UNC basketball: Duke’s Tre Jones is Cole Anthony’s toughest test yet

UNC Basketball point guard Cole Anthony is at the top of most NBA mock drafts already, but the best test of his NBA readiness will come Saturday against Duke’s Tre Jones.

UNC Basketball star Cole Anthony hit the hardwood for the first time in more than a month last week, scoring 26 points in his return and reminding the basketball world why he’s widely expected to be a top-five NBA draft pick in June.

But the best test of Anthony’s NBA readiness will come during Saturday’s rivalry game against the Duke Blue Devils when the Tar Heel guard will face off against Duke sophomore Tre Jones, who made the ACC’s all-defensive team as a freshman.

The Blue Devils, ranked No. 7 in the AP poll with a 19-3 record, will travel to the Dean Dome and try to hand Anthony’s 10-12 UNC squad its third consecutive loss. Tip-off is at 6 p.m. EST.

A high-volume scorer, Anthony will enter the game averaging 19.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per contest, according to Sports Reference. But he hasn’t yet faced a challenge quite like the one Jones is likely to give him.

https://twitter.com/UNC_Basketball/status/1223709169921847296?s=20

Jones, who ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas called the “best defender in the country” last year, has proven that he can lock up NBA-level talent with his tremendous, in-your-face defensive pressure.

When former Boston College guard Ky Bowman visited Cameron Indoor Stadium last season, for example, he needed nearly 15 minutes to log his first points against Jones. Bowman now splits time between the Golden State Warriors and their G-League affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors.

Here’s how other top-tier and NBA-caliber point guards have fared against Jones in his two seasons at Duke (statistics via Sports Reference):

Bowman: 1 game, 5-17 (29.4%) FG-FGA, 11 PTS, 6 AST, 3 TO, 70 ORtg.

• Former Auburn guard Jared Harper, now with the Phoenix Suns and the Northern Arizona Suns: 1 game, 7-19 (36.8%) FG-FGA, 22 PTS, 6 AST, 2 TO, 122 ORtg.

• Former Virginia guard Ty Jerome, now with the Phoenix Suns: 1 game, 6-11 (54.5%) FG-FGA, 16 PT, 4 AST, 3 TO, 125 ORtg.

• Former Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins, now with the Greensboro Swarm: 1 game, 3-6 (50.0%) FG-FGA, 9 PTS, 7 AST, 2 TO, 139 ORtg.

• Former Virginia Tech guard Justin Robinson, now with the Delaware Blue Coats: 1 game, 4-8 (50.0%) FG-FGA, 14 PTS, 5 AST, 3 TO, 120 ORtg.

• Former UNC guard Coby White, now with the Chicago Bulls: 3 games, 15-46 (32.6%) FG-FGA, 13.7 PPG, 3.3 APG, 3 TPG, 86 ORtg.

• Former St. John’s guard Shamorie Ponds, recently with the Toronto Raptors and the Raptors 905: 1 game, 3-11 (27.3%) FG-FGA, 11 PTS, 4 AST, 5 TO, 71 ORtg.

• Former Syracuse guard Frank Howard: 2 games, 14-32 (43.8%) FG-FGA, 19 PPG, 2.5 APG, 3.5 TPG, 104.5 ORtg.

• Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado: 2 games, 10-22 (45.5%) FG-FGA, 12.5 PPG, 5.5 APG, 4.5 TPG, 91 ORtg.

• Kansas guard Devon Dotson: 1 game, 5-9 (55.6%) FG-FGA, 17 PTS, 1 AST, 6 TO, 93 ORtg.

• Kentucky guard Ashton Hagans: 1 game, 1-3 (33.3%) FG-FGA, 2 PTS, 4 AST, 3 TO, 59 ORtg.

• Miami guard Chris Lykes: 3 games, 6-43 (13.9%) FG-FGA, 7 PPG, 2 APG, 2 TPG, 53 ORtg.

• Michigan State guard Cassius Winston: 2 games, 13-37 (35.1%) FG-FGA, 16 PPG, 8.5 APG, 1.5 TPG, 97 ORtg.

To be clear, Jones has had his off games. In the Blue Devils’ recent loss to Louisville, Cardinal freshman David Johnson torched him for 19 points and seven assists.

But the Duke star is generally reliable, and the numbers bear that out. Through 22 games this season, Jones is averaging 2 steals per game and has a defensive rating of 90.9.

His defense passes the eye test, too.

https://twitter.com/dukembb/status/1092865713415614464

ESPN’s Bilas isn’t the only person who’s noticed Jones’ efforts on the defensive end. After Jones notched six steals against Texas Tech at Madison Square Garden last season, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he’s among the best on-ball defenders the Blue Devils have ever had.

“He’s right there, and tonight, maybe better,” Krzyzewski said.

Virginia Tech coach Mike Young, whose Hokies fell to the Blue Devils earlier this season, said Jones is “so disruptive” and “a mean dude defensively.”

And here’s what Colorado State coach Nico Medved said about the Duke floor general after his team’s trip to Durham in November:

“If there is a better perimeter defender in college basketball [than Tre Jones], I’d love to see it, because that kid has unbelievable instincts, plays his tail off. He’s gotten so much stronger, he just knows exactly where the ball needs to go, and he’s a terrific kid and terrific player. He obviously completely disrupted our guards from getting into any flow.”

The bottom line is that Jones might be the best point-of-attack defender Anthony will see all year. That means their matchup could be the UNC freshman’s best chance to prove that he’s ready for the Patrick Beverleys and Marcus Smarts that he’ll square up against at the next level.

Anthony and Jones did compete against each other in high school before Anthony was a surefire lottery pick and Jones was a top-10 finalist for college basketball’s Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard.

They met at least once on the Nike EYBL circuit, according to Overtime. But that matchup was years ago. Both have come a long way since then.

Next: Top 25 games ever between Duke and UNC

Now, Anthony has the keys to UNC’s offense. The question is how fast Jones will let him drive.