You’ve heard me mention how the sad, Zion-less Pelicans started the season 1-12 before rallying around coach Willie Green and surging (relatively speaking) to a 17-17 record in games since then. Today, I want to highlight one of my favorite stories of the season: the success of Herbert Jones, the category-defying rookie.
Jones had question marks entering the NBA draft despite earning SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in his final collegiate year at Alabama. His uncanny combination of length (6’8” with a seven-foot wingspan) and lateral quickness were NBA-ready, but scouts worried his stiff jumper and lack of ball-handling skills would keep him resigned to the bench as a defensive specialist.
Jones was the fifth pick in the second round1, and little was expected out of the rookie on a Pelicans team that entered the season with playoff hopes. He quickly started making his mark in team workouts and Summer League. Jones’ defensive efforts stymied opposing players to the point that “Not on Herb!” became a frequent cry heard throughout the gym. Knowing they’d struck gold, the Pelicans signed him to a 3-yr, $5.3M contract, one of the largest ever given to a second-round pick.
But what position would he play? Pre-draft, he was listed as a shooting guard/small forward. Cleaning the Glass claims he’s spent 93% of his time as a power forward for the Pels. Basketball-Reference lists him as a center. And Basketball-Index says he spends 23% of his time guarding point guards and 32% of his time guarding shooting guards!
This grab-bag of positions proves how versatile Herb has been on defense. His flexibility allows him to be a legitimate problem guarding anybody on the court. It’s rare to see 6’8” players defending primarily guards, but it speaks to his incredibly fluid defensive footwork that lets him consistently beat opposing ballhandlers to the spot (Herb is #5 in red on the right side of your screen):
“OK,” I hear you thinking, “that’s good defense. But he’s guarding Oshae Brissett. I’m not impressed.” First, shame on you for slandering Brissett, who’s been working hard on a terrible Pacers team! Second, can I interest you in the exact same play against Zach LaVine, one of the smoothest scorers in the league?
It’s incredibly difficult to absorb contact to the chest like that without bending and consequently fouling and speaks to Herb’s uncanny core strength.
Watch here as Herb adeptly slithers under a screen to re-attach himself to D’Angelo Russell’s hip, forces a pass, and then immediately slides over and takes a charge instinctually:
That is some next-level defensive navigation, something that rookies almost never do.
Herb’s most common matchups defensively are a who’s who of elite players: Anthony Edwards, Donovan Mitchell, Luka Doncic, Pascal Siakam, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Bascially, the Pelicans put Herb on the other team’s most potent on-ball threat.
Some numbers: Jones is fourth in the league in total deflections this season. Herb is also one of just two players in the league averaging at least 1.5 steals and one block per game. The other? LeBron James.
CTG says he’s in the 93rd percentile for block rate and 91st percentile for steal rate for forwards…and just the 14th percentile for foul rate! For a guy who routinely guards the other team’s best player every night, he rarely fouls, which might be his most impressive stat of all.
The defense is even better than advertised, and remember that he was supposed to be a defensive specialist coming into the league, but his offensive game was always going to be vital to earning minutes.
Well, much like his fellow ace-defender-doing-just-enough-on-offense Gary Payton II, Herb is doing only the things he should be doing. His usage rate2 of 12.8% is by far the lowest of Pelicans rotation players. He’s making just enough jumpers on meager volume (37% from long mid-range and a very good 39% from three) to keep defenses honest, which opens up the lane for him to attack. More than half of his shots come at the rim, thanks to a well-developed sense of off-ball timing:
Herb still has a lot of areas to improve on. He often steps on the line for 22-foot two-point shots, a major no-no. He goes to the basket hard, but he hasn’t figured out how to use his strength to get into better finishing position, and his rudimentary ball-handling doesn’t help. Many of Jones’ drives end in awkward long-distance finger rolls or ugly not-quite-floaters:
*Shudder.* However, floaters and finishing are something that rookies almost always get better at with experience and practice. Jones will likely never be a consistent 20-point scorer, but with his energy and defense, he can turn himself into an elite role player that knows how to space the floor and make the most of his opportunities.
When Herb is playing, the Pelicans outscore opponents by +1.2 points per 100 possessions (he and Devonte’ Graham are the only rotation players with positive numbers). +1.2 doesn’t sound like much, but the Pelicans get outscored by -14.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s off the court. That is impossibly bad. To recap: They are an average team with Herb and worse than the worst team in the league without him (Detroit is last with a -10.2 point differential).
Coach Willie Green has noticed, and Herb (after quickly earning a starting role early in the season) has seen his minutes increase every month, from 25.1 minutes per game in October to 33.7 in January, which is the second-most on the team.
The Pelicans are still fighting for a play-in spot with the hope that Zion’s potential return will turn them into a force overnight. That all remains to be seen. But it’s clear that with or without Zion, the Pelicans can still be competitive, thanks in large part to Herb Jones.