This story originally appeared in the Holiday issue of ESPNHS magazine’s Minnesota edition.
Tyus Jones is used to being the young kid. The small kid. The kid who’s got to show his game to prove he belongs.
After all, that’s how it always was growing up. Jones never got the chance to be the big kid, not with his older brother, Jadee, around. Not when his competition towered over him like aspen trees. Not even when he’d go one on one against his mom.
Despite the numerous on-court beatings he took, Tyus gradually proved he could hang with the big kids. Now he’s one of the nation’s best basketball players. Regardless of age.
Only a sophomore, Tyus is rated the nation’s No. 5 player in the ESPNU 25. He’s played for Team USA in the FIBA Americas U16 Championship. And he’s started for Apple Valley since he was an eighth-grader. As a freshman last season he averaged 20.1 points and 7.1 assists per game despite missing 13 games with a lacerated kidney.
There is scarcely a college coach in the country who wouldn’t love Tyus to run the point for his team. He’s got the skills to play the position, prefers passing to shooting and sees the game better than players years older.
No surprise, considering he learned the game from players years older. His mother, Deb, played point guard at her North Dakota high school and led her team to a state title before playing in college. His father, Ray, stands tall at 6-foot-6 and played Division III ball in Wisconsin. Both have had a big impact on his basketball development.
“I was born and raised into a basketball family,” Tyus says. “Ever since I could remember, I’ve had a ball in my hand.”
But Tyus says he’s taken the most from Jadee, who is 10 years older and played college ball at Furman and Mankato State.
“I was at all his games,” Tyus says. “I watched him as much as I could. I learned so much from him.”
Deb believes that following after his big brother was important to Tyus’ development.
“He, as the little kid, would try to compete with these older kids,” she says. “His older brother has played a huge part in where he is today. There was no letting him win, just like Tyus doesn’t let (his younger brother) Tre win, either. Whether it was basketball, baseball, football, track — Tyus would be right there with them.”
So when Tyus showed up as an eighth-grader ready to vie for a spot on Apple Valley’s varsity team, he wasn’t intimidated by the older players.
“We had never started an eighth-grader before,” says Apple Valley coach Zach Goring. “But during the summer before Tyus’ eighth-grade year, the team went to a camp at the University of Wisconsin. It was during that tournament that Tyus established himself as our top point guard. His unselfishness and ability to run the team made him stand out.”
Tyus says that despite his experience hanging with the older kids, running a varsity team as an eighth-grader was nerve-wracking. But his teammates welcomed him to the team and they all formed a strong bond. Eventually, he eased into his role. He learned he didn’t need to be the scorer; in fact, he was more comfortable looking to pass first and letting his teammates do the work.
The Eagles finished with a 20-9 record. They fell in the sectional playoffs to Eastview but were well on their way. They had found a point guard who could lead them to big things. And that’s when Tyus started getting the college letters.
“It was an unbelievable feeling,” he says. “I had been working really hard. Stuff was just starting to pay off. It felt great to get that first letter, and it motivated me to keep working hard.”
Tyus was catching everyone’s attention. College coaches were flooding the Jones household with letters — first Southern Cal, then dozens of others. The U.S. U16 National Team invited him to try out after his eighth-grade season.
He also got invitations from select camps around the nation, but he decided country came first. After surviving the first round of cuts with the National Team, he was invited back to try out a second time.
Between tryouts, he started getting ready for his freshman season at Apple Valley. But in the team’s first game, Tyus was trying to kill the clock late in the game when a defender stripped him of the ball. When he reached back to retrieve it, he tripped and landed on his opponent’s heel, lacerating his kidney.
Doctors told Jones it would be weeks before he could return to the floor, so he sat on the bench and watched. Looking back, he says it’s one of the greatest things that could have happened to him.
“I learned everything then,” he says. “I would sit on the sideline every day for practice and games. I picked up on little things that our team does — little habits that we have. I watched how plays develop and saw our spacing. I could see everything from a different perspective.”
Tyus also learned how to be more vocal on the floor, since that’s all he could contribute from the sideline. When he finally returned, he applied that vocal leadership to the court.
“Everything we do runs through our point guard, so having such a dynamic player at that position is great,” Goring says. “And he’s the first player in our program to be named a captain in his sophomore year.”
Tyus also advanced past the second round of cuts for Team USA and was named to the U16 Team’s 12-man roster this past June. He helped the squad go 5-0 in Cancun, Mexico, to win the FIBA Americas U16 Championship.
He might be the nation’s next superstar. But he’s also just a normal kid, the same one who used to watch “Space Jam” and then head outside to pretend he was Michael Jordan and shoot with Jadee until it got dark.
“This is what I’ve always wanted,” he says. “I’ve been blessed at this opportunity. I thank the people who have been there from the start.”
Christopher Parish is an associate editor with ESPNHS magazine. You can reach him on Twitter @CParishESPNHS.