Tre Jones will enter a crucial year for his career. The departure of Dejounte Murray has left a lot of minutes available at point guard that the former second-round pick will get a chance to fill. How well Jones performs in a bigger role could determine whether the Spurs will see him as a long-term piece of the puzzle.
It’s probably too optimistic to imagine Jones developing into a top-level starter any time soon, but he clearly has the talent and character to be a high-quality rotation player. He just needs to get better at a few key skills and should have the opportunity to do so, which makes him the perfect candidate to start off our “You Can Do Better” series, where we look at specific areas of improvement for the Spurs’ young veterans.
Better focus and more strength could help Jones massively on defense
Jones is a smart, determined defender who uses his quickness to stay in front of opponents and is not afraid of contact. He’s also firmly on the small side for an NBA guard. Standing at 6’1” and weighing in at 185 lbs last season, his physical tools can be described as average at best. He’s still very much a viable player, but his margin for error is often smaller than most, especially on the defensive end. Those issues are all the most visible when Jones has to recover.
On the ball, Jones really struggles when he has to fight over the pick, which the Spurs ask him to do often in their drop coverage system. It’s a tricky way to guard, but longer defenders can occasionally recover and make a play from behind on jumpers or at the rim on drives in those situations. For Jones, who has a solid but not freakish 6’4” wingspan and often gets caught on picks, it’s almost impossible to get back in the play. Any minor bump costs him a fraction of a second he needs and can’t make up for with length.
Off the ball, similar issues with bothering offensive players arise when he takes an extra step away from his man in order to help. Jones has the foot speed and the technique to close out well and he does a good job of not over helping, but on the rare occasion in which he ventures slightly further away from his man than ideal, he can struggle to get back and contest. The same happens when he gets caught ball-watching or is unaware of back screens. Once he’s out of a play, it’s really hard for him to fully get back in it.
There’s no magic bullet for this issue. Jones can’t will himself to be taller. What he can do is improve his focus and awareness off the ball and spend part of this offseason getting stronger to fight over screens. Getting better at selling contact might also help him. Without outright flopping, Jones should be able to get bigs called for moving screens when they clip him as he tries to get skinny over picks. Smaller players need to use every resource at their disposal to make up for a lack of elite tools, and exploiting the officials’ tendency to punish bigger guys when they try to be physical could help him out as he continues to get stronger.
It might seem unfair to essentially ask Jones to be perfect on defense, but if he’s going to play a bigger role, he can't have too many bad possessions. The encouraging thing about him and his serious approach to his craft is that he’ll likely be up for the challenge.
Jones will have to use movement to mask his lack of range on offense
There’s a strong case for Jones as the absolute worst shooter among all NBA rotation guards. Tre shot a dismal 19.6 percent from beyond the arc last season. The only rotation guard (more than 30 games played, double-digit minutes per game) who shot worse than him was former Jazzman Trent Forrest, who will be on a two-way deal with the Hawks next season. Jones has not only been an awful shooter but also a reluctant one, as he ranked eighth among guards in terms of fewest attempts per 36 minutes. It’s all bad, really. He was terrible from above the break and the corners, on catch-and-shoot opportunities and pull-ups. Outside shooting is a massive weakness for Jones, and it affects the team since opponents are comfortable leaving him open.
It’s simply not viable for him to be a heavy-minute rotation player unless he improves his outside stroke somewhat, but it’s also unrealistic to expect him to suddenly become even league average at it considering just how bad he has been so far. He should still try to get better at least from the corners in the short term, and hopefully the Spurs will have whoever is taking over Chip Engelland’s duties working with him over the summer, but he will also need to find other ways to hurt defenses for ignoring him.
The good news is that Jones is an instinctive cutter who doesn’t stay stationary, so he already has a skill that helps him off the ball. If his defender tries to rest or ball-watches, Jones will make him pay often. He also has a knack for slipping off-ball screens and finding an open path to the rim, which gives him something else to do when others are handling the ball.
Movement goes a long way toward hiding a lack of range, and being involved in plays even when not having the ball, likely acting as a screener, could make it possible for Jones to spend time sharing the court with another creator.
Jones’ place, however, at least for the upcoming season, will have to be on the ball as much as possible. He might not be the typical ball-dominant scorer/creator the roster needs, but he’s arguably one of the few who can at least fill the role of initiator. By necessity, the Spurs will probably put Jones in a position to succeed in the short term, but his long-term success will necessitate improvement off the ball.
It will be fascinating to see how Jones deals with what could be a major role after not playing much for the better part of his career. His upside seems capped by his average physical tools and lack of range, but if anyone can overcome severe limitations, it would be an extremely smart and competitive player like him.
Next season will hopefully make his potential clear, which should help both him and the Spurs figure out how he fits in the team’s long-term plans.