Return of unheralded Matt Jones solidifies Duke's lineup

DURHAM, N.C. -- Perhaps you noticed Matt Jones' return to the starting lineup in Duke's 80-65 win over Florida State. Perhaps you don't think it matters.

After all, the Blue Devils won that game at North Carolina in which he injured his left ankle in the first half and didn't return. And their loss at Louisville without Jones, it could be written off to a team with a short rotation that just got tired and couldn't hold a lead.

For the uninitiated, Matt Jones' game can be as generic as his name suggests. He isn't leading the Blue Devils in any particular category, but he may be the one player who holds it all together.

Matt Jones?


Matt Jones.

"He commands the respect of everyone on our team," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He can think like a coach, better in real time and so we rely a lot on him. He has to give them a lot of emotion during a game and then he's always on somebody who is their best guy."

Krzyzewski pointed out that included the Louisville loss in which Damion Lee scored 24 points. In Duke's home win over the Cardinals, Lee shot 3-of-15 from the floor and had just 10 points, "because Matt was on him here."

Jones never played point guard in his previous two seasons. But when it became clear that freshman Derryck Thornton would not be ready to be the team's floor leader, Krzyzewski approached him to handle that task.

"I thought he was crazy," Jones said. "But then again I didn't think he was too crazy. He's done a lot for this game and the situation he's been in, he's been in a lot so I kind of just trusted him and took it for what it was worth. I knew I'd have to get better at my ball handling and decision-making."

Entering Thursday night's game, Jones was averaging just one turnover in 28.4 minutes per game. When Thornton picked up his fourth foul early in the second half, Jones took over and helped directed Duke to shooting 7-of-14 from the floor.

Jones had five assists against the Seminoles. But it's not just his passing alone that helps make it all work. Sometimes it's just talking in the huddle he calls together during a dead ball. Sometimes it's to point out on defense where a player needs to be lined up. Other times, it's moments like him grabbing Thornton for a brief explanation when the freshman picked up his fourth foul.

"We were missing Matt, he's one of our big leaders on both ends of the floor he like runs our team," Duke freshman guard Luke Kennard said. "We look to him for comfort, he just makes plays for us and it was good to have him out there again."

Jones was still running with a bit of a limp against the Seminoles, favoring the left ankle that he said hasn't fully healed yet. But with him back on the floor, the Blue Devils are healthy-ish as they gear up for a postseason run.

There's still no word on whether senior forward Amile Jefferson will return to the lineup. Jefferson hasn't played since Dec. 5 after suffering a broken foot. And at this point in the season, the question remains if Duke might instead choose to seek a medical redshirt and not bring him back at all.

So if this rotation is as good as it's going to get for Duke until Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and the No. 2 ranked recruiting cavalry arrives next season, then Jones is a must-have.

It's not because he's going to provide some memorable two-handed jam that makes a SportsCenter Top 10. That's what Brandon Ingram provides.

Jones, a 6-foot-5 junior, remembers the last time he dunked because it was his freshman season.

"I remember that play vividly because it was my only dunk," Jones said.

It's not because he's going to take over the game offensively when the Blue Devils need a basket. That's for Grayson Allen.

Jones has scored double figures in only five ACC games, including 11 points against the Seminoles, and entered last night averaging just 7.7 points in league play.

But Jones is going to do all those things that go unnoticed that help Duke win games. He has essentially taken over the leadership role that Jefferson played at the beginning of the season.

"I just want to win, whatever it takes to win," Jones said. "And if that boils down to a 'glue guy' then so be it. At the end of the day I look in the mirror and I want to look at a winner. That's what I want to be made of."