Throughout the history of the NBA Playoffs, rookies making valuable contributions is not an uncommon phenomenon. Magic Johnson and Jayson Tatum are just some examples of players who introduced themselves to an even larger audience in the postseason, with the former leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a championship in 1980.
Herbert Jones may not have the fanfare of both Johnson and Tatum, nor did he come up to the league as a lottery pick, but his efforts have belied his experience in the postseason.
The New Orleans Pelicans selected Jones with the 35th overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft largely because of his defensive abilities, which led to him earning both the 2021 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and the 2021 SEC Player of the Year awards. His regular season averages of 9.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.7 steals in 29.9 minutes per game look solid at best, but they only tell part of the story.
His steal percentage of 2.7 percent during the regular season was the fourth-best mark in the NBA higher than that of Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, and Jrue Holiday. Meanwhile, his block percentage (2.6 percent) is the second-highest on the Pelicans behind center Jonas Valanciunas. Add to that his team-leading 3.1 deflections per game during the regular season and it’s easy to see how his activity has been beneficial to New Orleans’ defense. Not only have the Pelicans gone to him when teammates have sat out, but they also turned to him when crucial defensive stops were needed.
Jones’ versatility was on full display in Game 4 of New Orleans’ first-round matchup with the Phoenix Suns. With his team staring at a 2-1 series deficit, Jones put on a defensive masterclass in swatting away potential 3-pointers and disrupting passing lanes. He finished Game 4 with as many blocks as the Suns (3), two steals, and pretty much got into the heads of Phoenix’s perimeter players.
While Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas combined for 56 points in the series-tying win, Jones and Jose Alvarado set the tone defensively. The Suns’ offense runs through Chris Paul and the perimeter, more so with Devin Booker out for the rest of the series, so their energy and effort in containing Paul and disrupting Phoenix’s offense levels the playing field. Apart from Deandre Ayton, who finished with 23 points on 78.5 percent field goal shooting, the rest of the starters made only a combined 34.2 percent of their shot attempts. The rest of the Suns bench arguably got the best looks in the game with the outcome decided.
Through four games, Jones has averaged 36.5 minutes per game in this series and that also comes as he has not been an offensive albatross. His 11.0 points per game on 50 percent field goal shooting are better marks than his regular season numbers, but that he made 42.9 percent of his 3-point attempts (compared to the 33.7 percent in the regular season) certainly was a welcome development for the Pelicans.
In the last two games against Phoenix, however, Jones has failed to knock down a 3-pointer and has taken his game largely inside. Nevertheless, he has even allowed his offense (in part, of course, through his defense) to draw the ire of Paul and the Suns.
He has also endeared himself with New Orleans and those who love the old-school playoff mentality with how he ignored Paul’s hand.
Herb Jones earned his spot with the New Orleans Pelicans with his play in the regular season, but he has stamped his class on a larger stage with his efforts in the postseason. Regardless of when their season ends, it’s safe to say that the future is bright for New Orleans. The foundational pieces are in place and with Jones in the fold, the defensive mentality will be there for future trips to the playoffs.