NEW YORK — Madison Square Garden was buzzing the way that only The Mecca does on Thursday night, as 19,812 people packed into the World’s Most Famous Arena to see No. 2 Duke and their traveling band of soon-to-be NBA superstars take on a Texas Tech team that was simultaneously ranked 12th in the country and totally anonymous in the city that couldn’t care less about them.
The crowd was 80-percent Duke fans — amongst them Jimmy Butler, who is close with Tre Jones because of his relationship with Tre’s older brother Tyus — but it was the traveling Texas Tech support that made 80-percent of the noise as the Red Raiders controlled this game for the first 35 minutes.
Chris Beard’s team took Cam Reddish completely out of the game. He had one point with four minutes left, furthering the questions about what in the world is going on with the player some believe has the highest ceiling of anyone in this draft class. R.J. Barrett missed 14 of his first 17 shots from the floor. Zion Williamson, the show-stopper, picked up three charges going up against a Red Raider defense designed to do exactly that, fouling out with 3:51 left after playing just 23 foul-plagued minutes.
Texas Tech didn’t play a perfect basketball game, but it was damn close to it.
And Duke still managed to find a way to win. The final score was 69-58, covering the spread and leaving the box score watchers wondering if Texas Tech was ever actually in this game. Big shots and clutch plays from Barrett and Reddish made that happen.
But the credit for this win, the reason that Duke was in a position to be able to eke out a W like this against a team like that, belongs to the players whose names you may not have known until last night: Tre Jones and Jack White.
“They were huge,” assistant coach Jon Scheyer said. “Difference-makers for us.”
They are, at the same time, happy being anonymous and precisely what makes this Duke team so dangerous.
Jack White was an afterthought.
A 6-foot-7 forward from Australia and a junior that had spent his first two seasons in Durham keeping the seats on Duke’s bench heated for the likes of Jayson Tatum, Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter, White seemed destined for another year’s worth of mop-up duty with this iteration of the Blue Devils.
They were bringing three wings into the mix that could all end up being top three picks in the 2019 NBA Draft, and a pair of junior centers — Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier — seemed destined to soak up whatever frontcourt minutes were leftover. White was just a guy, that line of thinking went, a player that was talented enough to give Duke’s relevant pieces a fight in practice while lighting it up on the scout team.
But nothing more, we thought.
At no point during the preseason did I — or anyone outside of the Duke program, really — think that White would end up being the piece that made Duke’s four star freshmen fit, but here we are. The best lineup that Duke can put on the floor features Traralgon, Victoria’s finest alongside Zion, R.J., Cam and Tre.
Yes, this is real life.
White is quick enough to switch onto point guards and tough enough to battle in the paint against centers. He was guarding Texas Tech star Jarrett Culver on key possessions down the stretch less than a month after he was guarding Gonzaga’s bigs during Duke’s comeback against the Zags in Maui. He can board, he can wall-up and protect the rim, he won’t get embarrassed if he’s left on an island defensively. That is the definition of defensive versatility, of position-less basketball.
Then there is what he provides offensively: He actually make threes on a consistent and trustworthy basis.
Never was that more apparent than on Thursday, when he hit two clutch second half threes on a night where the Blue Devils shot 3-for-20 from beyond the arc. Duke missed their first 15 threes. White made two in the final 12 minutes. The first tied game at 45. The second gave Duke a 56-55 lead they would never relinquish.
“When it’s not going well and Jack White hits that three, that’s a huge shot,” Mike Krzyzewski said.
He provides the spacing the Blue Devils so desperately need on the offensive end. Perhaps more importantly, on a roster full of ball-dominant talents, he doesn’t need to have the ball in his hands in order to be an effective weapon. No one else on Duke is able to provide the combination of skills that White can, and when slotted alongside those four freshmen, Duke’s ‘death lineup’ is complete.
