DURHAM, N.C.-- From her first day on campus, freshman Alexis Jones had something in common with two of the greatest players in Duke women’s basketball history. She should have more when she leaves.
The 5-foot-8 guard shares her home state of Texas and her smooth, gliding on-court style with Lindsey Harding, the program’s all-time leader in assists. She’s left-handed like Alana Beard, who is widely regarded as the program’s all-time best player.
It’s way too early to tell if the talented teenager will lead her team to multiple Final Fours, win National Player of Year awards or have her jersey hanging in the Cameron Indoor Stadium rafters like the other two. But halfway through her first season in the ACC, she’s off to a great start.
Like Beard, Jones stepped into the Blue Devils’ starting lineup from game one. Unlike Harding, who had to wait until the team’s 22nd game of 2002-03 to earn her first start. In fact, Beard is part of the reason Jones wears the Duke uniform.
“My first memories of Duke are of watching her (Beard) on TV,” said Jones, who would have been 10 while Beard was leading the Blue Devils to back-to-back Final Fours. “My mom kept talking about how she was left-handed like me and how maybe I could go to Duke someday. It’s always been my dream school.”
Coach Joanne P. McCallie describes Jones’ recruitment as calm and low-maintenance — sort of like the player.
“I saw her for the first time at a high school practice,” said McCallie. “Her explosiveness and ability in the open court was obvious. I, along with my staff, got to know the Jones family really well. Her dad was insistent that she not compromise on academics or athletics. He wanted her to get a great education and play at the highest level. She did great in the classroom first semester and has made great progress on the court.”
Jones grew up in Midland, Tex., then her family moved to the Dallas suburb of Irving after seventh grade. Not typical for a girl, but perhaps not so odd given her home state, Jones played tackle football during elementary school. She also played on boys’ AAU basketball teams that her father, David coached.
“I was always around my dad and he worked at the Boys and Girls Club in Midland,” explained Jones. “He wouldn’t let me play football at first, but he finally gave in. It was fun. I didn’t think it was strange at all playing basketball with the boys, that’s just how it was. When I played with girls, my dad made me play up with girls a couple of years older. It helped me develop faster.”
Tragedy struck the Jones family on Easter weekend when Jones was in seventh grade. David was driving her, her younger brother Andrew and some AAU teammates to practice near Dallas when their vehicle hit a patch of black ice, veered off the road and overturned several times. None of the youngsters were hurt, but David couldn’t move. He was paralyzed and is in a wheelchair.
“I had to grow up in a hurry,” said Jones. “My dad had always been there for me, making sure I got to my games and practices and working two jobs so I could have everything I needed. It was my turn to take care of him.”
Extended family helped Jones, her mom and two brothers take care of David. After the family moved to Irving, David felt well enough to help out with her new middle school team’s practices. Jones’ basketball career took off from there.
She led MacArthur High School to its first state title in any girls sport her junior year and helped the school to 144 victories during her four seasons. She won the state player of the year award her junior and senior years and earned Parade Magazine and McDonald’s All-America honors after her senior season.
Jones also found time to play defense, somewhat of a foreign concept to most high school superstars. That background and knowledge made the transition to playing Duke basketball much easier.
“My dad taught me how to play defense from the first time I stepped onto the court when I was five,” said Jones. “He taught me man-to-man and how to trap and press. I was always fast and I learned to move my feet and not reach. It was fun stealing the ball in the press and our teams always got up and down the court quickly, so defense never felt like work. It’s much harder to play defense at this level, but I haven’t felt overmatched because I already knew the fundamentals of how to play it.”
That advanced knowledge helped Jones move right into the starting lineup in the backcourt with junior standout Chelsea Gray, according to McCallie.
“We could tell early on that she was a quick study and had a great sense and feel for not only defense, but how to play the entire game, and I credit her dad and high school coaches for that,” said McCallie. “Alexis is a sponge and shows a willingness to play aggressive defense. With her quickness she sees that she can become a dominant player and works very hard to improve.”
Improvement came quickly, as Jones exploded for 10 of her 16 points in the second half of the exhibition opener against Shaw University while coming off the bench. She added 13 of her 22 in the second half of the next one against Queens, with steals and rebounds thrown in.
Proving that she had quickly outgrown the reserve role, Jones was in the lineup from the opening tip against Presbyterian and has posted double figures in six of Duke’s 21 games. Keep in mind that the other four Blue Devil starters average double figures.
“She’s playing the game in pieces right now — sometimes scoring, other nights rebounding, yet other times playing great defense,” said McCallie. “She’s had the opportunity to watch Chelsea, who has been a great example in that she’s willing to rebound, pass, score — whatever it takes to help us win. She’s like a stick of dynamite and will blow up eventually. When that happens, she will be completely attacking in all parts of her game. It will be pretty for our fans to watch.”