Life of a big-time recruit: Tyus Jones
EAGAN, Minn. -- There is a shattered side-view mirror on the blacktop next to a pickup truck.
The paths in this packed lot are narrow, and the spectators are anxious to get inside the gym by tipoff. But there's no legitimate place to park, so the grass is filling up with SUVs and minivans.
Some folks ignore written warnings and find spots in nearby lots that threaten to tow. Their cars will be removed by the time they return, but the kid in pink shoes is worth the fine.
Tyus Jones, the top point guard and No. 3 overall recruit in the 2014 class per ESPN RecruitingNation, is largely responsible for the crowd.
He's coveted by every premier Division I program in America. The others stopped kidding themselves years ago. He's part-Jason Kidd, part-John Stockton, part-prodigy.
His ascent began when he was an eighth-grader in Minnesota, starring for Apple Valley High School's varsity team. It continued when he became the starting point guard for the USA Basketball developmental team, which won a gold medal at the FIBA U16 world championships in Mexico City two years ago and the U17 world championships in Lithuania last year.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Damen Jackson No. 1 PG Tyus Jones already has some of the passing skills NBA scouts look for in a prospect.
It's a Saturday morning in late May, the fourth stop for Nike's EYBL grassroots basketball tour. And Jones has turned this massive facility into a cluttered venue that local fire marshals would probably rebuke.
The standing room is gone. Sweaty gawkers in oversized windbreakers and jogging suits stand next to teenage girls in sparkly outfits. The latter seem overdressed for the occasion but properly attired to be noticed. "There's Tyus," one announces with a smirk.
Grown men rub their chins as they verbally joust over a hypothetical matchup between Jones and former Connecticut point guard and Minneapolis native Khalid El-Amin. Coaches stomp on the sideline and scream at, well, everyone.
It all adds to the spectacle.
And as if he needs to be magnified, Jones wears pink shoes to his hometown party.
"It's the kind of thing where if it's a bigger game or bigger event, then I'll bring out some pink shoes just to kind of have some fun," he said in defense of the neon footwear.
The mood wanes, however, as he dribbles up the floor with the nonchalant stride of a tourist in New York City. There are 10 seconds left in the first half of a game that Jones' Howard Pulley AAU program will eventually win.
He knows he's caused this. He can feel the familiar silence that marks the moment. Jones pauses as an entire gym waits for his next move.
Then he bursts left, soars, double pumps in midair and scores while drawing a foul.
It is the kind of play that has brought Division I coaches to Minnesota in recent years. They all know this 6-foot kid from Minneapolis' south suburbs could be more than just the leader they crave for their respective programs.
They believe they need him.
"It's getting crazy, but I'm loving it," Jones said. "I don't think you can expect it or see it in the near future or anything like that. It's definitely been crazier than I thought it would have ever been. But like I said, I'm just enjoying it and going with it and just making the most of it."
There is a scruffy gray beard attached to the face of a man who boasts a presence on the Minnesota basketball scene that's as distinct as his facial hair.
Rene Pulley, who runs the Nike-sponsored Howard Pulley AAU program, is the patriarch of the area's grassroots basketball culture. In the 1960s and '70s, he watched circumstances derail the dreams of young players who couldn't latch on to the University of Minnesota's roster -- the only Division I program in the state -- and lacked the national exposure to find other scholarship opportunities.
"Back then, [the University of Minnesota] just recruited 6-10 trees," Pulley said. "So it was tough back then. We had some outstanding players who just didn't get the opportunity."[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Eric DraperAnother PG from the Twin Cities who came through the Howard Pulley program, Khalid El-Amin led UConn to a national title in 1999.
Pulley, who played for a local community college, says he's still bitter about the what-ifs in his career. But he used the frustration to create a program that has become a pipeline for local players such as El-Amin, Kris Humphries, Royce White and now Jones, his program's top player, to earn national exposure.
The High Performance Academy, which hosts a perennial stop on Nike's grassroots tour, is a testament to the legacy of amateur basketball in the Twin Cities.
Pulley did not initially know the woman who made the multimillion-dollar donation that helped him convert an old trucking warehouse into an expansive basketball operation. But the new building helped Pulley bring Nike's circuit to the Twin Cities, and he hopes the local events hosted at the building in the future will bring more Division I coaches to the Twin Cities and help the top players from the area avoid the heartbreak he endured in his youth.
"People didn't believe Minnesota basketball players were good, and they didn't think they could play at that level," Pulley said.
There was a 13-year-old who belied reputation and his age. And Zach Goring knew he had to promote him.
He recognized the risks and potential backlash. The new Apple Valley High School coach wanted Jones, an eighth-grader attending middle school, to lead his squad in the 2009-10 season. But he had to prove that the decision was more than just a gimmick.
"I'd been watching him, as well as my staff, all the way up," Goring said. "The way he controls the game, his IQ is through the roof. It was honestly a no-brainer to bring him up right away. He was the best point guard at our school, and he wasn't even at our school."
In his first varsity game, Jones scored 13 points and registered eight assists. Even then, it was clear he had a gift. He's fluid and efficient. His cerebral approach to the game fuels his crisp and accurate passing. He's a good shooter, and he rarely commits turnovers.
He's not an explosive, Derrick Rose-type point guard. He's not Chris Paul fast. But he's balanced, intelligent, skilled and deliberate. And he has deceptive athleticism. He's a true playmaker and leader. He hurts opponents with or without the ball.
"His ceiling is very high," said one Division I coach who is actively recruiting Jones. "He will continue to get stronger and more explosive. His IQ is already at an elite level. He has a gift of making guys around him so much better. Guys want to play with him. That's rare these days."
