Everyone in Minnesota knows about Tyus Jones. He is the kid from Apple Valley who reached the highest echelons of college basketball and returned to play point guard for his hometown team. Jones is easy to root for—he’s a hard worker, his teammates love him and he’s constantly improving. But no matter what Jones does on the court, the one thing people will always remember about him is that he represents Minnesota basketball at its finest. However, while for some that might have started with his Minnesota Mr. Basketball title, representing them at the national championship game, or coming home to play for the Timberwolves, Jones’ relationship with this organization began far, far earlier, on the other side of the practice courts. Jones’ NBA journey began, in many ways, with his hometown WNBA championship-winning Minnesota Lynx.
From 2011 to 2013, when he was in high school, Jones was a frequent member of the Minnesota Lynx’s practice squad—a group of men (plus Jones, who was still a teenager), brought together by assistant coaches for the Lynx to practice against. The fact that Jones practiced with the Minnesota Lynx years before being drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves is almost too good of a story. A young hometown favorite being taught by other hometown favorites—Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus. That wasn’t what it felt like at the time, though, back in 2011 Jones wasn’t an NCAA tournament winner or a future NBA player, he was just Jadee Jones’ younger brother.
While Jadee didn’t go pro like his younger brother Tyus, he had an excellent high school and college career. Jadee was a great defender and the primary ball handler for De LaSalle High School and Hopkins High School. He was first-team AAA all-state and a Mr. Basketball finalist. He went on to play at Furman University in South Carolina before transferring to MSU-Mankato. When you look at Tyus’ game, it makes sense that he had an older brother like Jadee—supportive, smart and competitive. A great basketball player and a perfect practice partner.
Jadee paved the way for Tyus’ time with the Lynx. Jadee was recruited by Jim Petersen, who was at the time the assistant coach in charge of supervising the Lynx’s practice squad. The group is constructed to give the Lynx specific looks based on their opponents’ play styles, and Jadee stood out immediately—he was fast, smart and had a great ability to mimic the attributes of the players the Lynx were scheming against.
“Jadee was the guy that I brought in and he did everything perfectly that I asked,” said Petersen. “When we played the first finals in 2011, he played Lindsay Harding. He was fast enough to be able to replicate what she does on the floor, so Jadee Jones gave Lindsay Whalen a great look. One of the reasons we won that series was because our guys team was totally on point.”
Following Jadee’s success with the squad, Petersen reached out to the Jones family to see about getting Tyus involved. The younger Jones brother already had a busy schedule with AAU ball and a bright future in basketball, but this was too good of an opportunity to pass up. The family found the time to make it work.
“I was a Lynx fan. At first it was kind of weird being around some of the best players in the world,” said Tyus. “Being around Lindsay [Whalen] and Maya [Moore] and Seimone [Augustus] and just seeing how they approached the game, it was really cool for me. It was a different experience, something I didn’t know what to expect, but I ended up really liking it.”
The primary job of a practice squad player is to mirror the team that the Lynx are scouting or preparing to play against. Every day, practice squad players take on different characters and different systems to help prepare the Lynx for their next challenge.
“What I would do is I would show them scout video,” said Petersen. “I would show them video of the players and sometimes it would be an individual video of that individual player or sometimes it would be a group video where they had to kind of get it right away.”
To be a good practice squad player requires an extremely high basketball I.Q. Practice squad players need to be able to play at a high enough level to hang with some of the best players in the world, but also to be able to think clearly enough to play in ways that might not reflect their natural instincts. And they need to do all of that at the pace of the WNBA pro game.
“Whatever game was coming up they’d usually run through some scouting stuff, so I’d be Diana Taurasi one day, the next day Sue Bird, the next day Skylar Diggins,” said Jones. “We’d be running their sets to try and give them a good look and they want you to emulate what they’re going to be doing. If it’s a point guard that’s going to really be looking to distribute that’s what I was doing that day, if it’s a point guard really hunting their shot that’s what I was doing that day.”
Even at his young age, Jones was a great basketball player, but it was his great ability to soak up his coaching and give the Lynx these specific looks that made him stand out.
