’s great to have a chance to play against some of the best kids from around the country. I think I’ve played well out here and learned some things. It’s been fun.
What would you like the audience to know about you away from the court?
That I’m a happy kid that likes to make people laugh and smile. That I’m a good kid and I work hard. People always say that I make them laugh.
Speaking of working hard, you work out regularly with your dad, who used to play in college, on Saturday mornings. What do you guys work on primarily?
Oh, we work on just about everything. My handle, shooting from all areas, conditioning. We practice and play for hours. He gets after me.
Speaking of conditioning, what are you trying to do with your body? Get leaner? Get stronger? What are you hoping to improve about your body?
I’m actually pretty lean. It just looks bigger than some guys my age. We’re trying to get quicker and stronger. Those are pretty much the main things.
Where are you working on your strength? At school, a local gym, or home?
Mostly, the gym.
What are your expectations and goals for the next high school season?
We’re going to try to win the national title. We want to win the NHSI. We came very close this year, but we’ll be better next year. I’ve got to continue to improve. We’ve got some good talent coming in too!
Has Coach talked with you about how your role or responsibilities might change?
Yes, he said that I’ll be handling the ball more and playing mostly with Tyler. He expects me to step up and take more of a leadership role as a sophomore. I’ve got to keep improving and working. Help the team and be an example with Tyler for other players.
Can you give the audience a scouting report on Karl Towns, one of your close friends? Also what’s he like as a person?
Oh, he’s an incredible player. Karl can shoot as well as any guard, but he’s about 6’11.” He’s got great post moves and he’ll show more of that this year. He’s a great defender and he’s getting stronger too. Off the court, he’s smart. Karl’s a leader and just a great person. He loves to laugh too. He cares a lot about people. We used to play on the same AAU team, but we don’t now.
You think that you’ll play together again in the future?
Just watch, though, Karl’s gonna join us for AAU in the future. We’ll play again in the future. (laughs) I’m sure of that. I’ve just got to convince him to join us. (laughs)
You were named to the MaxPreps Freshman All-American team. What did that honor mean to you?
Oh, I’m always grateful for every award or trophy. I’m trying to help my team win and get better, but it’s always great to have somebody say something positive about your work. It means that you’re doing something right…and I’ve just got to keep it up. I can’t rest or let it get to my head.
How did you get the nickname “Boogie?”
Oh, it was when I was really young. I’m not sure what age exactly, but I kept running around and people just started calling me “Boogie.”
In the future, would you rather I call you Isaiah or Boogie?
Oh, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s whatever you prefer.
Before one of the schools that you mentioned showing interest in you was Duke, what do you know about their program?
They’re recruiting me. They’re always one of the best programs in the country. They’ve got Coach K. He’s a Hall of Fame Coach. He spoke to me when I was younger. They’ve sent a lot of guys to the League.
What did Coach K say to you?
Just advice. He just told me to keep working hard and maybe they’ll recruit me one day. It was real cool.
Do you have any plans to visit their campus? What do you know about the school itself?
No, not yet, but maybe someday. I don’t really know too much about the campus or school. I’d like to know more.
What is their pitch to you?
You know, just that I’m on their radar and to keep working hard and to make sure that I’m doing right in school.
You’re still very young so you have a long ways to go. Usually, Duke doesn’t start getting very serious until players are a little older than you.
Yeah, I don’t know a lot about Duke yet. I know Kyrie went there and they have a lot of NBA players, and Coach K’s a Hall of Fame coach.
Who’s your favorite pro team?
I really don’t have one. I like individual players. I like to watch big or strong guards like Deron Williams, Tyreke, Kyrie, or Chris Paul. There are so many guys that just switch teams.
Who are you close to on the AAU circuit?
I’m friends with everybody really. I’m close with Karl (Towns) and Kyle (Anderson) and Tyler (Ennis). You know Wayne Selden, Stanley Johnson, Kevin Zabo from CIA Bounce, I’m cool with everybody.
Hailed as the best big man from Chicagoland since Eddy Curry, 6’11” Jahlil Okafor, the Brobdingnagian sophomore center from Whitney Young, has lived up to the high expectations. Last September, Jahlil was the first player that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski offered a scholarship to in the 2014 class. It was a particularly early offer from a program that historically has been conservative in both the sheer number and timing of its offers, but clearly the staff felt that Okafor was an exceptional person and player. Jahlil was coming off of a summer where he played a critical role, shooting a remarkably efficient 71.1% from the field and 82.6% from the charity stripe, in leading the United States to a gold medal at the FIBA Americas 16U Championship in Cancun, Mexico.
At Whitney Young, the Chicago academic magnet school that includes Michelle Obama as an alumna, Jahlil, a 3.4 GPA student, took on much more of a substantial role this season, while the team travelled all over the country playing challenging contests in California, the Carolinas, and St. Louis against nationally ranked teams like Bishop Gorman and Gonzaga as well as Chicago powers Simeon and Curie. After starting three games on a 20-10 team as a freshman for the Dolphins of Whitney Young, Okafor stepped up his game and made second-team All-State as a sophomore and MaxPreps named him to their Sophomore All-American team. Blessed with a 7’3″ wingspan, Jahlil averaged nearly thirteen rebounds, twenty-five points, five blocks, and four steals, while shooting nearly seventy percent from the field this high school season.
In early December, Jahlil, a pure low-post player who isn’t afraid to bang inside, visited the Triangle and took an unofficial visit to Duke University, touring the facilities and also watching the team practice. Twice this high school season, Coach K of Duke University returned the favor, coming to watch the sophomore big man play in person. In the initial viewing at the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Coach K observed Jahlil score ten points and grab a dozen rebounds in a 46-44 buzzer-beating win over Prestonwood (TX) and 6’9″ force Julius Randle, one of the top players in the 2013 class and a Duke recruit. At the second viewing, Coach K watched Jahlil battle his Mac Irvin friend and fellow Duke recruit Jabari Parker, the Gatorade Player of the Year, in the state 4A Sectionals in Summit, Illinois. Although Jahlil had nine first-half points and helped the Dolphins take a 24-21 halftime lead, eventually the depth and experience of Simeon proved too much on that day, as the eventual state champion Wolverines won 52-42 ending Whitney Young’s season with a record of 16-10 against one of this year’s most challenging schedules in high school basketball.
