DURHAM, N.C. -- There's this smirk that's something of a hallmark for Tre Jones. Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer says it looks as if Jones is in on a secret, like there's some joke he's about to play on you.
Truth is, that's often the case. Jones loves to rib Scheyer about his shoes or the cut of a suit or how easily Jones would've handled Scheyer on defense during his playing days. In public, Jones is refined and reserved and says all the right things, a product of witnessing the media frenzy that followed his brother Tyus through high school and college. But behind the scenes, he's just a guy who likes to joke around and have fun and rip his coach for a suit Scheyer was certain was tailored perfectly.
But there's something more to that smirk. Jones really does seem to be in on a secret. He's a freshman, just like Zion Williamson and R.J.Barrett and Cam Reddish, and he has played the same 11 games they all have. But the kid's been places, seen things. He's lived through the Tyus Jones circus, watching his older brother's path from high school legend to Duke superstar and beyond. He's talked hoops with a family that's been immersed in the sport since the day Tre was born, and he's taken all of those experiences and recorded each detail for later use. His oldest brother, Jadee, calls Tre "the youngest veteran," and that fits nicely with his role this season for the Blue Devils. They're all young, but Jones is in on the secret, knows what awaits around each corner.
"Tre's the most important piece to our team," Williamson said.
From the box score, this isn't as easy to see. But look deeper at all Jones does for this Blue Devils team, and it all adds up. He's the engine that makes this brilliant machine go.
When Jones was a kid, he was always playing up a level or two. He wanted to keep pace with his older brothers, but he was young and undeveloped, not yet ready to trade elbows with the bigger boys. And so he found a niche: He did the little things.
Williamson is a monster near the basket, but when Duke needs to ratchet up the intensity on D, it's Jones who takes the lead.
Williamson's dunks border on urban legend, but it's Jones who creates so many chances by pushing the ball in transition.
Barrett and Reddish can score with ease, but Jones is the guy working to feed them the ball.
Credit? Let the rest of them have it. Jones doesn't even want the credit for not taking credit.
"With all these guys, they can all really play," Jones said. "They're versatile. So I just try to get everybody in a position to be successful. I just have to get them the ball. They're able to create their own shots and make plays."
This fits his personality. Jones has lived most of his life adjacent to the spotlight shining on Tyus. They played a year together -- Tre an eighth grader, Tyus a senior -- and the experience rubbed off. Glory is meant to be shared.
Zach Goring, who coached both Jones boys at Apple Valley High School in Minnesota, remembers his share of big games when Tre took over, scoring at will because it was necessary. But that was never his preference. He liked to distribute the ball, and was hesitant to shoot.
The approach was obvious even off the court, said Goring: "The thing I'm most proud of is the way he represented our program and our school. There's not a red flag with him at all."
Goring added that Jones, despite his own athletic prowess, would also be the guy in the front row at football games, cheering the loudest.
And now here he is at Duke, amid an almost unparalleled buzz surrounding the immeasurable talents of Barrett and Williamson, and Jones would have you believe he's just there cheering them on.
Here's the reality though: When Jones is on the court, Duke averages more than 20 percent more points per possession than when he's not, better than any of the other Blue Devils freshmen, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Duke's assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly twice as good with Jones on the court, and individually, he ranks fifth nationally with 5.17 assists for each turnover. Tuesday's win over Princeton marked Jones' third game this season with at least five assists and no turnovers.
This Duke team is loaded with guys who do the big things as well as anyone, in ways that chew up highlight reels and leave fans delirious.
And then there's Jones, enjoying every minute of it.
"He's all about making other guys better," Scheyer said. "And that's what he does. And by him wanting to do it, everybody else wants to do that a little more."
Chalk it up to being a bystander to -- and, for one year, a part of -- the Tyus Jones experience
"That's the experience he had," Jadee said. "He's seen so much around the game. And as a result, you have a guy who knows exactly what it's going to take."
To be sure, their games are different. Tre is already a more aggressive defender than Tyus. Tyus has always been a more willing shooter. But their personalities, the way the world can buzz all around them, and they stay focused on the task at hand, even in the biggest moments -- they're the same.
"I grew up watching him more than anybody else," Tre said of Tyus. "I wanted to play like him."
Tre was maybe 6 or 7. The way Jadee remembers it, it was one of Tre's first games with a travel team. Back then, Tre played a lot like he does now, intense and driven and unrelenting.
This went on for a while until, on one sprint back down the court late in the game, Tre's hand went up to ask for a sub, just as his legs went out from under him. He'd literally played to the point of exhaustion.
"He didn't know any better," Jadee said. "He honestly thought it was abnormal for people to get tired."
In the decade since, Jones has gained a bit more appreciation for conditioning. He hasn't shifted his intensity in the least, but now he's a bit better prepared.
In a game against Yale two weeks ago, Jones collided with another player on defense, and after a brief return to the court, he sat the rest of the way on coach's orders. Afterward, Mike Krzyzewski simply shrugged it off.
"He's a player who has to recover after every game," Krzyzewski said, "because of how hard he plays."
Jones has all the tools to be a great defender: the long arms, the big hands, the hawk-like vision. But the intensity, that's what really separates him from the pack.
Jones' ferociousness on defense has already drawn comparisons to the likes of Tommy Amaker and Steve Wojciechowski from Krzyzewski. Both of those players won defensive player of the year honors. Jones has played 11 career games.
So far this season, opposing point guards are hitting just 36 percent of their shots when Jones is on the floor, according to ESPN Stats & Information. On isolation plays, he has allowed just one make on 11 field goal attempts. He has notched 18 steals on 601 possessions this season, a rate that, over a full season, would set a school record at Duke. He's a lockdown defender.
"I don't know how he does it," Williamson said. "It's just a pleasure to watch."
No wonder then that Krzyzewski considers Jones perhaps the biggest key to Duke's success this season. The formula is simple enough: Duke dominates in transition, and Jones' on-ball pressure is as good as anyone Krzyzewski has coached. Duke's offense feeds off its D, and Jones is an elite defender. Duke's goal each night is to take the opponent's best player out of commission, and Jones wears out his opponent with unmatched glee.
"If we become the team we're going to be defensively," Krzyzewski said, "Tre will be as valuable as any player in the country."
Krzyzewski has worked to downplay the hype. These are kids, after all. It's December. Give them all time.
The rest of the world isn't listening to the coachspeak. This is a show, and every Duke game is as much about the fireworks as the final score.
But Jones is different -- understated, intense, smooth as silk. If this season's going to be a circus, Duke couldn't ask for a better ringleader.
There's a long way to go this season, of course. That's what Krzyzewski keeps preaching. But Jones is already so far along, already sees so far ahead, it's easy to see the ending to this story.
That ending, of course, is that when this ride is over, there's a chance -- maybe a pretty good one -- that Tre will live the same experience Tyus did: an ACC title, a national title, some of the biggest plays in the most critical moments. Maybe. The two talk nearly every day, Tre said. Tyus shares insight and advice, but leaves other lessons for Tre to learn on his own. Some experiences are best witnessed, others lived.
"It's a beautiful thing to watch for a freshman," Krzyzewski said. "He's spectacular."