“The beauty of Jack,” Scheyer said, “is he can plug in for anybody because of his defense versatility. On offense, he doesn’t need the ball. We have enough guys that can make plays. He brings every body together on both ends. He’s really the glue for us.”
“That’s literally what we call him,” Barrett chuckled, sitting in Alonzo Trier’s locker in the Knicks locker room after the game. “The Glue.”
Tre Jones was bred to be a defender.
Four years younger than Tyus, Tre spent his entire life playing up. Soft wasn’t an option, not if he wanted to be on the same court as the player that was a legend in his city and his state before he had a learner’s permit.
Tre couldn’t afford to back down from anyone or anything.
“My whole life I played up,” he said. “I was always the smallest kid on the court.”
Tre is the youngest of three brothers. Everyone knows about Tyus, who is four years his senior. Fewer know about Jadee, who is 14 years older than Tre and has spent a decade working as a trainer for his younger brothers. Jadee is a former Division I player in his own right, and started working out daily with Tyus when Tyus was heading into high school. Tre was in fourth grade, and like every youngest brother in every family on the planet, he wanted nothing more than to be included.
When Tyus worked out with Jadee, Tre would go, too. When Tyus would work on improving his body, Tre would be right there, too. And the way that Jadee sees it, these are the days that molded Tre into the player that he is today. He’s a better athlete than Tyus because he started developing that athleticism at a younger age. He takes pride in his defense because he was the nine-year old that had to earn respect working out with his older brother, the star eighth-grader on a high school basketball team.
Tyus has always been something of a basketball savant, a player whose understanding of the game allows him to outperform physical gifts that, by an NBA standard, are lacking.
“Tre goes at being a point guard with a lot of fire,” Jadee told NBC Sports last year. “With his feet, the things you can see, the hustle plays, the defense, the rebounding, taking charges, scoring in transition.”
And on a night where defense was king, Thursday was Tre’s coming out party. He finished the night with six steals, forced twice as many turnovers and staked his claim to the title of best defender in college basketball this season. He did it all while committing just one of the 43 turnovers by both teams on Thursday night.
“Tre plays like that every game,” Barrett said. “That’s what he does every day.”
The oft-forgotten member of Duke’s freshmen class and the younger brother of a Duke Final Four MOP, Tre embodies every point guard cliché in the book. He’s tough, both physically and mentally. He couldn’t care less about what stats show up in the box score as long as his team has more points than the other team. He’s unselfish. He’s a leader. He “makes winning plays.” In a way, he couldn’t be more perfect to play the point at Duke; he’s Wojo with NBA pedigree.
“He’s a great leader, but he leads by action,” Barrett said. “He talks, but his action speaks louder than his words.”
When asked for an example, Barrett said that on Thursday night there was a timeout in the second half, when Texas Tech was on a run, “and after we came out the huddle, he told us we have to play with heart. He’s going to give it everything he has and we just have to follow him.”
And that’s precisely what he did.
Anyone that watched this game could see the impact that Jones had on it defensively. He was credited with six steals, which was probably half the number of turnovers that he forced and in no way comes close to signifying the impact that he had on Texas Tech’s offense.
“He’s as good on the ball (defensively) as we’ve had — Amaker, Wojo, Hurley. He’s in the class with all those guys,” Mike Krzyzewski said, adding that Jones is the best Duke defender since Chris Duhon. “He can make reads like LeBron or Chris Paul did when I was coaching Team USA. There aren’t many freshmen who can do that.”
Duke is going to go as far as Zion, R.J. and Cam will carry them this season.
No one can, with a straight face, say otherwise.
That’s the Big Three and it’s always going to be the Big Three.
But that is also beside the point: There are going to be nights where those three struggle to get things going. There are going to be nights where Duke runs into a team that can stagnate their dribble-drive offense. There are going to be nights where they need to find a spark elsewhere.
If there is one thing that we learned on Thursday, it’s that Tre Jones and Jack White can be that spark when they need to be.
And the result, in the end, is that Duke landed their best win of the season.