After splitting his time between the Mac Irvin 17s and 16s last summer, the sociable center is anchoring the paint for the Mac Irvin Fire 17U team full-time this AAU season. This weekend in Dallas, the sophomore Okafor stepped up and had his best AAU weekend to date, leading the Fire to a 5-0 session and averaging over sixteen points, seven rebounds, and two blocks in twenty-one minutes at the third leg of Nike’s EYBL. This EYBL season, Jahlil, now 16, has been Mac Irvin’s leading overall scorer (165 points in 260 minutes) and has shot an eye-catching 71.7% from the field, helping the Fire to eleven wins in fourteen games. During the early live period, the Duke staff was a constant presence at his Mac Irvin games, including a memorable one at the Boo Williams Complex in Virginia, where the 275 lb strong young man tore down the rim.
After an EYBL game, the bass-voiced Jahlil spoke with me about Mac Irvin’s passing, his goals for this summer, and his relationship with Jabari Parker, amongst other topics.
Well, first of all congratulations on making all-state as a sophomore in Illinois.
It was an honor. It’s something I talked about setting as a goal with my Dad. It was great.
This year you made much more of an impact on the team than you did as a freshman. You had a really competitive schedule. How do you view your season overall?
Well, we had a couple of our key guys injured early in the season…
Yeah, Tommy Hamilton.
Yeah, Tommy Hamilton was hurt and Paul White as well. It put a lot of pressure on me and made me grow up a lot faster.
Speaking of that, it looks like you’ve lost some of your body fat. Have you been working a lot on your conditioning this year? I remember that it was something that you wanted to work on the last time I spoke with you.
Yeah, I was speaking with all of my coaches and the thing that they thought that would prevent me from getting to the highest level would be me being out of shape. I wanted to focus on that.
You guys played a very tough schedule this year, traveling around the country at various showcases and tournaments. How does it help you now and into the future?
It helps. It just helps to play against other top players in the country, you know, and other top high schools. It was just a great experience.
And you get to experience different places.
Yeah, yeah, definitely
What’s your current size?
I’m like 6’11,” 275.
Let’s talk about visits. What about some of the visits you’ve taken?
Sure, I went to Nebraska recently. I’ve been up to Ohio State. I visited Duke. I went to North Carolina and Arizona as well. They’re all great campuses.
Can you talk a little bit about each of them?
Yeah, Duke speaks for itself. Meeting Coach K. it was just beautiful. It was great to talk to Coach K and look at their facilities. And North Carolina had a great team.
Did you get to see any games in person this season?
When I went to Arizona, I went to a football game. I had a fun time there and the weather is always nice.
What were you looking for on those visits?
I’m looking to see how happy the players are on campus, how the players and coaches respond to each other, and then other students and how they interact with the team.
I remember that you said that you went to Whitney Young, not because of the basketball, but because it had the reputation for being the best school in Chicago.
Yeah, absolutely, that’s right.
You’re originally from Arkansas, can you talk a little bit about your background?
Yeah, I’m originally from Arkansas, but I moved to Chicago in the fourth grade.
I know you also have a Nigerian heritage. Was your father born in Nigeria or your grandfather?
No, my grandpa was born in Nigeria, but my father was actually born in Chicago.
In terms of roles, what was your role for Whitney Young and what do you feel your role is for this team?
With Whitney Young, pretty much I had to do everything this year. I had to rebound, score inside, and block shots. On this team, I pretty much have one role: to be a dominant low-post man and rebound. I have a bunch of help on this team.
I was looking through my notes and saw that you wore your dad’s number.
Oh, yeah, I wore #32, I didn’t even know it was my dad’s number, but, then, I wore #15 for my Olympic jersey, but I knew that was his number.
In terms of your recruiting timeline, how far along do you think you are? When do you think you’ll decide on a school?
I probably won’t decide on a school ’til my senior year.
Since you mentioned Tommy Hamilton before, what’s it like to play with him now that he’s healthy? Have you ever played with his father (7’2″ Thomas Hamilton)? He used to be a good player and a massive guy.
No, I’ve actually never met his father in my life, but Tommy and I complement each other perfectly well out there on the court. I like playing with him.
Just out of curiosity, do you have a rivalry with Cliff Alexander (a 6’10” fellow sophomore from Curie HS in Chicago)? They seem to talk up on in the Chicago papers from time to time. He’s about your size and age.
Yeah, Cliff’s a really great friend. And I have a rivalry with Jabari and Cliff, but we’re all great friends.
Can you talk about that last playoff game against Simeon? It was your second time seeing those guys (lost in December at the University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion) and you lead at the half. For your sake, I was sorry.
Oh, yeah, that was a heartbreaker against Simeon. I walked away feeling like we should’ve won that game. There were a couple of plays here and there, but we’re really excited about the team that we’ll bring back next year.
You’ve got a good shot next year.
Yeah, I think so too.
(Interrupted by 6’10” sophomore Dakari Johnson)
Now, he’s a rival.
Yeah, Dakari’s a rival (laughs)
This year, you’ll be playing against seventeens exclusively. What did you gain last year from facing players that were two age groups up in the EYBL?
Yeah, everybody’s got better ball skills at the seventeen level. They’re more developed physically. It’s a challenge, game in and game out in the EYBL.
I spoke with you after you played in your first game and you had just faced Elijah Macon, who was shorter than you, but built like a bull. You said he was the toughest guy that you had guarded at that time.
Oh, yeah, I remember.
One of the unique things about your game is that you’re a back-to-the-basket player in an age where there are a lot of big guys that want to face up or play away from the basket.
Yeah, it’s just something that I’m real comfortable with. I’ve been doing it since I’ve been in seventh or eight grade. It’s helped and now I have a lot of confidence with my back to the basket.
I know that you read some of your articles. What goes through your head when you see some local scouts saying that you’re the best Chicagoland center or big man since Eddy Curry?
Oh, yeah, I’ve read that, but..
You just go about your business.
Yeah, I don’t feel like I’ve achieved anything yet. I’m hungry.
Well, that’s a good attitude. You’ve got those big, “soft” hands. How much of an advantage does that give you over your fellow bigs? Also, how do you account for having soft hands?
(Mac Irvin teammate throws a fake mouse)
Sorry about that. Yeah, everybody always talks about having great hands. I think it’s a pretty big advantage. Well, at least, mentally, you know, knowing that you have them.
One dimension that you’ve worked on this year is your face-up game..
Yeah, my coaches are always telling that I’ve got to continue to perfect my low-post game, but I’ve also got to extend my range and expand my game.
I remember that was you wanted to add a jumper and be able to finish around the basket with either hand at the end of last summer.
Yeah, exactly, both of those things.
One things that helps you differentiate yourself from some of the softer big men is that you don’t mind contact at all.
Yeah, no, absolutely, it’s something that I actually enjoy. I love to get in there and mix it up. I love to be aggressive.
And then you can knock down your free throws to help your team too.
Absolutely, you’ve got to take advantage of those free throw shots. You can win or lose sometimes by just a few shots, here and there.
