It’d make sense if you’d forgotten about Tyus Jones over the past few years. After winning Most Outstanding Player during Duke’s title run in 2015, Jones declared for the NBA draft along with fellow freshmen Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow. Okafor was the star with an Olajuwonesque offensive game and the promise to anchor an NBA frontcourt for years. Winslow was the defensive stalwart with the developing jump shot who fielded Kawhi Leonard comparisons.
You probably know their stories from there. Okafor was drafted third overall by Philadelphia before issues with fit, effectiveness, and a few other things left his future in doubt; Winslow was crowned the steal of the draft when the Heat took him at 10, but injuries and poor shooting have stunted his rise thus far. Jones, meanwhile, was selected 24th by the Minnesota Timberwolves, who traded up from the first pick in the second round to get him. For Jones, who once carved up Minneapolis-area youths at Apple Valley High School, the move was a dream come true.
“I always have wanted to play for the Timberwolves and be a Timberwolf,” Jones said after the draft. “Just growing up in Minnesota, it’s what you dream of as a kid.”
As Jones started to make his name in the D-League and summer league, his former teammates continued to garner fame on big league rosters. Even Grayson Allen, the fourth member of Jones’s Duke recruiting class, had emerged as a bigger star. And while Jones showed his talent in limited playing time, he stayed buried on the depth chart.
But things changed when the Wolves flipped Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn for Jimmy Butler in June. After two years as a reserve, Jones got a promotion, and he’s taken advantage of it. Jones, who started 10 games in place of an injured Jeff Teague earlier this season, has seen his usage rate dip in his third pro season, but his efficiency numbers have skyrocketed. While his collegiate peers have seemingly plateaued, the diminutive guard is part of Minnesota’s two best lineups that have played at least 40 minutes this season, and five of its best seven.
As part of its roster overhaul this offseason, Minnesota replaced longtime point guard Ricky Rubio with Teague, thinking the ninth-year veteran would bring a shooting presence that was missing in the backcourt. But while Teague has met expectations with his jumper, it’s Jones who’s developed a better partnership with the Wolves’ young stars. Since opening night, Jones is 10 points per 100 possessions better than Teague is when paired with Andrew Wiggins, 6.7 points per 100 possessions better with Butler, and 2.9 points per 100 possessions better with Karl-Anthony Towns, despite playing a fraction of the minutes. Even better, all three pairings sit among Minnesota’s 10 highest-rated offensive tandems with at least 500 shared minutes.
But as much as he’s helped Minnesota on offense, it’s Jones’s defensive contributions that have earned him increased playtime. In college, Jones was mainly known as a floor general or for the clutch shooting that earned him his Tyus Stones moniker. But he was just as likely to come up with a big stop or a timely steal as he was a knockdown jumper. After two seasons as a defensive liability, he has finally carried that part of his game over into the pros. Jones is averaging the third most steals per 100 possessions in the league, and his defensive rating is more than a full point better than Butler, a three-time All-Defensive second-team honoree.
That Teague, who signed a three-year, $57 million deal with the Wolves this offseason, has real competition for his job shouldn’t be surprising. The former Hawk and Pacer is scoring fewer points than he has since the 2011-12 season—his third in the league—and his rebounding and assist totals are down from last season as well. When Teague went down with a knee injury in late December, Jones started in his place. Playing more than 14 extra minutes per game, Jones averaged 7.3 points, 4.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. And while his 3-point shooting numbers were abysmal, the Wolves took 17- and 28-point wins over Indiana and Cleveland, and a pair of 18-point victories over the Lakers and Pelicans.
Still, Jones’s performance as a starter did little to earn him an increased share of minutes. Tom Thibodeau keeps a short bench, and since Teague returned from injury, Jones has seen his playtime slip from 31 minutes a night as a starter to 16.2 minutes in 18 games off the bench. And while the Wolves won their first three games after Teague’s return by double digits, their recent stretch, and Jones’s continued performance off the bench, showed that he’s ready to take on a bigger role. Jones currently ranks 11th in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus—ahead of All-Stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis and second on the Wolves, behind only Butler.
But the simplest explanation for the Timberwolves’ success with Jones on the floor can be seen with your eyes: The offense simply runs more smoothly when he’s distributing. In the seven games Jones started for Teague this winter, he averaged nearly as many passes and took four fewer shots per contest. Jones doesn’t have the ball in his hands for long (nearly a full second shorter than Teague averages per touch), which instead places it in the caring hands of All-NBA talents like Butler and Towns. It’s part of why Minnesota is 8.5 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor than when he’s off.
Yes, Jones isn’t as strong of a shooter as Teague, but he doesn’t need to be. He’s Ricky Rubio lite. By substituting the seven extra shots per game Teague takes with Jones’s quick passing and scrappy defense, the Wolves can funnel the ball to the players who need it. There’s always the risk that defenses will play Jones the way they play Andre Roberson and dare him with space to shoot, but if Jones can pick his shooting numbers back up to their November and December highs, they’ll be forced to guard him.
Three years after outshining his blue-chip teammates, Jones is finally realizing the potential that forced him into the national spotlight. While Okafor struggles for minutes on a woeful Brooklyn team and Winslow tries to carve out his place on Miami’s deep roster, Jones has become a vital contributor on one of the league’s top teams. Okafor and Winslow may have gone higher in the draft, but Jones figures to once again be in position to leave his mark on the postseason.