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Pelicans Rookie Herb Jones Has Established Himself As One Of The NBA’s Most Fearsome Defenders

Every now and then, Herb Jones takes over a game. The stretches aren’t lengthy, nor are they anything more than infrequent glimmers. But they surely occur.

Scoring and creation explosions, plays typically associated with a takeover, are not his signature. His moments of magic are more subtle: an aptly time a cut to score inside, prying away a steal to spark the fast break, or slithering over a screen and coaxing a scorer into an imprudent decision. They’re all the sorts of events that help tie together possessions without headlining each result.

For any player, these moments would be noteworthy. But they draw even more praise when they’re being performed by a second-round rookie on a 9-21 team that’s missed its superstar forward all season. That’s exactly what Jones has brought to the New Orleans Pelicans: a bright spot amid an increasingly frustrating campaign.

As the team’s premier on-ball stopper, he’s entrusted by New Orleans’ coaching staff to wrangle with an assortment of lead initiators. His matchup data is a Mount Rushmore of stars such as Luka Doncic, Paul George, Trae Young, Donovan Mitchell, and Ja Morant. Already, he’s spent at least 20 possessions on seven different All-Stars. Lower the possessions threshold slightly and others like James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Devin Booker enter the frame.

Jones is not yet performing at the level of an All-Defensive selection, although it must be stressed that has more to do with how high the bar is to earn that distinction. Yet he’s indicating a future where he could become a stalwart on those teams, which is incredibly promising. Gliding around screens, he stays attached to ball-handlers. He’s light on his feet, swivels his hips to change directions with ease, and wields hands dexterous enough for silent cookie jar thievery.

At 6’8 with a 7-foot wingspan, he’s astonishingly fluid for someone his size. That intersection of size and physical tools enables him to defend up and down the perimeter creator spectrum. Big wings, powerful guards, shifty creators — Jones looks at home against any of them.

Despite assuming such star-studded battles, Jones is averaging only four fouls per 36 minutes. While that may seem like a relatively high mark, a rookie who operates with such physicality and audacity against elite players generating that number is less concerning than it seems on the surface. As he further assimilates to NBA competition and begins to understand the nuances and tendencies of each player, everything he already excels at will heighten.

Jones isn’t merely guarding a bunch of stars and periodically putting together standout clips. New Orleans tasks him with those responsibilities because of merit, not solely pre-draft reputation or practice reps. His plus-1.8 Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus ranks 30th league-wide and second among all rookies. His 1.8 percent block rate and 2.2 percent steal rate are in the 99th and 94th percentiles among wings, according to Cleaning The Glass.

Those gaudy block and steal rates primarily stem from Jones’ exceptional awareness, motor, and gifts as an off-ball playmaker. Thanks to his size, lateral mobility, and swift hands, he functions supremely well at the nail, toggling between help on drives and recovering to shooters. As the weak-side low man, he acutely balances rotating at the proper moment without overcommitting to bleed open corner threes and is quick off the ground to influence plays inside.

Everything, really, stems from his marriage of length, height, and movement skills. Most 6’8 forwards with a 7-foot wingspan are nowhere near as comfortable on the perimeter as he is. The ones who are often find themselves as mainstays in conversations that look to determine the best defensive players in the league, and it seems destined that Jones will get there sooner rather than later.

Defensive-minded rotation guys who can’t meet whatever Mendoza Line is required offensively to warrant heavy minutes are scattered throughout NBA history. By crafting just enough offensive utility to this point, Jones is distinguishing himself from that group and earning starters minutes (27.1 per game, 30.5 since re-entering the starting lineup 11 games ago). With heady floor vision, he’s a viable connective passer capable of identifying scoring opportunities against defenses in disarray.

Although he’s a middling shooter at best right now — he’s made 10 of his 30 attempts from three in the NBA and shot the long ball at a 28.8 percent clip in college — he carves out other paths to scoring value. He’s a perceptive cutter, darting inside whenever he sees a crevice. If defenses take an inefficient route to close out or grant him space, he’s displayed some ability to succeed as a driver. Occasionally, New Orleans even lets him flow through dribble handoffs.

Many uninspiring shooters who don’t elicit defensive attention can struggle to balance letting it fly, attacking off the catch, and cutting to the rim. Jones manages that juggling act fairly well, particularly for a rookie still navigating all the complexities that life as a perimeter-oriented NBA player with a tumultuous jumper can bring.

Every year, 60 people are drafted into the NBA. Approximately 20 of them usually end up sticking around. Through a third of one season, Jones looks like a member of that 20-player grouping. His multifaceted defense is going to place him in All-Defensive discussions at some point. His offense, though much more in transit and tenuous, has a baseline to build upon with a discernible light at the end of the tunnel.

He’s the type of player every basketball fanatic gravitates toward as the glue guy on a winning team, and for good reason. The Pelicans aren’t that sort of squad just yet, but Jones is central to much of the winning they’ll accomplish this season, and he’ll be part of the foundation for what’s being established moving forward.