Herb Jones of the New Orleans Pelicans

Herb Jones is great, but he needs to be better

I jumped on the Herb Jones bandwagon early in his career. Most rookies typically struggle on defense, unused to complex team rules and the athleticism of the NBA game.

Not Herb! He came out of the gates blazing, starting in just his second NBA game and recording a steal and a nasty block on Zach LaVine. He never looked back and ended the season with a few All-Defensive Team votes — unheard of for rookie wings, much less second-round picks.

That defense has never waned, and he’s one of the best wing guardians in the league. He bothers shooters, pokes away steals, and covers his mark like a raincoat. It’s no surprise his nickname is “Straitjacket.”

There is a lot of similarity to Paul George’s defensive game in his ability to slip past screens and use length and speed to stay attached to ballhandlers. And there’s a lot of similarity to nobody in how he can block jumpers. Watch as he somehow gets his fingers on a Kevin Durant corner three:

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Outrageous. The defense is not a question. But the offense remains a work in progress.

Jones had shown just enough shooting and playmaking as a rookie that hopes were high he could become the next great 3-and-D wing, if not more. Instead, his sophomore year-end stats looked like they were copied from his rookie season by a printer that’s starting to run out of ink:

The similarity in production implies a lack of development. But those stats are misleading. Jones’ second season was a two-chapter tale. Post All-Star break, Jones averaged 44% from deep (but on just 2.3 attempts per game, actually below his season-long output) and 52% from the floor, along with an encouraging 3.0 assists.

Even when taking the long view across the entire season, there were encouraging signs. His ballhandling improved some (although his confidence waxed and waned like an indecisive moon), and his touches increased from 37 per game his rookie year to 43 the next despite playing the same number of minutes, proof of the team’s growing belief in him.

If the ballhandling improved incrementally, Jones’ passing took a notable step forward. If he can improve his handle further, his court vision will surprise people. Watch as he picks out a cutting Trey Murphy before he even has the ball himself. He puts the perfect amount of weight on the ball to gently deliver it into the zooming Murphy’s hands:

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Any more or any less velocity and the rock gets stolen by the numerous defenders in the paint.

Herb Jones doesn’t run many pick-and-rolls (~1 per game on average), but the team scored 1.08 points per possession in ‘23 (a great mark) versus just .93 PPP in ‘22, per Synergy. That’s a noticeable jump even on small sample sizes.

Look at this saucy little number:

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Sure, Jonas Valanciunas misses the bunny, but it’s a beautiful play by Herb to draw two defenders and then deliver the look-away behind-the-back pass to the rolling Valanciunas.

The problem is that all of this ancillary playmaking is more of a nice-to-have than a must-have from a role player like Herb. The team is built around the paint dominance of Zion Williamson, and for Herb to shine, he has to fit in. That means shooting more often and more accurately from deep.

2.5 triples per game is not enough, period. He has to get that to four per game. Even if the accuracy isn’t entirely there yet, he cannot give the defense a break with record-scratch moments in which he passes up a wide-open shot or drives into the middle of a set defense.

His indecisiveness when left wide open leads to an irritating number of travels. In this representative play, defenders run away from him like cockroaches after a light is turned on, but instead of firing, Hones hesitates and ultimately turns it over with some happy feet:

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This preseason has shown some encouraging signs. In two games, Jones has shot six triples in 39 minutes; that beats last preseason’s totals of five long-ball attempts in 86 minutes. It’s clear he’s been working on his aggressiveness and ballhandling. He misses this layup, but watch the nice Euro-step (and sorry for the phone camera footage):

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With Zion finally healthy, I thought Jones might lose his starting spot to Murphy, his ascendant 3-and-D(unk) draftmate. Murphy has a 20-point-scorer ceiling that Jones cannot aspire to, and his legitimate marksmanship makes him a cleaner offensive fit next to Big Z. But Murphy’s injury will keep him sidelined for at least the first month of the season and likely more, ensuring that Jones stays in the starting lineup for now. Jones also is by far the best wing defender in the Pelicans rotation.

It’s worth noting that, in limited sample, lineups with Jones and Zion were fantastic — a +8.8 net rating in 786 possessions last year puts those configurations in the 93rd percentile, and the Pelicans scored at will. Jones’ cutting and off-ball savvy helps alleviate some of his weaknesses, and Zion is a good enough passer to take advantage.

But the idea of putting three-and-a-half shooters around Zion in McCollum, Ingram, Murphy, and Jonas Valanciunas might be too irresistible to pass up, particularly if Zion isn’t quite what he once was. Playoff defenses will be more likely to take advantage of Jones’ shooting reluctance, too, even if the regular-season numbers look fine. The Pelicans claim that Zion will run more center this year, which would help Jones, but we’ll see if the rebounding and defense can survive. The paint gets cluttered whenever big man Valanciunas is on the court with Herb and Zion.

Coach Willie Green will likely give Murphy a long look as a starter this year… unless Jones cements himself as a willing and capable shooter.

Jones’ defense is impeccable, and he’s not bereft of offensive talent. But right now, the team is designed around Zion, as it should be, and Jones will need to improve if he wants to maximize his time on the court with the big fella. Otherwise, he may find himself relegated to the bench when it matters. 

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.