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Uncommon Winning

By Matt Jones (2014-17)

Story by Duke Basketball | Devils Life August 12th, 2016
Coming into the summer, I wanted to take a step back and reflect on my previous years at Duke and map out what I wanted to accomplish in my last year here. For me, as a senior captain and leader of a very talented team, it’s important that I am there mentally for the group and draw on my experiences and show the young guys what hard work really means. I’ve made it a point this summer to do all the small things. Going to breakfast on an off-day, staying in the gym, texting the guys and getting them in the gym, watching film of old games — just small things like that. I’ve tried to be a student of the game. I would hope the younger guys see me working when the lights are off and know when I play well it’s because I’ve been in the gym doing extra. That’s the example I want to set.

My freshman year here, I gravitated towards the people who led by example and worked the hardest. These were the guys who didn’t want the recognition or need their voices to be heard. They came every day and showed up for work. One guy who was like that was Rodney Hood. I was honored to be in Rodney’s wedding just a few weeks ago with Amile and he’s a great friend who I really admire.

I’ve always admired that way of doing things, going back to when I was a kid. You work hard and take pride in what you do, because that’s who you are. You don’t do it for the praise or accolades. It’s just what you do. I wasn’t always that secure in thinking that way. Most people aren’t. It’s hard to have that mindset in this day and age with selfies, Snapchat and things like that. I can honestly say I wasn’t totally sold on who I was as a player and person until this summer.


This past season, I was disappointed. I felt like I could have led by example more. I could have come to practice a little earlier, watched more film or studied the scouting report in more detail. We had a young team and then lost Amile, and I just feel I could have done more. That’s all the more reason why I am making more of a point to lead by example this season. That’s what I respect in other people, and I want to practice what I preach.

Being a senior, I am in a unique spot. Seniors get penalized in some respects at the pro level. For me, what I do after I leave Duke can’t be the end-all, be-all focus. Winning is. Winning is an advantage for me. Coming to Duke, I wanted to win. Winning is fun. I hate losing. Duke gave me the best chance to win. My future and who I want to be is most secure when we win. That’s how it is here. We are a brotherhood defined by winning.


Coming into the summer, I wanted to make sure the team was getting better each and every day, beginning to build an identity around winning. Of course, I had personal goals as well. I wanted to be more athletic, getting my shot off quicker. Being more creative with the ball. Being in great shape, which allows me to expand my game and allows us to be a better team.

As the summer progressed, I found myself working harder. I feel like I’ve improved and I am in a good position to have a really good senior year. As a team, we’ve put ourselves in position to hit the ground running when we come back from this break, and Coach gets back from the Olympics. We will be able to pick up whatever Coach wants. I know he wants us to play fast. Being in the shape we are in right now, it bodes well and Coach will be happy with our progress in that area.

In general, the summer is a time for individual improvement, but it’s also a time for teams to become closer and develop a bond. This was the first summer we had with so many guys here both sessions of summer school. It’s nice to lift weights, work out, go to class and get adjusted to life on campus. But I know with some of the younger guys especially, that can be tough when you are used to having a long summer vacation. For the whole group, it’s always good to keep things fresh and do things that are rejuvenating.

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I really liked what the coaches and staff did for us to keep things fresh. We had an ice cream truck come through, we went out to eat every week and got to choose the restaurants, the guys played dodgeball one day as a surprise. We were able to try different workouts like boxing. We got out in the community a few times. And then we got to work our summer camp and K Academy. That’s always a special time to relax and connect with the past and present Duke guys.

Last week, we did one of the more fun things I’ve done here with the Duke Basketball Olympics. We had 20 events. There was Cornhole, 4-on-4-on-4 basketball, trivia, tire flip, truck push, Bear Pong, a mile run, track events, soccer PKs, water balloon toss, Duke Amazing Race, NBA-style skills competition and events like that.


We were divided into three teams of four and all the events were designed to test our will and how bad we wanted to win no matter what it was. It allowed us to work together within our individual teams. I was on Team Black with Javin, Chase and Frank. Like I said, so much of the summer is about personal gains and individual work. This really gave us a chance to be a team within a team and put people in new positions. We could try things we haven’t done before.

We had to collaborate to figure out ways to win. It was really fun for us. Guys really competed and wanted to win every event. It was challenging, but the challenges were done in a fun way. Guys were motivated. We always kept the points and standings, and when guys didn’t win points, they didn’t like it…which they shouldn’t. It was good to see guys’ competitive natures come out.

The events were different so everyone was good at something. The whole Olympics tested so many different areas. It wasn’t just about who was stronger or more athletic. It took us out of a box and allowed everyone to be creative and use their talents to come out on top. It also put guys in positions to succeed and gain confidence. It showed me some strengths I have that I didn’t even know, and everyone had to take on leadership roles at different times. You had to find ways to win and identify who was good at what event.


Team Black was fortunate enough to win the whole thing and we got a really cool gold CHAMPS shirt. Our proudest moment as the Black Team was when we played 4-on-4-on-4 basketball. We played the other four guys from both the Blue and White Teams, and won that series 4-0. It was a sweep.

On paper, you may not think our group was the best at that event. And right before we played 4 on 4 on 4, things did not go our way. We lost three straight events: ball-handling, shooting and the basketball skills challenge. We lost our overall lead in the Olympics.

