It nonetheless appears unlikely Jones will play in Saturday’s matchup with undefeated Virginia at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and that’s disappointing for people who would like to see two of the nation’s best teams at full strength.
For Duke or any other national title contender, it’s a long game. There are future meetings with Virginia (at least one, and heck, there could be three). Getting a healthy Jones back to set up the Blue Devils’ offense and spur their defense is far more important than a single January contest.
After all, Monday made clear how critical Jones is to Duke’s success, even if he doesn’t attract as much attention as some teammates. He is averaging a relatively modest 8.1 points while helping to set up the success of others.
Since his breakout performance against Kentucky on the opening night of the season, Zion Williamson highlights have become a ubiquitous staple of any conversation about the sport. In the fine tradition of Ben Simmons, Grayson Allen and Trae Young, the Duke forward has become ESPN’s designated face of the sport.
R.J. Barrett is difficult to ignore, in part because he’s a volume shooter (whose volume went up by necessity in Monday’s loss after Jones was injured). And Cam Reddish was a touted prospect as well, even if his role for much of the season has not equated to becoming a statistical dynamo.
Then there’s Jones, who ultimately is every bit as important to this Duke team as his older brother Tyus was to the national champion Blue Devils of 2014-15.
Tre Jones isn’t the scorer — or the perimeter shooting presence — his brother was during his one-year stopover in Durham. But if his necessity to Duke wasn’t entirely clear before Monday, it should be now.
Take Jones away, and Duke faces the same point guard conundrum it often has since Coach Mike Krzyzewski opted to invest heavily in one-and-done talent. Sometimes, the Blue Devils just got unlucky; the Kyrie Irving injury in 2010-11 comes to mind. Sometimes, there’s a veteran guard who can capably fill the role (think Quinn Cook). Sometimes, a Jones brother comes along.
And sometimes, no answer emerges and Duke has to piecemeal it together.
In the short term, that’s bound to create problems on offense. Monday was an illustration of players attempting to adjust on the fly. It wasn’t wholly effective: The Blue Devils were 9 of 43 from three-point range, and their prescription for attacking Syracuse’s zone was to hoist more threes, but they still scored 85 points in regulation.
Which is to say, Duke will figure it out on offense more often than not, even if Jones isn’t around. It just won’t be nearly as efficient, like a symphony operating without a conductor. He’s averaging only one turnover per game. Even his older brother was closer to two an outing in his season at Duke.
That might not matter against, say, Wake Forest. It did against Syracuse. It probably will against Virginia.
The greater loss for the Blue Devils comes on defense. For as much attention as Williamson’s dunks and Barrett’s hefty scoring totals have generated, Duke is especially dangerous this season because it is fully committed at the defensive end.
Jones is a major part of that, embracing the demands of bottling up an opponent’s top guard. Syracuse can attest to the difference in a Duke defense with Jones and one without. The Orange had six points and five turnovers in 12 possessions before Jones departed. It had 89 points and 10 turnovers in 77 possessions with him off the floor.
If Krzyzewski is correct and Jones’s absence doesn’t become a long-term issue, this scare probably won’t be too costly. After facing Virginia (a team every bit as complete as Duke), the schedule turns in favor of the Blue Devils. Next week, they’ll face Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech, the two least efficient ACC offenses according to KenPom.com. After that is injury-depleted Notre Dame, a nonconference date with St. John’s and a meeting with Boston College.
Saturday’s visit from Virginia aside, time is on the Blue Devils’ side. Getting Jones healthy and ready for the stretch run is the single most important thing Duke can do in the next month.