DURHAM - Duke's basketball program is handing the keys of its offense to a freshman point guard.
Tyus Jones started both of Duke’s exhibition games in the preseason and is one of three freshmen who likely will be in the lineup for the Blue Devils in Duke’s season opener on Friday night.
Jones might not have quite the incoming panache of fellow freshman Jahlil Okafor, who was the No. 1 recruit in his class, but Jones has plenty of his own credentials. He will have an equally important role.
Jones was ranked the top point guard in his class and the No. 4 overall recruit. He has drawn praise from Duke’s coaching staff and players for his passing ability.
“When he gets the ball, the first thing he does is look up the court,” junior forward Amile Jefferson said. “He finds the open man and he does it really quickly. It’s a lot of fun playing with him.”
In two exhibition games this season, Jones has registered 17 assists to two turnovers. His passing has been exceptional – in particular his ability to find Duke players streaking down the court with long outlet passes.
“I enjoy setting these guys up, and they make my job easier,” Jones said. “They’re spacing the floor extremely well. That makes me want to get them the ball even more.”
Duke hopes that Jones' insertion into the starting lineup goes over better than the last time Duke started a freshman at point guard. In 2011-12, Duke started Austin Rivers at point guard. Rivers led Duke to a 27-7 overall record, but the Blue Devils suffered a painful loss to Lehigh in their NCAA tournament opener.
It's a similar script to last season, when Duke went 27-9 but lost to Mercer in their first NCAA game – a troubling parrallel since Duke again will be heavy on first-year players. Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood have been replaced by Okafor, Jones and Justise Winslow in the starting lineup.
Jones credited his existing rapport with the incoming freshman as part of the reason the group is playing so well – through Duke’s two exhibition games, freshmen accounted for 46 percent of the points.
“We’ve built a great chemistry and we’re going to try to keep building,” Jones said. “It comes from believing and trusting one another.”
Duke isn’t just trusting Jones on the court - the Blue Devils also need Jones and incumbent point guard Quinn Cook to coexist. Cook, a senior, lost his starting job to Tyler Thornton for the home stretch of last season. The competition for the point guard job this preseason was short.
Cook likely will play more off the ball as Duke values his outside shooting.
“He, like everyone else, has got to learn what their role is going to be on this team and embrace it, and how you use it to enhance what your total effort should be,” Coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
The team's chemistry was a problem for Duke in 2013-14. Krzyzewski and Duke’s veterans have said multiple times that Duke’s previous team struggled with communication. It’ll be up to Jones, in large part, to lead the way this time.