MikeCheck: Set to face former team, Jones seeking comfort and rhythm amid transition to role with Grizzlies
Steady and reliable.
Those are two of the key characteristics the Grizzlies appreciated most in Tyus Jones when they prioritized the emerging point guard in free agency this past summer.
And those same traits have first-year coach Taylor Jenkins confident that Jones will soon find a comfort zone in a new NBA home and emerge from a sluggish start to the season. Jones looks to build on some encouraging signs from his most recent outing when the Grizzlies (1-5) wrap up a three-game homestand with Wednesday’s matchup against the Timberwolves (4-2).
There’s certainly some added incentive to deliver a bit of a breakthrough. The game marks the first time Jones will face his former team since he departed Minnesota after the Timberwolves declined to match the three-year, $28 million deal Memphis offered the restricted free agent.
As a result, Jones moved on from both the team that drafted him in the first round four years ago as well as the town where he grew up as a Minnesota native. Despite being arguably the most even-keeled player in the Grizzlies’ locker room, Jones admits it’s an emotional moment.
“It’ll be a little weird for me this first time, being on the other side,” Jones said of playing against Minnesota. “But it’s another game, a game that we’re going to try to approach like the last ones – that it’s a business. I want to approach it like any game and just try to get a win.”
Jones can’t get too caught up in nostalgia right now. He’s focusing his energy on getting his game on track as the Grizzlies try to end a three-game losing streak. Brought in to solidify the backup point guard role behind rookie No. 2 pick Ja Morant, Jones is averaging 7.3 points, 4.5 assists and 1.5 steals in 21.3 minutes through six games with Memphis.
There are too many games to get too high or low and down on yourself. We’re pretty much playing every other night. So, if you have a good game, you can’t get too high. If you have a bad game, you’ve got to get it back together for the next one that’s coming in probably 48 hours. So, it’s about just sticking with it.Tyus Jones
On the surface, those numbers are on par with what Jones averaged last season in his final stint with the Timberwolves. But the normal level of consistency in his game has been missing amid a sporadic start. Jones is shooting just 36.2 percent from the field and has missed 10 of 11 shots from three-point range. But his assists (27) to turnovers (seven) margin has been remarkable.
In many ways, Jones’ play has mirrored the performances of his team. Like Jones, the Grizzlies have shown flashes of potential and progress yet have also struggled through critical stretches. But the plan is for a team with nine new players to keep building toward a breakthrough.
“It’s a long season; I always say that,” Jones said. “There are too many games to get too high or low and down on yourself. We’re pretty much playing every other night. So, if you have a good game, you can’t get too high. If you have a bad game, you’ve got to get it back together for the next one that’s coming in probably 48 hours. So, it’s about just sticking with it.”
In Monday’s game against Houston, Jones finished with 10 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals in 21 minutes for one of his better all-around efforts of the season. That performance was two games removed from an overall disastrous night for the Grizzlies in Los Angeles, where Jones posted a season-worst, minus-27 impact in his 16 minutes on the court.
Second-half shooting woes and frequent droughts in the third quarter have contributed to uneven production as Memphis installs a new system on both ends of the court. Jenkins considers Jones an essential part of that process on a team that relies on mid-career veterans to guide a young core of Morant, Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. through growing pains.
But establishing continuity and chemistry takes time and commitment, with the Grizzlies remaining a work in progress through the early stages of the season. With four games in a span of six days this week, a relentless schedule offers plenty of live repetitions to gain rhythm.
“Just keep working,” Jenkins said of his message to Jones in particular. “We’re big believers in our player development program. There’s nothing like game reps, but even on off days and practice days, coming in and getting shots up and getting a rhythm, we just want guys to take a daily work mindset. We all go through moments when we’re having good times and may also have some struggles. But stay true to your work habits and everything will work out great for him.”
The track record from his days in Minnesota suggests every bit as much.
Picked No. 24 overall in the first round of the 2015 draft after his championship freshman season at Duke, Jones made 34 starts in 247 career games with the Timberwolves. Jones set career highs last season for points, rebounds, assists, steals and minutes played as he headed toward restricted free agency. What stood out to the Grizzlies was Jones’ sure-handed play as a facilitator during a season when he set an NBA record for assist-to-turnover ratio at 6.96-to-1, and also finished third in the league a year ago in assist-to-turnover rate.
We’re big believers in our player development program. There’s nothing like game reps, but even on off days and practice days, coming in and getting shots up and getting a rhythm, we just want guys to take a daily work mindset. We all go through moments when we’re having good times and may also have some struggles. But stay true to your work habits and everything will work out great for him.Taylor Jenkins
That level of stability at the NBA’s toughest position was valued by the Grizzlies, especially as the franchise pairs Jones with a rookie starter in Morant. Already off to a record-setting pace of his own, Morant credits Jones for helping to ease the transition to the NBA. Morant entered the week leading all rookies in scoring (19.5ppg), assists (5.5apg) and three-point percentage (.500), and he’s fourth in overall field goal percentage (.534) and steals (1.5spg).
But the point guard partnership between Morant and Jones extends beyond the court as they steer a Memphis offense that leads the NBA in points in the paint (56.3ppg) and is fourth in in the league in fastbreak scoring (17.5ppg.).
“He’s been in the league for a while, and I feel like he’s a great point guard and leader,” Morant said of Jones. “We’ve got the same mentality, and that’s to share the ball and pass first. But I felt like we both pass up some shots that we need to take. We’ve been talking after every game, just trying to find out where we can get better. And it’s been a big plus for me, just having him on my team and being able to help me out on some stuff that I might not see.”
Injuries and rotation experiments might create more opportunities for Morant and Jones to play together in Jenkins’ search for combinations to stabilize the offense. And that’s where those two words come back in to play in describing what Jones brings to the mix.
Steady and reliable.
“That’s what we need – we need to be a resilient team that, no matter the situation or how the game is going, we’re still giving it 110 percent,” Jones said. “We see that we continue to have each other’s back. It’s just our fight. We continue to scratch and claw our way to stay in these games, with a lot happening, a lot of ups and downs. But we stay with it. We stay right there.”
We’ve got the same mentality, and that’s to share the ball and pass first. But I felt like we both pass up some shots that we need to take. We’ve been talking after every game, just trying to find out where we can get better. And it’s been a big plus for me, just having him on my team and being able to help me out on some stuff that I might not see.Ja Morant
As far as his individual rhythm is concerned, Jones is trusting the work he’s putting in between games as well as before and after practices. Eventually, the shots are going to fall more frequently. He’s not too far off from finding that comfort zone in his new NBA home.
But Wednesday’s game serves as a reminder of how much Jones appreciates the journey to this point. He still communicates with several of his former teammates with the Timberwolves and has no hard feelings about moving on from his hometown team.
“I said from the beginning that it was a dream come true and something you never imagine happening,” Jones said of spending his first four NBA seasons with the Timberwolves. “When I entered the draft, you’re always assuming you’re going to move across the country to who knows where. But for me, getting drafted by my hometown team – a lot of people don’t ever get a chance like that – I was blessed and very fortunate.”
Jones now embraces this next chapter in Memphis.
“I never assumed I’d stay there my whole career, just because I know how NBA business works,” Jones said of Minnesota. “But at the same time, I was just fortunate for every season I got to stay at home and play in front of my family. And now, I have an opportunity to help build something special here (in Memphis). We just have to keep working through it, and it’ll come.”
Jones is taking a steady and reliable approach to ensure it does.
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