You guys lost Mac Irvin over the offseason. He was obviously a major figure in Chicago basketball over the past few decades. He was always nice to me, but can you tell the audience your thoughts on Mac Irvin’s passing?
It was sad. You know this year we’re going to try to put our egos aside and just try to win the Peach Jam for him and in his memory. He was a very nice man.
Speaking of your Mac Irvin team, what’s your relationship like right now with Jabari (Parker)?
Oh, you know Jabari is just someone that I’ve known since seventh grade and he’s just somebody that I can always talk to.
He’s, sort of, going through some of the same things that you are, but just a year ahead.
Yeah, exactly, we’re experiencing a lot of the same things with the college coaches and the fans and everybody coming at you, but it’s just nice to have Jabari.
The next one I was going to ask you about, but, unfortunately, I couldn’t confirm if it was true. Someone said that before you visited there, that Coach K said something to the effect that you could’ve started or played for him this year. Did he actually say that to you or this just an urban legend?
Oh, wow, no, I didn’t hear that. If he said that, then it’s really humbling to hear, but I don’t believe that. I couldn’t have. It’s still good to hear.
You mentioned about five schools before that you had visited. Have you cut down or reduced your list at all?
No, I haven’t reduced my list just yet.
Who are some of the schools that you’re interested in?
Pretty much everybody. I’m hearing from Ohio State. I’m hearing from Duke. Who else? Illinois, Michigan State, DePaul, Arizona, and UConn.
In the Chicago papers, they’ve written a lot about that Illinois job and the hiring process. As I recall, you were a Sun-Times guy, but did you pay any attention to the various articles about potential coaches or Coach Groce?
I did a little bit. I spoke with the Illinois coach soon after he got the job.
Well, I’m sure that you’re a major target. He ought to be after you.
Yeah, well (laughs)
Lastly, let’s just close by talking about what you hope to accomplish this summer.
Sure, well, first, I’d like to win a championship for Mac Irvin. That’s my top goal. Then, personally, I’d like to play hard for the majority of each game and keep my conditioning up. I’ve been trying to work on my conditioning and, hopefully, it can pay off.
I remember last year around this time you were focused on winning the gold medal. That was what you were targeting.
Yeah, well, we won the gold medal.
I was proud of you.
I saw that picture that you put up of you, Coach (Mike) Jones, and Tyus (Jones) in Mexico.
(laughs) Yeah, well, that was a great experience. Now, I just hope that I can make the team again.
Note – We’ve opened up our most recent chat with Duke bound Matt Jones to the public in order to give you an idea of the types of interviews you will gfind as a member of BDN Premium. On the Monday after Thanksgiving, Matt Jones committed to Duke, but that didn’t make him any less hungry. Embracing the target on his back, the now 6’5″ DeSoto (TX) junior shooting guard led his DeSoto Eagles to a 33-6 record.
At times, his Eagles were nationally ranked and reached the Texas 5A regional finals, but fell to Naaman Forest 56-49 to conclude the junior’s high school season. For the season, Matt Jones, regarded as arguably the best long-distance shooter in the 2013 class, averaged nearly nineteen points, nine rebounds, and over three assists per game. After the season, MaxPreps named the sharpshooter to its Junior All-American Team, along with Duke recruits Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, and Al Freeman.
His older 5’9″ sister, Jordan Jones, who committed as a point guard to the Texas A&M Aggies, played in the McDonald’s All-American Game and won the Powerade skills competition. Ten months from now, Jones is likely to join her in the small fraternity of McDonald’s All-Americans.
Right now, the spiritual Matthew Jones is teaming up with his close friend and 6’9″ running mate, Julius Randle, to form a dangerous one-two punch for their Texas Titans AAU team. The team has gone 8-1 so far over the first two legs of Nike’s EYBL. Through the first nine game in the competitive EYBL, Jones is the eighth leading scorer (17.7 ppg) and fifth in three-pointers made, 26 (shooting 48.1% from beyond the three-point arc). He’s tried to become a more well-rounded and dangerous scorer, while adding an improved rebounding component by taking advantage of his prototypical shooting guard frame and willingness to battle big men for rebounds.
After an EYBL game, Jones spoke with BDN about what the coaches have asked him to work on, recruiting Julius Randle, his development as a defender, and playing with a target on his back, amongst other topics.
You guys were nationally ranked at times and made it to the regional finals. How did you feel overall about your high school season?
Well, it was a tough loss. Being one of the favorites to win it all, I mean, it was definitely a disappointment at the end of the season, but I mean I really loved the guys on this team. Overall, it was a good season, though. I mean I’m proud of my guys and I wish we would’ve went further, but it was a really great season and a lot of other programs would’ve loved to have made it as far as we did.
How was the Hall of Fame Game? It’s an interesting idea to have a postseason tournament that includes a few top juniors and plays it in the Final Four city.
Yeah, it was pretty fun. I mean I loved it. Just the experience. It got me better as a person and as a player. It showed me some things that I can work on and improve on.
Your sister, Jordan, was a McDonald’s All-American. Most people don’t seem to ask you about her at all, but I was just curious what were your emotions when you saw her at the event and when she won the skills competition? You must’ve been very proud.
Oh, yeah, I love my sister. I mean we’re very competitive and I do mean very competitive, but she definitely raised the bar in the family. I mean I don’t want to be in her shadows. So, I have to make it. I have to do what she did and go beyond. (laughs)
You guys must have an incredible gene pool.
Yeah, we did. We’ve been blessed.
The odds on that are staggering. The coaches have been watching you and checking in on you recently.
Yeah, we’re definitely talking. They’ve just told me to play hard, play defense, and just show what I can do besides shooting. Just show my whole game.
Well, I was going to ask you about that. What have they recommended that you concentrate on?
Dribbling. Just dribbling and focusing more on the defensive end. That’s gotta be my focus. Mostly, just hard work
For those that haven’t seen you play since last summer, what’s the one aspect of your game that you’ve developed most over the past few months?
Dribbling. I can dribble more now. I mean if they needed me to now I could play a little point. My decision-making is better. My IQ is better.
With exceptional shooters, there’s always or often an issue of pushing your boundaries and expanding your game, while not taking away from your core strength or letting it deteriorate. How do you try to balance the two?
Yeah, I mean I work on my shooting with my shooting coach, Coach Jerome. I get a lot of shots up with him and we just always shoot, but, at the same time, we also work on a little dribbling.
DeSoto, yeah, and some other places. I just try to get a lot of dribbling in. You know in between the shooting and sprinkle in some defense here and there. You know ball handling and IQ and stuff like that.
What about your body? Have you been working out too?
Yeah, I’ve been hitting the weights a little bit, you know. You can see in the upper body (laughs).
