25-under-25: Herb Jones is already a defensive game-changer

25-under-25, New Orleans Pelicans

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As a rookie, Herb Jones was already one of the most impactful defenders in the NBA. And the versatile forward is just getting started.

It’s generally a safe assumption that first-year NBA players will struggle on defense. As modern offenses create more space on the floor and use an increasingly wide range of set plays, it’s arguably more difficult than ever for young players to adjust to the speed, timing and complexity of NBA basketball.

This reality makes Herb Jones’ rookie season all the more impressive. Not since Kawhi Leonard has a player been this impactful this early as a perimeter defender, and save for Scottie Barnes and Evan Mobley, there wasn’t a rookie in the NBA who contributed more to his team’s on-court success last season than Jones.

The Pelicans were far from an elite defense last year, ranking 18th in points allowed per possession and 26th in halfcourt defense, but Jones was the driving force behind what moderate success they did have. New Orleans allowed four fewer points per 100 possessions (and was nearly 10 points per 100 better overall) with Jones on the court, and by the end of the season depended on him heavily to anchor its otherwise shaky wing defense.

Now, going into his second NBA season, Jones has evolved from an intriguing young player on a scrappy play-in team to a key member of a group that expects to make real noise in the postseason, and his two-way growth will heavily influence how good the Pelicans can be this year.

Great defenders react instantaneously to their opponents’ moves, but the best defenders get a step ahead by proactively dictating the terms of engagement. Jones has already placed himself in the latter category. He wasn’t just a solid on-ball stopper or sound help defender last year; he actively wrecked opposing offenses with his activity, feel and physical tools, making his opponents work for what they could usually take for granted.

He plays every bit as big as his 6-foot-8 frame and 7-foot wingspan suggests, and while many young wings have comparable measurables and athleticism, Jones imposes his physicality on the game as few others can. His block rate last season placed him in the 81st percentile among all forwards, per Cleaning the Glass, while his steal rate ranked in the 94th percentile.

Comparing Herb Jones to Kawhi Leonard is not as far-fetched as it sounds

Much like Leonard early in his career, Jones’ understated persona and quiet demeanor often belie the sheer force with which he plays. He’s stronger and more physical than his wiry frame might indicate, and held his own against bigger players who tried to post him up early last season. He’s almost clairvoyant in the way he anticipates the game, and his lightning-quick reaction time allows him to make plays 98 percent of his NBA peers can’t.

Jones might be the best in the NBA at digging down from the wing to strip drivers of the ball, and his ability to target the ball as it leaves a passer or dribbler’s hand is eerily reminiscent of Leonard:

One of Jones’ favorite tricks is the peel-switch, where he switches off of his man after a drive and recovers to the player his teammate helped off of to intercept the pass:

Jones routinely baits opponents into these kinds of bad passes by apparating into passing lanes from unexpected places and using his freakish arms to snare the ball in midair:

Even the cagiest ball-handlers must tread lightly around Jones, who pounces on live dribbles like a snake on its unassuming prey. Loose crossovers and lazy passes may as well be gift-wrapped extra possessions for the Pelicans, and Jones might already be the NBA’s pick-six king. That gave New Orleans a huge boost in transition offense in Jones’ minutes, and the Pelicans also defended significantly better at the rim with Jones on the floor.

What makes all this chaos-inducing activity so impressive is how Jones — unlike other prolific stealsmen in the NBA — still plays within his team’s defensive scheme. He somehow breaks the rules of conventional NBA defense without compromising the overall structure of New Orleans’ outfit. His gambles are always calculated and usually correct — aggressive without being overzealous, and opportunistic but never reckless. He knows exactly how far he can help off his man and still recover, how quickly he can get to a spot when the ball is in the air and, critically, where the ball and the opponent are going next.

Jones isn’t a great offensive player at this point in his career, though he did fit into the Pelicans’ system as an efficient, low-usage role player. He’ll likely never be a prolific scorer or playmaker, but he knows how to find easy shots within the flow of the offense and can be a solid extra passer with the ability to make plays off of one or two dribbles. He played well around CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram last season, though an improvement as a shooter could smooth out some of the rough edges between Jones and his Pelicans co-stars. He shot 34 percent from deep on low volume as a rookie, and opponents will continue to help off of him until he proves he can hit shots at an above-average rate. That could pose greater spacing concerns for New Orleans this season now that Zion Williamson is back and Jonas Valančiūnas, another non-shooter, still lurks in the paint.

Williamson’s return also means that Jones probably won’t have as much room to stretch his offensive game as other second-year players will. But he no longer needs that kind of leeway to prove himself as an NBA player. Even if he somehow never improves after his first season, Jones will be a perennial All-Defense candidate and an immensely valuable two-way player. And in all likelihood, he’ll grow into something far greater than the terror he already is.

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