It was human nature for most teams or people at that time to give in a little bit or not have as much energy. It felt like one of those games where nothing goes right. Bounces don’t go your way. Shots don’t fall. You can lose your edge and decide today isn’t your day. I had to make sure we knew the day wasn’t over. We could still come out with points, and the 4 on 4 on 4 was the biggest event of The Olympics to that point as far as points at stake. I could see in my teammates‘ eyes the intensity they had and the drive they had to turn things around. They weren’t complaining. They listened to me and we all had a good spirit about us. We weren’t dragging.

Our motto for the week was to be uncommon. Being uncommon in that moment was going out in the 4 on 4 on 4 and finding a way to win that event. We were able to do that and everybody really contributed. Javin had a big tip-dunk, Chase had great interior defense, Frank was being aggressive. As a leader, I was proud to see that. Because the other teams didn’t win a single game in that event, the “Olympic Committee” gave us all the points for the event. We got the 1st place and 2nd place points. It was a dominant performance!

I know during the season, that kind of moment gets overshadowed. It wasn’t a big game on ESPN and no one had a fancy dunk or made a big play that blew up on Twitter. But that kind of moment – those are reference points. That’s how you build a foundation as a group. That’s how you develop winning character. We recovered with poise and fought and won. There will be games like that, where things aren’t going our way. I saw in my team a group of guys who won’t quit. And all week with The Olympics I saw all my teammates value winning so much. Guys didn’t care who was getting the trivia questions right or running the fastest in the relays or flipping tires the fastest. We all just wanted to win.


I know Coach would have been impressed. The whole Olympics experience gave me life as a leader. It gave us another reason to be uncommon. Our Black Team epitomized uncommon all week. I was proud of that. With summer winding down, I feel like guys have gotten better. We’ve made strides towards being the team we can be. It’s still early of course and we have to figure a lot of things out strategically, but the bond is there.


Not all teams have that. I havent had that bond with every Duke team Ive been on so I know how precious it is and how fragile that one element of a team can be. To see that was refreshing. My spirits are high. I feel like we control our own destiny. We can go out with a bang. I can go out with a bang. A lot goes into a season that you cant control but with Amile and Grayson and me — we are in a position to really help guys and give them a blue print to work through all the ups and downs of a season. We have been through a lot here and we have enough experiences around the table to where there is no experience a guy could face this year that we haven’t seen.

I am really confident and excited. I feel old. That’s a good thing. I feel wise. I feel like everything I have been through to this point has made into the player and person that I am. It’s allowed me to view my life differently, the people around me differently and the game of basketball itself differently. I’ve tried to live in the moment this summer and I am really grateful for the opportunity to do something special with this group of guys. With the high caliber talents and personalities we have, it will make this year that much more special. I know we have to win and hang banners in order for me to accomplish everything I want to accomplish. Winning drives me. It makes me want to lead by example. It makes me want to be selfless.


The world we live in now drives you towards being selfish and wondering when it’s gonna be my turn, things like that. I’ve always played my best when I went into the game focused on the game plan and getting others involved and letting the game flow. That’s when I am the most happy on the court. And that’s usually when we’ve ended up winning.

I pride myself in being that guy who helps the team win. Winning speaks for itself. I don’t need recognition from anybody to make me feel good about doing my job and winning. That’s what I do. That’s why I came to Duke. At the end of the day, I’d rather win the game, than go for 30 and lose. That’s me. Winning the Duke Olympics felt just as good as winning a big game. Winning is winning. And the better your opponent was – the better winning feels.

I know the times maybe I get down for not hitting shots, I always draw back on a speech Coach gives to the kids at summer camp. He tells them that winning matters more than anything. And he says that when the kids got to be his age, people would be asking if they played in the championship game. He can tell them yes. Then they will ask if they won it. He can say yes. I always think of that. There will hopefully be a time someday when I am a little older and have kids, and want to tell them about my basketball career. They won’t ask how many points you scored. There will be a time when no one cares about that. They will ask, “Did you win?” I was fortunate enough to be on the 2015 championship team and I know how great that feeling was. I want these guys to have that feeling. I want that feeling again.


Looking back on it and when I look at my ring, I get emotional and soak it all in because I know how hard it was to get that. I know how uncommon you have to be to avoid distractions, to be all in, to be selfless and to be Duke. We have a lot of things going our way, but we have a lot of people trying to tear us down. To win a championship, it‘s hard work and you have to fight through those distractions. To win games at our level period, it takes great effort, precision, and togetherness and things like that that other people don’t always do. What makes winning fun is all those small things. The things people don’t see. Paying the price together. The shared moments. Overcoming adversity. The investment made before the game even starts.

The “little things” are what I have truly come to understand and appreciate. It’s made me who I am. All summer, I’ve tried to enjoy all those moments with our guys. From the workouts to the meals to the Olympic week to the interactions around the locker room to chilling with the guys at K Academy, I hope our guys begin to see and appreciate everything in this way also.


Because one day, we won’t be able to do this anymore. The season will end and we won’t have this amazing group. We all will go our separate ways. A number of us won’t be at Duke next year. We won’t have a chance to work together and share in the little things that make winning so much fun. We will wish we could go back in time to the locker room, hanging out and celebrating.

When that day comes and we’ve move on, I know I will sit back and think, “Those are the moments I miss the most.” That’s why I want to do everything I can to put my team in position to win and share a bond that will last long after the basketballs stop bouncing.