“His basketball I.Q. was just so high that I could sit there and draw up a play, he’s 16 years old, and I’ve got a whiteboard and I’m drawing a play up of something he’s never ran before and asking them to go out there and execute that, Tyus did it so perfectly,” said Petersen. “I just knew he was going to be a pro, because you just don’t have that kind of execution from a kid that doesn’t understand the game. Tyus was just supremely prepared.”
It wasn’t just Jones’ basketball acumen that made his time with the Lynx successful, his disposition and approach to the game made him a perfect practice squad player. He didn’t have a huge ego or anything to prove. Understandably, Jones would sometimes get beat—after all, he was playing with some of the best hoopers in the world, but Jones took things in stride and continued to do what was asked of him.
“He might have been 16 when he’s practicing against Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus,” Petersen said. “One of the early memories I have is of Seimone crossing him up and him dropping to the ground. Seimone was so deceptive with her crossover dribble it buckled his knees. We all just died.”
While such an event might have embarrassed some players, Jones didn’t view his participation on the practice squad as an opportunity to prove that he was the best. Instead, Jones was wholly committed to doing the job that was given to him, if it ended up with Augustus getting the better of him, so be it.
“I need [practice squad players] to be whatever player we need them to simulate for, and I remember Tyus being very diligent about that,” said coach Cheryl Reeve. “Great eye-contact, listening to what the team needed. Sometimes you get guys that come in there and they think it’s like a try-out for them, Tyus was so good at just giving up himself to the team and trying to help us win. He had joy in what he was doing.”
There was a mutual benefit to Jones’ practice squad experience; the Lynx got someone who was great at simulating opposing players, and Jones got early insight into professional basketball—a huge advantage for a young player preparing for a career in the NBA.
“It gave me a look at the pro game, even though it’s women’s the pro game it still has similarities, pro sets, different things like that,” said Jones. “It exposed me to those at an earlier age and definitely helped me become a better basketball player because of that exposure early on.”
Despite the differences in media coverage and the prejudice that still hovers around the women’s game, it’s stories like Jones’ that throw into sharp relief how similar the NBA and WNBA games are. Of course, there are differences on the court, but there’s so much that the two games learn from one another. The players know it, the coaches know it and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world catches up.
Across not just the NBA and the WNBA but all of sports, there are characteristics that drive success—Jones developed those skills at an early age, in part because of his time practicing against the Lynx. Now, as Jones works to rise in the ranks of the NBA, those who worked with him in his younger years have seen the refinement of a player who always displayed the character of a winner.
“He’s one of those guys that can be under-appreciated,” said Reeve. “But how hard he plays, his improvement, his activity on defense, he’s a trust guy. When you have him on the floor you trust what he’s doing, his teammates love playing with him, and I’m thankful for the moments that he gave to us and our team towards winning a championship.”
In perhaps the highest praise Reeve could give, the Lynx coach drew a comparison between Jones and another local Minnesota legend—Whalen.
“It’s connecting. When you’re leading a team, point guard in basketball, quarterback in football, you have to have an awareness for everything that’s going on—what your teammates are feeling,” said Reeve. “Someone like Tyus, his demeanor or Lindsay Whalen’s demeanor, the great ones, their demeanor is never too high and never too low, and it’s constantly thinking about what’s needed of them. Knowing when your number should be called.”
Jones’ professionalism is being tested this year more than ever as he works to come back strong from a nagging ankle injury and help the Wolves make a push for the postseason. Patience is key as Jones deals with losing a few weeks of games out of the best season of his career. However, Jones has approached this latest challenge as he does everything else in his life—with professionalism, focus and determination. He showed it back as a Lynx practice squad member, and he’s showing it again now, Jones does things the right way.
“Tyus is just a born winner,” said Petersen. “I’ve seen this kid from 15 years of age win at every level. I don’t care if it’s a pick-up game, a high school game, if it’s a scrimmage against the Minnesota Lynx.”
As far as Tyus being a winner, the Lynx all would agree, but make no mistake—if Jones ever finds himself defending Augustus again, she’ll do her best to put him on the floor.