There is a horse somewhere in America that Jones would like to buy for his mother, Deb Jones.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Paul BattagliaEighth-grader Tyus (top), seen with his little brother Tre, was already starting for Apple Valley High School.
The young man who has evolved against elevated scrutiny and expectations has thrived with her support. Deb, a paralegal and single mother, uses her vacation time to stay close to her middle son and his younger brother, Tre, whenever they're traveling for basketball.
She's raised three boys, and they all love the game. (Jones' older brother, Jadee, is his trainer and a former college basketball player.) Most parents say they put their children first. Deb Jones has the frequent-flyer miles and hotel receipts to prove it.
"As a parent, to step back and say everything we've done, all the time we've spent, all the money we've spent, all the days off of work, all the extra time in the gym or the early mornings … it's just so worth it," she said. "You just wouldn't do it any other way."
For his mother's sacrifice, Jones would like to buy her a horse if he's blessed to reach the NBA one day.
"It's a big motivation for me to be able to give my mom anything she wants and make her life as easy as possible," Jones said. "She's done everything and more for myself and my brothers. She's a tremendous woman. She would give the world for myself and my brothers. That's just pushing me to make it one day so I can just take care of her.
"She loves watching the horse races and stuff like that. I told her I'm going to buy her a horse one day. One day, I will."
You have to understand Deb to decipher Tyus, who is also close to his father, Rob Jones, who lives in the Twin Cities area.
Tyus does not arrive at tournaments with a posse. There are no 24-year-old girlfriends or traveling groupies. There are no leeches banking on the day he turns pro and makes millions.
His family has been his rock and his buffer. He's surrounded by his mother, father, relatives and a few friends. The superficial, flaky hangers-on that often emerge when a young star begins to surge are absent.
As the buzz has intensified, Jones has remained humble. His family helps him stay grounded.
"It goes back to Tyus and Deb making sure the people around him have the best intentions. And it's a really small circle," said Gregg Cascaes, Jones' uncle. "His family is his entourage."Carlos GonzalezJones has played for his country at the FIBA world championship in Mexico and Lithuania.
Added one Division I coach who is recruiting Jones: "His mom is very involved, and he has a great, tight circle around him."
He's not perfect, of course. But his flaws, it appears, are few.
That's why every college coach in the country has tried to entice him. The soon-to-be senior has narrowed his list to seven schools: Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan State, Baylor, Kentucky, Duke and Kansas.
He'll take his first official visit -- to Baylor -- in August and said he'll sign in the early period only if he's completely comfortable with a program.
"You just want to fit in, not only on the court but off the court," Jones said. "You want to have a good bond with the coach. That's one thing I look for is how the players interact with the coaching staff. You look at the schooling part of it, of course. Education is a big part. Just player development, do the players get better while they're in school? Just a lot of other stuff goes into it. What other recruits they're bringing in. There's just a lot of little stuff that goes into it."
Jones said he intends to play next to his USA Basketball teammate and friend Jahlil Okafor, the No. 1 prospect in the 2014 class per RecruitingNation, at the next level. Both players reiterated their plan to play on the same college basketball team in discussions with ESPN.com at the EYBL event in Minnesota.
"I think the main thing that I really like, is he's my best friend, like my brother," said Okafor, a 6-11 center from Chicago. "That's the first thing. Even if he wasn't good at all, I think I'd still want to go to college with him. He's a point guard, and I think he complements my game perfectly. He's a pass-first point guard. Of course I love that."
Added Jones: "We're extremely serious about it. We're pretty certain we're going to make it happen. It makes my job that much easier to have a force down low like that. It changes defensive game plans when you have someone down there that it'll take two or three guys to stop."
There is dwindling hope, locally, that Jones will choose the program that's 30 minutes from his house.
Minnesota is not on Okafor's list. That's just one of the reasons that most of the men and women who gathered in May to watch Jones compete worry that he'll leave the state to play college ball.[+] EnlargeBrace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsDon't expect any empty seats anytime No. 1 PG Tyus Jones is on the floor during July.
"Probably eight out of 10 people that may come up to him and talk to him about schools are [saying] 'Hey, stay home, stay home,'" Cascaes said.
That's the norm in these parts. This is a state that has lost some of its most talented natives.
Bob Dylan, Kevin McHale, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Madden, Judy Garland and Roger Maris were all born in Minnesota. But they all left before they became famous.
Basketball has followed a similar pattern. El-Amin, Cole Aldrich, Jordan Taylor and other recent college standouts found homes outside Minnesota. When the state's best and brightest come home, they stay only for the weekend.
Jones? Well, the Gophers remain on his list partially because he's so close to his family. Everywhere he goes, fans ask him -- beg him -- to choose Minnesota. They approach him when he's out with his family. Crowds shout "We want Tyus!" whenever he attends a U of M game. His Twitter followers try to sway him every day.
He's not moved by the pressure.
"Unless you're in those shoes, you really don't know what it's like," said Rob Jones. "I think he's handled it well. He hasn't been shaken."
There is still grass-only parking on the third day of the EYBL event in the Minneapolis suburbs.
If you needed evidence that Jones is a hot ticket, this frenzy proves it.
But in the gym, he's just focused on basketball. After his final game of the day, he wanders into the building's corridors. Family members are waiting to greet him. He's also trying to coordinate a postgame gathering with Okafor and a few other players.
But people demand pictures, hugs, handshakes and conversations.
Three teenagers search for the right moment to move toward Jones and seek his autograph. Reporters want interviews.
"I'm really just having fun," Jones said, "soaking it all in."
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