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A Bright Spot Emerges in Zion Williamson’s Shadow

Herb Jones isn’t making anyone in New Orleans forget who is missing, but the promising do-it-all rookie has shined in his star teammate’s absence, offering even more reason for hope when Zion returns

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Pelicans’ future looked bright last summer, perhaps the brightest since the dawn of the Anthony Davis era. Willie Green’s takeover as head coach, on the heels of his NBA Finals run as an assistant with the Phoenix Suns, brought a fresh vision to the team, and with it came excitement ahead of the new campaign.

Then, New Orleans acquired Jonas Valanciunas and Devonte’ Graham in a solid offseason. Having surrounded Zion Williamson with the right players to make his star shine even brighter after a dominant sophomore year, a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2018 didn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation.

Yet the moment Zion—the Sun of the Pelicans’ basketball universe, as The Ringer’s Dan Devine put it—went down with a foot injury, a familiar feeling started to gather over New Orleans again. Williamson missed the 2021-22 curtain-raiser, during which fellow starter Josh Hart pulled his quad, and the Pelicans stumbled to a 3-16 start. But the darker the horizon got, the more role players old and new could shine in the Zion-less sky. That includes rookie Herb Jones, who would quickly become one of the few bright spots on the team—and a glimmer of hope for both the short and long-term future.

Down Williamson already and now Hart, Green took a leap of faith after Game 1, inserting Jones into the Pelicans’ starting lineup. Some 60 games later, the 6-foot-7 Alabama standout made an appearance on the NBA Defensive Player of the Year ladder in March and his teammates began making a case for Jones in the Rookie of the Year race.

“It’s not only about points. It’s everything else he does,” said Willy Hernángomez after Jones held Donovan Mitchell to just 1-for-7 from the field on shots when he was the closest defender in a 34-point victory over the Utah Jazz earlier this month. Mitchell ended the night with 14 points, his second-lowest tally of the season—and later caught Green in the hallway to admit the Pelicans freshman was “one of the few rookies he has to plan for.”

Jones is averaging 9.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 2.2 assists on 49/35/85 shooting splits. New Orleans’s point differential goes up by 10.1 points per 100 possessions when he’s in play, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s on the same level of impact that Giannis Antetokounmpo has on the Milwaukee Bucks (10.2) and above DeMar DeRozan’s on the Chicago Bulls (7.1).

Before the Pelicans traded for CJ McCollum at the deadline in early February, their starting unit of Jones, Hart, Graham, Brandon Ingram, and Valanciunas outscored opponents by 12.8 points-per-100, the seventh-largest margin among high-usage lineups in the NBA. Since McCollum’s arrival, the new-look opening five has been just slightly less efficient, with a net rating of 10.2, still hovering around the top 20 units.

Jones has quickly made himself useful with the same havoc-wreaking defense he showcased at Alabama. In college, he terrorized his peers on the defensive side—and sometimes even his teammates. Crimson Tide head coach Nate Oats once jokingly complained Jones disrupted ball screen drills in practice because he was “blowing up the whole pick-and-roll by himself.” Jones ended his college career as the SEC Defensive Player of the Year—in addition to scooping the SEC Player of the Year award, claiming both titles nine years after Anthony Davis did, before landing in New Orleans.

Scouting reports warned that Jones would sometimes gamble on defense. Still, they noted a unique ability to get stops. On the offensive side of the ball, he excelled at attacking the rim, particularly off coast-to-coast drives, and proved to be an unselfish playmaker. It was Jones’s jumper that posed the biggest red flag ahead of the draft, with some describing him as “effectively a non-shooter” in his junior year, when he went 1-for-14 from downtown. However, there were signs that Jones could be an effective 3-and-D role player—and that he could improve quickly. The forward’s outside shooting soared his senior year, when he made 35.1 percent of his 3s, on four times the attempts.

The Pelicans didn’t feel like they were taking a risk when they plucked Jones in the second round with the 35th pick. Quite the contrary: “We were ecstatic,” Pelicans general manager Trajan Langdon said the day after draft night. They believed Jones’s highly regarded work ethic would help the rookie address his weaknesses, especially with assistant coach Fred Vinson taking him under his wing—the same “Shot Doctor” who famously fixed Lonzo Ball’s jumper.

With Vinson, Jones has worked to alter both his technique and the thought process behind the act of shooting—and it’s already yielded promising results. His field goal percentage in catch-and-shoot situations has risen from 22.6 over the first six weeks of the season to 39.1 percent since the beginning of December; he’s made 86.2 percent of his freebies (Jones shot just 60.4 percent in his whole college career) during that stretch; and his true shooting jumped from .511 in games 12 through 30 to .613 since.

Meanwhile, his defense has not only held up against offenses superior to those he faced in college. It’s been both effective and spectacular—so much so that it inspired a new cultural phenomenon of sorts in New Orleans, known as Not on Herb:

Jones sees a few steps ahead as the play develops, a trait that suggests a high basketball IQ. Combined with his athleticism and patience, the rookie pounces on the ball just at the right time—allowing him to register blocks and steals seemingly with ease. Only four other players in the league record both at the same rate as Jones, a list featuring only elite defenders. His 108 steals places him tied for fourth with Chris Paul and Marcus Smart among the best pick-pockets of the 2021-22 season, per Basketball-Reference. Just seven other players have made a bigger contribution to their teams’ victories by stripping the ball off of opponents than the Pelicans forward.