(laughs) Yeah, you look a little more defined. A little less baby fat
Yeah, I’m trying to get there.
Since you brought up your defense, how would you assess it right now? Where is your defense compared to where you want it to be?
I want to be the guy who can lock down the best player on the other team. That’s where I want to get to. I feel like I’m getting close, but I’m not there yet. That’s the goal. I try to use my size.
How tall are you now, Matt?
I’m 6’5″ now. So, I feel like I’ve been blessed with good height. I’ve grown a little bit, but I just want to be a lockdown defender. I like taking the other guy out and locking him down. I want people to view me that way. That’s the thing that I’ve tried to take my pride in. My defense.
More people need to take some pride on that side of the ball. This next one is sort of a touchy or awkward issue. People are always interested in recruiting and you’re obviously very close with Julius. Are you helping to recruit him to Duke with you or do you just stay away from that area or topic completely?
Yeah, I mean I’m always in his ear. I try not to be in his ear too much, but I mean at the same time we’re brothers and we’ve got a good relationship. So, we’re pretty comfortable talking about anything. I definitely whisper to him here and there. (laughs)
What are you hoping to accomplish this summer?
Simply, just getting better. I want to show the coaches at Duke that I’ll be ready to play as soon as I get on the courts at Duke. I want to prepare as much as I can now. I want to show them how hungry I am. I hope you can see that I’m hungry.
Just out of curiosity, Texas is obviously very strong in 2013, but do you have any sort of rivalry with either Keith Frazier, who is both from your area and plays your position, or even the Harrison twins?
Yeah, I mean people compare us, but I mean it is what it is. I don’t really have rivalries, but I mean, if you’re good, I just want to take the challenge. I want to take you down.
I noticed that you guys didn’t play against each other this season.
No, we didn’t, but I would’ve liked to. If you’re good, I want to take the challenge of guarding you. That’s my thing.
I’d like to see the two of you match-up. No ducking.
Yeah, me too (laughs).
Alright, we’ll settle it. This is your second year playing in the EYBL. Last year, you guys were a little young and then you had to step up and score more in Dallas when Julius went down with an injury. How do you think you’ve benefitted from that trial by fire last year?
Just facing all of that talent and you know so many of those or these guys are going to be college-level players. You know, game in and game out, Nike or EYBL has been great about having all of these really good teams. It’s just a really good experience. These are some of the same guys that you’ll be facing in college. So, it’s good.
Well, you also personally stepped up your game last year.
Yeah, yeah, well, I needed to for my team.
For the younger guys in the audience, what do you think is the secret to your three-point shooting success?
Repetition. Just repetition. You’ve got to get out there and shoot. Figure out what’s working and just keep repeating it.
Yes, and being focused.
Other than dribbling and defense, what are some things that the Duke coaches have asked you to work on?
Just being a better teammate and being a better leader.
Does your football background help you at all?
No, not really. (laughs)
Your rebounding numbers were way up in high school this year? Was that something you concentrated more on? Some fans seemed happy to see a guard that could rebound.
Yeah, it was something that I thought I could do. There aren’t too many rebounding guards in the country if you look around. They don’t want to get in there with the big guys. That’s what I want to bring. If that’s another way that I can separate myself, then I’ll just stick my nose in there and be tough.
Did or do you feel like you’ve had a target on your back since you committed to Duke?
I feel like it. I feel like it. It just keeps you on your toes. It’s been a good motivator for me.
For fans that don’t know you, what do you like to do away from the court?
Bowling. I love to bowl.
A regular Lebowski. Really? That was something that Nolan Smith was into. I think he thought it helped him.
Yeah, me too. I don’t know what it is, but I love it.
You’re moving better this year without the ball. Was that something that you’ve tried to work on more this year?
Oh, yeah, I’m constantly trying to move around, throw my defender off, and just get open for my teammates.
Lastly, you were mentioning before working on your handle and strength? How far along are you, compared to where you eventually want to get to be?
Yeah, I work on those two things constantly with Coach Jerome. He’s right here. He’s the key to my success.
“Point guards should only be judged by whether you win or lose. The rest of that stuff doesn’t matter.’’
In the humid central Florida city of Apopka, a 6’1″ point guard named Joel Berry II is working on perfecting his craft. For the past few months, he’s worked with trainer Cornell Rivers, who worked with the Celtics’ Marquis Daniels, on taking his shooting to another level. Joel makes 6,000 shots per weekend. These sessions can take between four and eight hours.
This March, the sophomore point guard led his young Lake Highland Prep squad to their first state championship game. Joel scored twenty-two points in the opening half of the 4A title game against Pine Crest, but the Lake Highland Highlanders ultimately lost that game after Berry, finishing with twenty-six points, fouled out of the game with 3:07 left in the game, missing their remaining six shots of the game. After finishing with a 28-4 record and returning all of their starters, they will be early favorites to win their first state title next season and are scheduled to play in the challenging City of Palms Tournament in Ft. Myers, FL next December.
For his efforts, the always gracious Berry II became the first sophomore in Florida’s history to win the Mr. Basketball Award. Joel also was named Gatorade’s Player of the Year in Florida. Gatorade cited his championship game run, his 3.3 GPA, and his volunteer work as the reasons for the sophomore’s distinction. For the season, Joel averaged over 23 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals, and 3 assists per game.
This AAU season, Berry has formed a dynamic 1-2 punch with Dakari Johnson, a 6’10” sophomore from Brooklyn who plays at Montverde Academy for Coach Kevin Boyle. Despite the youth, the Florida based-team, Each One Teach One, has gone 8-1 through the Minneapolis and Hampton legs of the Nike EYBL. Each One Teach One is the AAU program that Duke freshman and soon-to-be NBA guard, Austin Rivers, played for.
One of his E1T1 coaches is Joel Berry, Sr. Mr. Berry was a standout multi-sport athlete in his own regard. He was an Adidas All-American football player in 1987 as well as an All-Metro Orlando performer in both track and basketball. Mr. Berry opted to pursue football at the University of Central Florida, but, unfortunately, injured his knee as a sophomore and never played football again. He’s been able to stay in good shape via a mix of strength training and the martial arts. After going back to school, Mr. Berry is scheduled to earn a Master’s degree this month from the University of Central Florida. Joel’s sister, Kourtnie, just helped lead Rollins College of Winter Park, FL to a Division II Final Four, the furthest in program history.
Last year, playing two age groups up, Joel Berry II felt he needed to score more in order for his E1T1 team to have any chance at victory. Coaches Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Calhoun, and Billy Donovan watched the then rising sophomore play, at times, over the course of the limited July period, but he’s anxious to show the improvements in his overall game, particularly his on-the-ball defense, his improved physique and strength, which enables him to take the physicality that accompanies being a penetrating point guard, and ability to facilitate an offense.
