The story of how Duke assembled its best recruiting class of the one-and-done era began before any of its five prized freshmen had even started playing high school hoops.
The foundation was laid in the first week of September 2013, when the Blue Devils coaches boarded a private jet bound for Apple Valley, Minnesota. When they walked into the living room of the Jones house that afternoon, they discovered they would have an audience not only with Tyus, the top point guard in the class of 2014 (according to ESPN), but also with his 13-year-old brother, Tre. During each of the sessions, Tre listened intently.
After Mike Krzyzewski finished his pitch by telling Tyus that he could coach him and his best friend, big man Jahlil Okafor, to a national title, Tre offered to show the Hall of Famer around. Eventually, Tre opened the door to his room so Coach K could see what hung on the walls: posters commemorating each of the Blue Devils’ four NCAA tournament championships. Tyus was still being coy about his commitment, but Tre wasn’t shy. Duke was his dream school.
“I was really pushing Tyus to go to Duke,” Tre says. “I was almost recruiting him.”
In the fall of their freshman year of high school, Tyus and Okafor met at a USA Basketball training camp and hatched a plan to win an NCAA championship together. By the spring of their freshman year of college, they fulfilled that prophecy. Tre Jones watched from the stands of Lucas Oil Stadium as his older brother and Okafor embraced at midcourt as champions, and he began to wonder if he could build something similar. He went home, hung another poster on the wall and went to work.
Tre also won a title that year—the first of two Class 4A championships at Apple Valley High School. He also attended USA Basketball training camps. As he considered the players he’d met, one stood out—a 6’7″ wing from Pennsylvania named Cam Reddish.
“When Tyus and Jah met, they knew what they were doing from day one,” Tre says. “With us, it wasn’t like that. I didn’t want to force anything. But seeing what my brother did inspired me.”
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In the fall of 2015, Coach K offered Tre, then a sophomore, a scholarship and shared his vision for the class of 2018. He wanted Tre and Reddish as well as Canadian star R.J. Barrett, national and social media sensation Zion Williamson and California big man Marvin Bagley. (Bagley would later reclassify to Duke’s 2017 class.) During his final in-home visit with Tre, Krzyzewski asked not only for his commitment but also for his help in completing the class.
It proved to be a savvy request. Tre was more than just one of the best point guards in the country. He also was one of the most-liked players on the circuit.
On Aug. 13, 2017, Tre announced he’d attend Duke. Within three weeks, Reddish followed suit.
Then Tre started a group message thread that would lure the rest. He added Reddish to the thread. He added Barrett. And he added Williamson. The second day, Reddish gave the group a name: Blue Devils.
“Tre thinks he’s the captain,” Barrett jokes, “just because he started the group thread.”
Tre’s hope all along was that Barrett and Williamson would join him and Reddish in Durham, but he says he refrained from recruiting them. Instead, he tried to form a genuine bond with both of them, even if their basketball paths were about to diverge.
In November, Barrett announced that he’d also commit to Duke. Throughout the winter, they continued to chat every day, sharing funny tweets and basketball highlights. They never asked Williamson where he would go, but he would occasionally drop hints by referencing how they’d all be together next year.
“I was the wild card,” Williamson says. “But they were always like, even if you don’t come here, we still wish you the best of luck. You could feel the genuine love.”
On Jan. 20, 2018, Williamson shocked people around the country—including some of the members of his Blue Devils message thread—by announcing he’d picked Duke over the in-state South Carolina schools that had been considered favorites. The plan was complete. Or so they thought.
A few months later, 2019 5-star forward Joey Baker reclassified to add to the Blue Devils’ embarrassment of riches. Tre added him to the group chat the next day.
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While the group has struggled to find a nickname for itself—early ideas like KILL4S and The Fantastic Four were scuttled when Baker came on board—one player has been given a moniker that has stuck.
“When we were here for summer school, The Avengers had just come out,” Jones says. “We all loved it. Thanos did the impossible. He’s this huge character who can do everything. And I felt like that was Zion. That was the superhero version of Zion. So we call him Zanos now.”
Krzyzewski feels that the closeness they developed has helped them quickly coalesce on the court.
“They’re very personable guys and they’re good guys,” he said at the team’s media day in October. “They knew each other before they got here. They didn’t only know each other, but they respected one another. To get a class to be like that, you have to have those qualities, being secure in who you are and being secure about the fact that … my staff knows what to do with them.”
To take advantage of its talent, Duke has tweaked its offense this offseason. Aside from Tre, whose natural position is point guard, the Blue Devils’ remaining four freshmen are all between 6’6″ and 6’8″ and could all be deployed on the wings with no ideal 5 man. Deploying a scheme that’s similar to what many NBA teams have adapted in the wake of the Golden State Warriors’ historic run, Duke will run a four- or five-out motion offense, meaning that players will move constantly from the perimeter and that there will be no big man anchoring the paint at times.
“We’re extremely versatile,” Jones says. “It’s really positionless.”
Duke showed a sliver of what it’s capable of during a preseason tour in Canada, even without the services of Jones (sore hip) and Reddish (groin muscle), who were held out because of injuries. For his part, Jones is eager to see what he can accomplish on the court with the No. 4 Blue Devils.
Like Tyus, Tre has been somewhat overlooked by those evaluating his recruiting class. But like Tyus—who eventually became the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player and arguably the best NBA player on that Duke squad—no matter what Tre does on the court, he already is this team’s most important piece.
He grew up staring at those posters of Duke stars past. Five years after that fateful home visit for his older brother, he gets to begin the journey that could end with him hoisting a championship trophy—and hanging a poster of himself, and the team he helped bring together, on his wall.
“Personally, I do think we’re the best recruiting class ever,” Jones says. “But that’s in the past now. Our goal is to be the best team ever. Not the best Duke team ever, but the best college basketball team period.”