Blocks and steals are one way Jones has helped the mediocre Pelicans defense operate at a league-average level—when he comes off the floor, New Orleans gives up 115.1 points per 100 possessions, which would rank in the bottom five on the season. But those extra possessions have also become a powerful weapon for the Pels on offense.

Jones has recorded 85 touches (both steals and blocks included) that have triggered New Orleans’s transition offense, the third-highest number in the league, per Second Spectrum. The Pelicans are 21st in the NBA at scoring in transition after steals; their number with Jones on the floor would rank in the top five—only nine other qualifying players make that kind of impact on their teams’ ability to capitalize against opponents on the break.

Jones seems to have just the right amount of everything to be an elite defender: athleticism, size, wingspan (7 feet), lateral quickness. But above all, he doesn’t view defensive responsibilities as Sisyphean labor. “When you talk about basketball, a lot of people want to score a lot. I wanted to find something that other people may not have enjoyed doing that would help me play meaningful minutes,” Jones said 13 days before the Pelicans drafted him.

“I found my way on the defensive end,” he added. “I’ve always been taught that your defense follows you everywhere.”

Jones wants to be a menace on defense, a blessing for Green that fellow NBA coaches can only envy. The rookie truly enjoys taking on the most difficult defensive assignments—there’s absolutely no reason Jones would find guarding Nikola Jokic “pretty fun” after an 11-point loss other than finding joy in making the best guys in the business uncomfortable. He takes on reigning, former, and future MVPs night in and night out. According to BBall Index, Jones ranks sixth in matchup difficulty—which measures how tough a player’s defensive assignments are on a daily basis—and leads all players who are classified as “wing stoppers.”

And when he stands in their way, he guards the hell out of them. His ferocity has made quite a few NBA stars work hard for buckets: While Mitchell managed to drill one during that 34-point March loss, Anthony Edwards got null in October—as Jones held the Minnesota offense to 0-for-13 from the field combined as the closest defender, per Second Spectrum, something only 10 players have done this season when facing at least 10 shots.

In late February, none other than LeBron James found himself on the receiving end of Not on Herb action. The Lakers were just about to come back from a double-digit deficit in the second quarter, as James was cruising coast-to-coast to retake the lead for the Lakers, their first since the opening minutes. But Jones sneakily trotted behind the four-time NBA champion and caught him off guard on a crossover, sending the Pelicans storming the other way. Following the key four-point swing, the Pelicans outscored the Lakers 89-62—leading to a much-needed 28-point victory for New Orleans and its play-in tournament hopes.

And when the rookie took on Devin Booker a couple of days earlier, he offered a visual aid of what Oats’s blown-up pick-and-roll drills must have looked like.

A few possessions later, he dismantled another Suns screen to force a Booker turnover that resembled an interception straight out of a football field.

All that after pulling off a cheeky steal earlier in the game, similar to the one that would stop the Lakers’ comeback in its tracks later that weekend. (Perhaps LeBron should have seen it coming.)

The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor saw shades of “a leaner Draymond Green” in Jones ahead of the 2021 draft—and the Alabama forward’s rookie season makes it difficult not to buy into such comparisons. Swap one’s shooting splits for the other’s rebound and assist averages and you suddenly look at two players of a very similar profile.

Herb vs. Draymond

Name Season(s) GMs Started MIN/G PTS/G REB/G AST/G BLK/G STL/G FG% 3P%
Name Season(s) GMs Started MIN/G PTS/G REB/G AST/G BLK/G STL/G FG% 3P%
Herb Jones 2021-22 (rookie) 60 30 9.7 3.9 2.2 0.8 1.6 49.0% 35.3%
Draymond Green 2013-22 (career) 526 28.5 8.7 6.9 5.4 1 1.4 44.0% 31.5%
Draymond Green 2012-13 (rookie) 1 13.4 2.9 3.3 0.7 0.3 0.5 32.7% 20.9%

That isn’t to say Jones is on Draymond’s Hall of Fame career path—he still has a long way to go to come anywhere close. One of his main pitfalls as a rookie: Jones often falls into foul trouble, ranking sixth in the league with 214 personal fouls. (He’s also just earned the first ejection of his career, although it came on a seemingly accidental elbow to Miles Bridges’s face.)

But Jones’s smothering defense and growing confidence in his jumper have already produced some superb all-around performances. In the Pelicans’ 113-105 victory over the Nuggets on February 4, Jones put the effectiveness of his game on display, going 2-for-2 from 3-point land and 6-for-6 from the field for 18 points in addition to two steals in the fourth quarter alonetaking on Jokic on a key play to effectively seal the win.

And in the recent triumph over the Atlanta Hawks, the rookie ended up with 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting, as well as three rebounds, two assists, four steals, and one turnover. The Pelicans outscored the Hawks by 17 in Jones’s minutes and briefly moved past the Lakers and up to ninth in the Western Conference standings thanks to the win.

Not only do the Pelicans seem bound for the play-in, but they might well enjoy home-court advantage in the seemingly inevitable matchup with the Lakers: a laudable turnaround for a team whose season seemed over even before it truly started. But perhaps most importantly in the grand scheme of things, the Pelicans have gotten another player to build its team around in Jones—who’s made the most of an opportunity that emerged from the darkness of the early days of 2021-22.

The Pelicans have to wait a little longer for the Sun to come out, but the dark clouds have already started to thin out over New Orleans.