Herbert Jones earning respect from NBA peers for his defensive performance, mentality

The case for Herbert Jones to be part of the NBA’s All-Rookie first team has been building all season, but that’s not good enough for Willy Hernangomez. He wants more.

After watching another outstanding defensive performance by Jones vs. Utah on Friday – the Alabama product helped limit Utah star guard Donovan Mitchell to 5/18 shooting – Hernangomez launched his own “Herb for ROY’ campaign. During his postgame press conference, the New Orleans reserve center was also looking for others to join the cause.

“You guys can help, because I think Herb should be in the conversation for Rookie of the Year,” Hernangomez told local reporters. “It’s not only about points. It’s everything else he does.”

It’s too bad the NBA’s annual ROY vote isn’t conducted by players (broadcasters and writers comprise the panel), because it hasn’t taken Jones long to earn immense respect from his colleagues. Among various Pelicans opponents, Mitchell has commented postgame about Jones’ ahead-of-his-years knack at the defensive end and overall potential.

“Herb has earned that. He’s earned their respect,” Pelicans head coach Willie Green said of Jones receiving praise from NBA players. “The way he carries himself, all of our guys respect what he does. He’s just continuing to solidify who he is as a basketball player. The sky’s the limit for him.”

“He’s ahead of the curve,” Pelicans guard CJ McCollum said. “As he kind of figures the NBA out, figures out coverages and tendencies, he’s only going to get better.”

As Hernangomez noted, Jones’ rookie contributions for New Orleans (27-36) have gone well beyond the scorebook. The 23-year-old doesn’t quite average double digits in scoring (9.4 ppg), but he’s shown steady improvement on offense and is tied for 10th in the NBA in steals average (1.5). Friday’s outing against Utah was the quintessential #NotOnHerb night – he only took four shots and scored two points, but posted four assists and three steals, while serving as a menace to the Jazz’s offense during 27 minutes on the floor. As they frequently do, the Pelicans won Jones’ minutes, this time by a 21-point margin

“It was phenomenal,” McCollum said Saturday of Jones' work on defense, prior to the team traveling to Denver ahead of Sunday’s game. “He gave (Utah) fits, not just on the ball, but off the ball, rotating, being in the gaps, getting steals, deflections. He’s a special player. Obviously he’s very young, but the sky’s the limit for his talent.”

“I keep saying this,” Mitchell offered postgame, “Herb Jones is solid. He deserves his flowers. He’s only a rookie.”

In less than a month since joining New Orleans via a trade from Portland, McCollum has noticed some of the unique aspects of Jones’ personality and mentality, things that may contribute to the second-round draft pick being able to step in immediately and help an NBA team win games. Since returning from some well-deserved downtime in his native Alabama during the All-Star break, Jones has been given the type of defensive responsibility rarely asked of a rookie. That’s helped New Orleans rank No. 1 in the NBA since Feb. 24 in efficiency at that end of the floor,  rolling to decisive wins over Phoenix, the Lakers, Sacramento and Utah.

“He’s an old soul,” McCollum said of Jones. “Very laidback, mature. He has a veteran approach to the game. Works hard, does his stuff every day to figure out ways to improve. Most rookies don’t understand the concept of defense. They don’t get the assignment of guarding the best player. He’s had to go guard Devin Booker, LeBron (James), (De’Aaron) Fox, (Donovan) Mitchell (in the last four games). You name it, he’s had that responsibility and done a tremendous job.”

Hernangomez may be recruiting anyone who’ll listen to join his “Herb for ROY” push, but one person who probably won’t partake in hyping the rookie’s candidacy for the award is Jones himself. The 6-foot-8, 210-pound forward comes across as soft-spoken and reserved in interviews, particularly when he’s asked about his own game.

“He doesn’t like the attention,” McCollum said. “He just wants to do his job and go home. He’s from Alabama: Slow living, put your work in, enjoy your time with your family, and go home. I understand it.”

Green: “It’s great to have his peers speak that highly of him. That’s the ultimate reward. And I’m sure Herb feels the same way, but he’s not going to say it.”