After a recent game, Joel, who, from a personality standpoint, has managed to have the near perfect blend of being a tiger on the court and a good-natured gentleman off of it, spoke with me again after an EYBL game.
What are some things that you’ve improved on most since last year?
I’ve worked on my leadership a lot. I’m a real quiet person.
So am I.
Yeah, so I just tried to go out there and play basketball, but people had been telling me that I have to be more vocal out on the court. So, I’ve tried to work on that a lot. It’s one thing that I definitely feel like I’ve improved on. I’ve been going to a lot of leadership programs and that’s helped a lot.
That’s great. What are you hoping to show coaches this year?
I just want to show them that I can be a leader and run a team. Every time, I can’t wait to just go out there and play and help us win.
Well, I think you’ve got a much better team to work with than last year’s team. No offense to last year’s team, but you guys are older and made a great offseason acquisition by picking up the big fella, Dakari (Johnson).
Yes, sir, we’ve got a lot of size this year and it’s important that I get them the ball in spots where they can be successful with it. We’ve got a lot of players this year that can score and so it’ll take a lot of pressure off of me to score. I can just lead my team and distribute the ball. Last year, you know I needed to score a lot for us to try to win. This year, it’s been great because it feels like more we’re more of a team out there.
Leadership is [private] the thing that the coaches who watched you last summer will notice most, however, this year.
Yes, sir, absolutely.
Now, it wasn’t always smooth sailing for you last year, but how do you think the experience of playing EYBL last year will help you this year?
Oh, it’ll help a lot. I’ve seen my game really go up in high school basketball and then, now, we’re competing against the best of the best. I love this. In high school, Florida is really not strong, but, when I come or get to challenge myself against this level of competition, game in and game out, I can really showcase my game.
You’ll definitely get more exposure.
Back to Dakari (Johnson) for a second, what dynamic does he bring to your team? He’s a nice kid too.
Oh, yeah, he’s been great for us. We really didn’t have a dominant big man to where we can go inside.
You two will make a good tandem.
Yes, sir, and we can work a nice two-man game and then, with our other big men, we can dump the ball into Dakari. We have faith in Dakari because he’s one of the best in the nation, regardless of class.
This high school season was a major step forward for you, both personally and your team.
Oh, it was just great. We made it to the state championship game for the first time in forty-two years. Then, we ended up losing, but we accomplished something that no one else in our school’s history had and we’re going to bring back..
Well, for the next two years, you guys are going to be the favorites.
Yes, sir, for next year, we bring back our entire starting five. It should be great fun, but we can’t afford to rest. We need to keep working.
That’s the attitude.
Yes, sir, and then, personally, I swept everybody in Central Florida with the awards.
I know. I was proud of you.
Yes, thank you, I was the first sophomore to win the Mr. Basketball Award.
Sure, let’s talk about that award specifically.
Oh, yeah, it was a major honor to get that award because usually they give it to seniors and players that are going out, but I put in an enormous amount of work and I just thought that I deserved it this year.
Well, of course, you deserved it.
People are always interested in recruiting. What schools are recruiting you right now?
UNC, Duke, Kentucky…just a lot of ACC and SEC schools. Well, I’ve been receiving them from all over, but those are the main two conferences. Right now, I’m looking into it and I am serious about it, but, once it gets deeper into the summer, I’ll get even more serious about it. I’ll talk more about it with my parents. I owe it to the schools to put some serious thought into it.
I saw Coach (Roy) Williams at this game.
Who handles your recruitment mostly at this point, your coaches or your parents?
Oh, my dad handles it.
Well, he’s a good filter. He’s been through it as a two-sport player through football and has been coaching basketball for a while now.
Yes, sir, but there are a lot of schools that’ve expressed some interest. It can be hectic for him, but I’m really happy and grateful for the options.
Going back to Carolina and Duke, how much interest have they expressed in you so far? What’s your interest in both? I know that you were a big Carolina fan growing up.
Yes, sir, but I just like their style of play. I like the coaches. They’re a good academic school too and that’s what I’m looking for.
I remember that you were about a 3.5 student as a freshman and then I heard that you were about a 3.3 this year too.
Yes, sir. I really want to be able to have something that I can fall back on in case anything happens or for things that I’d like to do after basketball. I mean I just love basketball, but I’d like to know that there’s something else in case
Well, you’re going to hopefully live a long life. I always think that it’s a good insurance plan for players. God forbid anything happens, but, at least, you’ll have something of value that an injury can’t take away. Would you be open to Duke as well?
Oh, yes, I like Coach Mike Krzyzewski. I like the way he carries himself and the way he runs his program. I like the pace that they play too. I would be open to any school. I’m grateful for every school that expresses an interest.
What’s your current size?
I’m about 6’1″ and a half. My weight is 192 right now. I’ve gone up from 185 at the end of last year.
Are you trying to get bigger or add muscle? I know that your dad does a lot of training.
I’m not really trying to get bigger, but just get bigger so that I can handle the more physical nature of being a guard. I wanted to be able to get physical with the other guards and also be able to take whatever they did to me.
Sure, well, you like to penetrate and so you’re getting hit every time you go down the lane.
Absolutely, that’s the reason. That’s mainly what I’ve been working on or towards. Mainly, it’s been my shoulders and chest.
Well, you definitely look more developed in those areas.
Yes, sir, I’ve been working hard with my coaches and trainers on improving in those areas because I’ve taken a lot of hits. I like to get to the hole and I like to dish it off.
Well, your dad was in good shape and worked as a trainer.
Yes, he’s been a part of it too.
I remember that you worked out before school at about 6 every morning. Three days a week on strength and then on that VertiMax for the other two days.
Yeah, I never took a break. You can always work on your conditioning, sir. I tried to improve my explosiveness and quickness.
Would you say that a “scoring point guard” is a fair description of you?
It can be, yes, definitely.
On last year’s team, your squad was so young and so they needed you to score.
Absolutely, on last year’s team, they needed me to score, but, on this year’s team, we’ve got plenty of scorers and so I don’t need to try to score on every possession. Scoring hasn’t been on my mind this year, but, if I have to, I have to.
In terms of a timeline, do you have a time when you’d like to either cut down on your list or decide on a school?
Well, yes, sir, I think by mid-season next year, I’ll probably try to cut down on the list.
Have you visited any schools recently and do you have any planned?
Oh, I’ve visited Florida and Miami, but that’s really about it. I plan on visiting a lot of schools this summer. So, hopefully, that’ll help too.
What will you be looking for when you make your visits? Comfort level..
