Timberwolves' Tyus Jones all in with kids through his AAU organization
MAPLE GROVE, Minn. — Serving as tournament director of the Howard Pulley Invitational in May, Jason Birr wasn't going to be able to also coach his eighth-grade team at the AAU tournament that weekend in Maple Grove.
So a capable replacement filled in — Timberwolves guard Tyus Jones. Jones led the team's practice that week and coached the team throughout the tournament. When it comes to his Team 1 Tyus AAU basketball organization, there's no limit to Jones' involvement.
"I want to be involved and be able to build relationships with the kids and help as much as possible," Jones said. "I don't just want my name attached to it."
NBA player-sponsored AAU teams is a growing trend. Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul sponsors one. So does Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal. For Jones, it was a natural fit.
He started playing AAU basketball in second or third grade and stayed with it all the way through high school. Nationally, Jones was known just as much for his play with the Howard Pulley Panthers as he was for what he did at Apple Valley High School. He credits the ability to play basketball year-round with helping develop his game.
Through various conversations early in his pro career, Jones realized he wanted his work outside of his career to centered on kids. So three years ago, when Tyus approached his older brother, Jadee Jones, about starting an AAU organization, Jadee wasn't surprised.
The Jones family, mainly Tyus and Jadee, went to work on getting things started. Tyus knew one thing — while most NBA players are associated with prominent programs featuring teams of 16- and 17-year-olds — Jones wanted to work with younger kids. Team 1 Tyus' four teams feature outgoing fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
"I feel like you can get ahold of the younger kids and show them the way that the game is supposed to be played, show them how it is to be on a good team ... a team that communicates, a team that plays very unselfishly, a team that is all about putting we before me," Jones said. "I think those things can translate into life lessons. I just feel like when you do things like that, the younger you can teach kids those lessons, the more valuable (it is)."
Jones has tried to place those values at the forefront of his organization, along with an emphasis on player development. It's the way the game raised him.
"As a family, the only things that were important to us was what were they doing to get better? And that's why Tyus and Tre (Jones, who will be a freshman at Duke this fall) have really taken off and is a big part of their game and personalities," said Jadee, who also serves as an assistant coach at Apple Valley. "We wanted other kids to have that same (mentality). It's about getting better, it's not about winning championships right now. If you can win right now, that's great. You should strive for it, but if you're not improving, then the winning eventually goes away."
That's why Birr, the varsity head coach at St. Thomas Academy, doesn't let his AAU team play zone defense, instead emphasizing the principles of man-to-man defense.
"You're either going to learn to ... play man, and get better at it, or you're going to lose," Birr said. "And to me, when you lose, that's the best time to learn."
Birr is part of an impressive Team 1 Tyus coaching staff that includes DeLaSalle coach Travis Bledsoe.
"These guys know the game of basketball and they know it very well," said Kevin Loge, of Morris, Minn., whose son Jackson is on the eighth-grade team. "And to have that coached to these boys at such a young age, that's pretty good stuff."
Jones acknowledged AAU basketball gets "a bad rap" — not every organization is well run. But Kevin Loge had nothing but positives to say about his son's three years with Team 1 Tyus. Jadee said the keys to running an operation like this one are communication and including the right people. It also takes commitment, something that starts at the top.
Jadee said Tyus keeps tabs on when and where practices and tournaments are so he can participate. When he can't make it, Birr said Jones will consistently text him to get updates and post about the teams' results on social media. Birr said Jones plans to travel with the eighth-grade team to Augusta, Ga., next week for the group's final tournament. Jones plans to stay at the team hotel and participate in the team activities.
"(It's) very cool," Birr said. "You just don't get that 1 on 1 interaction with a lot of NBA players in general."
Jadee suspects players who join the AAU program think they might get to meet Tyus. The actual interaction goes far beyond that. Loge said it's "very surprising" to see just how much Jones interacts with the kids.
"He wants to know the kids that play for his teams, he wants to connect with them, he wants to try to be there to teach them, motivate them, all of that," Jadee said. "He's doing it to get the connections with kids to impact them, not just create a team that wins for his brand or anything like that."
Jadee said often by the time Tyus shows up to a team's practice for the second time, he'll remember the players' names. At games, he'll argue with officials on the behalf of his team. Loge said at this point having Jones on the bench "almost comes natural" to Jackson.
"To see the kids go from amazed when he walks into the gym to saying 'Hi' to him like they know him, that's pretty cool," Jadee said.
"I know what it can mean to them and it's also just fun for me. I like trying to teach the game," Jones said. "I want it to be where everyone who's a part of that organization is a family and I want the kids to know they can talk to me, interact with me and it's not where I'm never around or anything like that."
Jones said he has thoroughly enjoyed his first three years with the organization. He said it's been fun to watch the kids develop from one season to the next, and looks forward to seeing what the program's alumni do at the high school level and beyond. Part of the reason Team 1 Tyus features just four teams is so Jones can be more hands on with each kid.
"It's definitely fun to know you've had a small part in their journey," Tyus said. "That's all we really want is to be able to help as much as we can, kind of steer them in the right direction and provide as much help as possible."
It's all just another one of Jones' efforts to help grow the sport in Minnesota, much like how he sponsors a team at the Twin Cities Pro-Am each summer, a league that features much of the area's best homegrown talent. Jones sees the way the talent base is growing and the game is evolving in Minnesota and wants to assist players in whatever way he can.
"We're trying to help the kids out," Jones said. "In Minnesota, I just know where basketball has taken me and the doors and opportunities that it's opened for me, so I want to try to give back as much as I can to each and every kid who loves the game of basketball like I did when I was their age."