DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski never pulled Matt Jones to the side and told him to become the team’s defensive stopper. Krzyzewski didn’t have to.
Look up and down the Blue Devils roster and try to figure out where Jones fits in as a scoring option. Before Luke Kennard? Nope. Grayson Allen? Negative. Jayson Tatum? Nah. Jones understands where he adds the most value to the Blue Devils.
“Matt is the best defensive player in the country in my book,” Tatum said. “His stats may not always show up, but he’s always, if not the most important, the second-most important guy every game.”
It was on display Saturday as Duke survived an upset bid by Clemson 64-62 for its fifth straight win. Jones held senior Jaron Blossomgame, the Tigers’ leading scorer, to more than 10 points below his season average.
Jones’ value hasn’t been limited to just stopping his opponents.
During summer and preseason pickup games, Jones was often matched up against the 6-foot-8 Tatum to get him accustomed to how tough college defenders would be. The tactic appeared to work -- Tatum is averaging 16 points per game, which makes him Duke's No. 3 scorer.
“They always put Matt on me to get me ready for college basketball,” Tatum said. “Me and Matt had a lot of battles in the preseason. At first, it was really tough for me against Matt.”
It was really tough for Blossomgame, too. Jones kept Blossomgame from getting anything clean: His first basket came in transition. The next one was a putback. His final bucket came off a steal and layup. His 3-for-12 outing tied his season low for made baskets.
Jones said preparation was vital to his role. He noticed Blossomgame’s tendency to prefer going right, even with his spin move. When Blossomgame tried to use the move when trailing by four late, Jones was able to deflect the ball just enough to cause a turnover.
Blossomgame, a potential future first-round NBA draft pick, did not score in the last 14 minutes. He entered Saturday averaging 17.8 points, but Jones held him to seven. That marked Blossomgame’s lowest total in an ACC game since his sophomore season, when he scored six in a 66-61 loss to NC State on March 3, 2015.
“He’s really the toughest defender we have,” Krzyzewski said of Jones. “He’s also a tough mental guy, where he can fight through tired. ... Matt’s yelling at our guys, so he’s using a lot of his emotion, and that’s what I need from a veteran -- to do that. He was so valuable again and again for us.”
Krzyzewski has long called Jones the team’s best perimeter defender. He often is assigned an opponent's leading scorer or playmaker. But no player shows up on campus envisioning being known as the best defender.
Jones is no different.
“I honestly don’t know how it developed, as I started learning the nooks and crannies of basketball, I realized you had to play defense to win,” Jones said. “Then I started liking it. I started loving stopping that person and winning that matchup. Yeah, I just kind of fell in love with it.”
Most importantly for Duke, the senior guard embraces the role. Jones averages 8.1 points per game and has only attempted 10 or more shots in a game four times this season.
He’s had his moments this season -- such as scoring 13 points in the second half of Duke's 70-58 victory against Miami on Jan. 21. But he’s not here for the points.
“For any of us in any group -- to understand your value, not let somebody determine your value, but you understand your value -- if you understand your value, you will do your job well,” Krzyzewski said. “... That’s where we are with Matt.”
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