Yeah, comfort level, do I fit in with them, I’d like to be able to have or build a good relationship with the coaches. That’ll be very important. I’d like to have a relationship with my college coaches like I have with my AAU coaches, you know, someone that I can talk to and will work with me to improve my game. That’ll be what I’ll be looking for on the trips.
Tell the audience a little about your father. He was a two-sport athlete, but hurt his knee as like a full or running back and never played again. That was a real shame.
Yeah, he was an All-American in high school and played for Central Florida and it was a shame, but he’s fought back and he’s going to get his Master’s degree now from Central Florida.
I’m glad to hear that.
Oh, yes, sir, and he’s graduating and looking forward to starting his own company.
That’s that entrepreneurial spirit.
Yes, sir, that’s why I’d like to study engineering or even architecture.
Using that mind of yours.
What are some of your goals, short-term and long-term?
Long-term, my dream is to make it to the NBA and then, short-term, is just to win the Peach Jam. That’s my focus.
Those are good goals. By the way, what do you hope to accomplish in the next high school season?
I’d love to win the state title. We bring back almost our whole team and I’d just love to win the title with these guys.
Who are going to be some of your toughest competitors next year?
Well, we’ve been invited to the City of Palms, which is big for our school. I don’t know who we’re going to face there.
They always have a loaded field down there. That’ll be good for your team’s playoff run and also bring some exposure as well.
Yes, sir, they’re always supposed to have very tough competition over there. I’m looking forward to it because I know that there are a lot of good schools out there. Hopefully, we’ll be up to the challenge, but I like the challenge of it.
By the way, have you ever played against Tyus Jones and, if so, how’d you do? How would you compare yourself with him?
We played against each other at the USA. He’s a great player and he’s a slasher. I respect him, but I haven’t spoken to him recently.
Is there a rivalry between you two or not really?
Oh, no, it’s friendly. We just go out there and play our hardest. I mean, on the court, I’m not looking for friends, but, off the court, it’s cool and we’re just playing our games.
Who are some other point guards in your class that people should take note of?
Larry Austin. He’s a great player and a great kid. We’ve gone against each other and he makes me go hard. I make him go hard.
Who are some other players that people should keep an eye out for in your class? Obviously, Dakari..
Oh, well, Dakari, Paul White..
Yes, Okafor. I like being around all of those guys. I like them all.
What about Stanley Johnson?
Oh, yeah, Stanley, he’s talented too and a funny kid.
Yeah, he’s always cracking jokes.
Yeah, he is. Funny kid.
Well, I’ve met and played against Andrew Wiggins, but I’ve never actually talked to him. I’ve seen him around and he’s always working. He seems like a great kid. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of players in my class, but I really don’t feel like I know a lot of them.
I remember you told me that Austin Rivers was the best player that you’ve played with or against. Is Rivers still the best player that you’ve faced?
Yes, I think so. I played with him. Not really against him. I mean I like the way he plays and how he continues to try to make other players better and improve on different aspects of his game. He’s so dangerous and yet, he’s not satisfied. He’s hungry. I’ve really worked a lot on the defensive end. I’ve tried to make it my focus. I love to work on the defensive end. I almost don’t even care about working on my offense, but I have to. I can’t let that slide, but I do actually like to start out by working on my defense. I’m trying to make it better and better.
In what ways do you try to work on your defense? How would you assess your defense as of today?
It’s gotten a lot better. I’ve been doing a lot of side or lateral movements. I want to make my lateral quickness as fast as possible. I’ve working on my on-the-ball defense.
Yes, sir, I’m getting low. My hands are active. My defense has improved a lot. My dad always tells me to start with my defense. If my offense doesn’t come, well, at least, we can always give our best on defense.
Is LeBron still your favorite player?
I love the way he plays. He plays so hard on both ends. I just really enjoy watching him.
For an audience that hasn’t seen you play yet, give them a little scouting report and what would say are your strengths and weaknesses?
My weakness had been that I needed to work on my left hand to make it as strong as my right.
Well, you’ve got a strong right. I almost wonder why they don’t try to overplay your right.
Yes, my strengths are getting to basket and either dishing off or scoring. In terms of a scouting report, I’d say that if my man gets up on me, I’m going to take him to the hole and, if he backs off, I can pull up on him.
Who do you try to model your game after?
Well, on the court, Derrick Rose, but, off the court, I’d like to model myself after LeBron James with the camps and helping young people in the community.
What do you think is the key thing to having or developing good court vision?
Keeping your head up and looking for the big man, if possible. If he’s open, you’ve got to find a way to get it to him or penetrate and drop it off. I don’t want to be one of those guards that tries to just force a shot. As a point guard, you’re supposed to distribute the ball. That’s my job.
How has the experience been “playing up” in age groups?
It’s been good and challenging. I think that if I just played in my age group all these years that I would’ve been a little lazy and I didn’t want that. I’ve liked the challenge. I feel like every time out there, I have to give it my all.
How does the EYBL compare to your high school league?
In high school, you can get away with the little stuff, but here you can’t. It’s constantly challenging. In high school, we’ll sometimes play against some players who could be on the circuit, but not on this constant level. High school really hasn’t been that hard.
What would you like the audience to walk away knowing about you?
That I’m humble. I don’t like to talk about myself. I try to be of service to others in any ways that I can help.
Yes, sir. I’ve done community service. I also used to play football. I was a quarterback and strong safety, but I used to be pretty good at it.
Who are some people that you’ll turn to for guidance in a college decision, whenever you do decide?
My high school coach, Coach Bowlin, I love him. I feel like whenever I have problems, I can come to him with anything. He always helps me out.
I assume your father.
Oh, yes, my dad and also my mom and my family. That’s my guidance.
“He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.” – Sun Tzu
At fifteen, Tyus Jones, the 6’1″ 175 lb point guard from Apple Valley, Minnesota, has accomplished more on the basketball court than almost all of his peers, utilizing a mix of court vision, change of pace, and advanced perimeter skills.
On a national level, Jones’ coming out party was last April in Dallas when, playing for the Howard Pulley Panthers, he scorched a Seattle AAU team for forty-five points, despite being more than two years younger than his competition. He quickly followed that up by earning a spot on the ultra-competitive USA Basketball’s U-16 team in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Soon thereafter, the self-described “pass-first point guard” helped lead the United States to a gold medal at the FIBA Americas 16U Championship in Cancun, Mexico. Jones broke current Duke point guard Quinn Cook’s tournament assist record, dishing off twenty-eight assists to, amongst others, fellow Duke recruits Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, and Theo Pinson.
Tyus has been playing varsity basketball for Apple Valley, a suburb of the Twin Cities and home of the Minnesota Zoo, since he was an eighth grader. Last year, he missed more than eight weeks (thirteen games) of the season after lacerating his kidney, when he unfortunately landed in the heel of a St. Louis Park player.
This year, the sophomore came back and lead the Eagles to a 23-6 record, scoring more than twenty-eight points per game. For the season, despite being the focal point of a variety of “junk” defenses, the precocious point guard shot an eye-popping 56% from the field, 44% from beyond the three-point arc, and better than 86% from the charity stripe. In addition to earning a MaxPreps All-American distinction and the Star-Tribune’s Player of the Year, Gatorade named the sophomore Minnesota’s Player of the Year, noting his performance on the court, 3.1 GPA, and charitable work with Feed My Starving Children.
In the late winter, Coach Mike Krzyzewski formally offered Jones a scholarship to Duke University. It was an unusually early scholarship offer for the Duke program, but, as a rising sophomore, Tyus Jones first captured the attention of the four-time National Champion and Olympic gold medal-winning head coach at last year’s Peach Jam. Jones has already visited unofficially three Big Ten schools: Ohio State, Michigan State, and his hometown Minnesota Gophers. Tyus told BDN that he will definitely visit Duke in the future.
The sophomore lead guard comes from a tight basketball family. His affable father, Rob Jones, who is 6’6,” played for Proviso East (IL) HS and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, while his mother, Debbie, won a state title as the point guard for Devils Lake (ND) HS. His older brother, 6’2″ Jadee, played for Furman and Minnesota State-Monkato. Jadee has been Tyus’ trainer and the one he credits for his shooting prowess, working on repetitions and technique.
If anyone thought that there might be a sophomore slump with Tyus, they’ve been sorely disappointed. The shrew lead guard is now at the top of the national leaders in both points (21 per game) and assists (6.55 per game), while exhibiting more vocal leadership skills. His team, the Howard Pulley Panthers, currently have a 5-4 record through the first two legs of the competitive Nike EYBL. This weekend, at the Boo Williams Complex in Hampton, Virginia, Tyus concluded the weekend with a 37 point, 8 assist, and 5 rebound performance in a win over the Bluff City Legends of Tennessee. Throughout the two live period weekends, the Duke coaches have been a constant presence at his games.
After an EYBL game, Tyus spoke with me about, amongst other things, leadership, USA Basketball, pre-game visualization, his use of change of pace, the early Duke offer, pressure to stay home for college, and his family’s support.
You recently won the Gatorade Player of the Year.
It was a huge honor. It’s a humbling experience and feeling. It’s just amazing. It just goes to show that hard work and dedication does pay off and my teammates helped me with that with making shots to help us win games. My coaches setting up stuff, so I just was really proud of that honor.
It’s also a well-rounded award. I was talking to the guy that runs it and obviously basketball is a key criteria, but they’re also looking for people who won’t embarrass their brand off the court.
Exactly, exactly. My parents raised me to be the young man that I am. They keep me grounded and I don’t want to embarrass them.
You’ve been playing varsity since the 8th grade.
Yeah, it helps me because this year we had a young team that is helped because I had some experience seeing a lot of the situations in the games that they hadn’t. I’ve just got to lead and lead by example and be vocal. It’s helped a lot.
Being vocal is an issue I wanted to get to, but I want to wait a bit. Let’s talk about playing in front of your home fans. It can get really packed. Your dad, Rob, said that your home games were almost all sell-outs and obviously it’s been standing room only here.
It was great playing in front of hometown fans, like you said. We’ve got a good turnout, a lot of families have come here. It’s been a good turnout, I think we’ve shown our fans in Minnesota that we can play and we can play at a high level. We can compete and it was good. I’m impressed with how we played.
Sure, I was speaking before with Jahlil about the USA Basketball experience and we were talking a little bit about you. What are your memories of going through that experience about going through the tryouts and winning the gold medal and everything else?
Right, USA Basketball was an amazing experience. It was an unbelievable feeling to put USA across your chest to represent your whole country, the whole nation. It was an unbelievable experience. We built a great bond with our teammates. Credit goes to Coach Showalter and Coach Jones. They trained us and worked us hard and brought us together to become a family. They’re great guys.
Give the audience a sense of the tryouts. I know they were very competitive in Colorado Springs.
The tryouts were in Colorado Springs. They were very tough, very tough. Every single drill, every single play, every possession. It was unbelievable and you’ve got to come to play and you can’t take a play off because you’ll get exposed.
What’s your take on Jahlil (Okafor) and Theo (Pinson)?
They’re two of my good friends and we all in a sense, them included, bonded together. They’re great characters, they’re great students, they’re great basketball players, so everything worked out.
You had a lacerated kidney. What did you learned about yourself and basketball in the time you were unable to play?
Oh, yeah, that was a huge thing in my career.
For the audience members who may not know, how did it happen?
Oh, yeah, I got double-teamed and got pushed into a kid.
If you want to say so.. I fell onto the back of his leg and into his heel. His heel just pushed right up into my kidney and cut it.
Yeah, it was. I cut it and I ended up having to sit out for eight weeks. It kind of made me step back and see…
What did you realize?
It made me step back from the game of basketball and really what I had in front of me and what was really important and just kind of cherished the game more and just cherish everything more because the game can just go away from you. In a split second, it can be gone.
Who do you try to model your game after?
I try to take bits and pieces from, you know, all the great point guards in the NBA. Guys like Chris Paul, I think he does everything well and I try to just take as much as I can from him. And Rondo, you know he sets up his teammates incredibly well and…
He’s a great defender.
Yeah, exactly, and he anticipates and everything like that. He anticipates everything well on the floor. And then there’s Russell Westbrook..
Well, by the way, you might shoot a little better than Rondo at this point.
(laughs) With Russell Westbrook, I love to see how he uses his explosion and just gets his team where they need to go. And there’s all kinds of little things you can take from different point guards’ play because they’re in the NBA for a reason.
You come from a bit of a basketball family. Your father, your mother, and your brother all played at various levels. How do you think that helps you and differentiates you from other players?
Yeah, it helps a lot because any one of my relatives I can go to and talk about basketball just like they’re all behind me and support me in any way I need and whatever I do. They’re all there for me. So, you know, being born and raised in a basketball family, it’s helped me love the game and just pushed me.
Does it make you more competitive when you’re growing up in a family like that?
Yeah, definitely. I was trying to compete with my brother, my cousins, everyone who was older. I just was always trying to compete with my brother in everything. I was just trying to hang with them as much as I could and I think it just helped. It really turned me into a competitor. Yeah, now that I’m older I can hang with them. We’re much more competitive.
You guys must kill with two-on-two at the local YMCA.
(laughs) It’s competitive. We always go back and forth.
What was it like when you first beat one of your older relatives?
It kind of just told me that I was getting there. I was getting bigger, I was getting older.
It was a first step.
Right, right. It felt like a big deal.
In terms of leadership, what was it like being the captain of the team this year as a sophomore?
Being captain was a good honor. It was big being named leader of your team and you’ve got to set a good example. I think I do that well and guys are looking for you to lead and you just got to be on point and you’ve got to be ready to lead them.
You wanted to be more vocal this year. You mentioned it a little bit earlier as well.
Yeah, I mean, you can never communicate too much.
Particularly with a young team.
Yeah, exactly, especially on a young team, you’re being just vocal and communicating, it makes it a lot easier for everybody. Than if you are being quiet, just being vocal it starts up top and everybody else communicates.
Are you loud or more quiet by nature?
I would say I’m more laid back and quiet by nature. So it’s just something that’s out of my element to be more vocal. You know, I’d rather lead by example, but I just have to be more vocal. It’s something that I have to constantly work on and have to step out of my comfort zone and be vocal.
Another important issue with point guards is leadership. We talked before about you being named captain, but how would you assess your leadership skills at this point?
Leadership is obviously important. You’re the leader on your court at all times and I’m just a point guard and just try to take that and go with that.
We talked before about all the fans showing up to support you in high school and here. Would you say there’s a lot of pressure for you to stay home for college?
There is. There’s been a lot of pressure to stay home, but I’ve just got to take it in stride. You just go through this once and you just have to have fun with it.
I was at your game last year in Dallas where you scored over 40 points (45 points). Shooting is obviously one of the things you do relatively well. How do you account for your shooting and what is your shooting regimen?
Oh, yeah, I just try to put up as many shots as I can in the off-season, just work on repetition. You know, you can never put too many shots up. There’s never too much repetition.
How did you learn how to shoot originally?
My older brother was a tremendous shooter and he worked with me a lot and, you know, it just worked its way out.
You try to mentally and visually prepare before the games. That’s something unusual for a kid your age.
Oh, yeah, I just kind of get into my own zone and where I want to go with the ball and how I want to pass it. A lot of guys are just different. I don’t know. It’s the way I feel I need to get ready for the game and it’s worked for me. Some guys goof around, some guys are very serious, and some guys are off on their own. It’s a matter of trying to be comfortable with how you feel.
What about your use of change of pace?
Oh, yeah, definitely change of pace is very important to me. I’m trying to work on my change of pace because it makes it hard for guys to try to stay in front of you.
It’s kind of like in baseball where if you’re a changeup pitcher, it makes your fastball look a lot faster.
Yeah, that’s a good example.
What do you view as your strengths and weaknesses right now?
My strengths are just seeing the floor and being that true point guard out there. My weaknesses are, you know, you can always be a better defender. I’ve just got to work on the little things, like being a good leader out there. Those little things are always very important.
You get a lot of junk defenses thrown at you, particularly in high school ball. How have you adjusted to the different defenses?
Oh, yeah, I think I’ve seen them all. It just comes with the territory from our team’s success. You know, when we get success, you just have to go with it and figure out a way for your team to win.
Do you watch a lot of basketball? I know Rubio is another popular point guard around here. Do you watch a lot of college or pro basketball?
I do. I watch as much basketball as I can, both college and pro.
What about being a passer versus scorer? You’re sort of known as being a scoring point guard with your AAU team, but for USA Basketball, you were much more of a facilitator as a passing point guard.
I actually think I’m a pass-first point guard, but I just try to take what the defense will give me. If the defense gives me points, I’m going to take it, but if the defense gets up on me, I’m going to pass it immediately and I’ll hit the open man. I love to set up my guys. It just makes it fun, it makes it easier. I love to just, you know, get your team going.
So, all things being equal, you like to have a great pass over a great jumpshot?
Who do you turn to for guidance whenever you make big decisions?
My parents, they’ve been there since day one and they really have my best interest at heart.
You’re quite lucky to have both parents.
Yeah, I’ve also got my grandparents, as you can see right behind you. My grandparents are right here, my aunts are right there, they’re all here to support me. I’ve got a great core group of people. I feel very comfortable with them. I really like to listen to their thoughts on things.
I mentioned before about that forty-five point game. That game sort of helped to put you on the map to a degree. What was going through your mind and what do you remember about that day?
It was just one of those days where I was just feeling it and our coaches are always like if you’re feeling it, just go with it. Don’t let up. They just say that if we’re feeling it, just keep going with it, so I just kept putting it up and it just kept falling. It was just incredible.
In terms of a timeline, when would you like to decide by?
I’m waiting, I’m not trying to rush into my recruitment or anything. I’m not looking to give an immediate commitment. I’m looking to survey things and looking deeply into everything. So it’ll be just a little while.
Have you taken any visits?
I’ve taken unofficials to Ohio State and to Michigan State.
And probably Minnesota too.
Yeah, and to Minnesota as well.
What would you like the audience to know about you away from the court?
I’m just a laid-back kid, I like to have fun. I’m not trying to draw a lot of attention to myself. I’m trying to be laid-back and do the right thing. I’m not one of those kids who is a trouble-maker or anything like that. I’m just pretty laid-back and I keep to myself.
You’ve grown up in Apple Valley.
Yeah, I grew up in Apple Valley. We have the Minnesota Zoo. It’s a nice community to grow up in.
What’s your current size?
I’m about 6’2,” 175.
Before we were talking about change of pace and I remember reading that one of the reasons you wanted to add that to your game was because you may not be the fastest guy…
Yeah, I’m definitely not the fastest guy, so I felt like if I could just add that to my game, I’d just be a lot more difficult to try to stay in front of, rather than if I rely on my straight-forward quickness.
Lastly, can you talk about the Duke offer and what you know about the program?
Yes, Duke has offered me a scholarship. I’m very grateful to them for that. Coach K is a legendary coach and he’s an unbelievable coach and Coach Wojciechowski and Coach Capel are great guys. I saw the Duke coaches watching. They’ve coached a lot of great players. It will be interesting to see what happens with this recruiting period.
Were you surprised by the offer? It’s much earlier than they usually give players scholarship offers…
Yeah, actually, I was. I guess it was earlier than they traditionally do offer kids. I just feel very blessed and I just feel very humbled that they’re even recruiting me and I never thought that I’d be recruited by any of the big-name colleges and so I feel very blessed to have them even interested in me.
Any thoughts on visiting them in the future?
Yeah, eventually, definitely. I want to take an unofficial there.
What are some future tournaments you will be playing in for fans who want to catch you? Obviously EYBL…
Yeah, EYBL at all of the locations, then at the end of the month, I’ll be in California.
Lastly, what are you hoping to show coaches this year?
I’m just hoping to show them my hard work and just the little things, like boxing-out and getting on the floor and just the little things.