A second straight NBA draft has brought a University of Alabama player to New Orleans, one aspect of a growing connection between the Pelicans and that state, which is now also home to the franchise’s G League team in Birmingham. We caught up with writer Mike Rodak, who covers Alabama football and basketball for AL.com and The Birmingham News, to learn more about second-round pick Herbert Jones, who received multiple honors in the SEC last season on the circuit's best team.
Rodak explains why Alabama residents’ rooting interests are continue to learn toward the Pelicans, as well as how Jones’ previous sports background might make it less of a surprise that he’s excelled at the defensive end of the floor:
Pelicans.com: What was the general reaction in Alabama to Jones being picked No. 35 overall on Thursday, not only from the standpoint of where he was drafted, but also that he’s coming to relatively nearby New Orleans?
Rodak: I think it was around the spot in the draft where most expected Jones to be picked, although coach Nate Oats made the case afterward that he thought Jones should have been a first-round pick. Oats specifically said there were players picked in the 10-15 slots ahead of Jones that he thought were not as good as him. There were seven SEC players taken ahead of Jones, the SEC player of the year, and it is safe to assume some of those players were in that category for Oats. As for New Orleans, my first thought when he was drafted is that it’s an ideal situation for his family, which is from a small town in West Alabama. They’ve always been able to watch him play and he is still a drive down I-59 away.
Pelicans.com: Fellow Alabama player Kira Lewis Jr. obviously made his NBA debut with the Pelicans last season. Is there a growing group of fans in that area now starting to follow New Orleans much more closely?
Rodak: I think the additions of Lewis and Jones will help interest, although the biggest factor might be the Pelicans’ new G-League team in Birmingham, the Squadron. In my few years living in Birmingham, I don’t know if I have sensed a dominant NBA team – the Hawks, Pelicans and Grizzlies are all available on TV – but having the Squadron here could help push things toward the Pelicans.
Pelicans.com: What’s been behind the recent surge in Alabama players who are becoming pros? The Crimson Tide also had a lottery pick (Josh Primo to San Antonio) this year.
Rodak: There are a few factors at play here. First, Alabama was successful in recruiting under former coach Avery Johnson, bringing in some highly-rated players such as Collin Sexton, John Petty, Lewis and Jones. Second, Nate Oats’ NBA style of play has done well in developing those players (outside of Sexton, who was already in the NBA) into better pro prospects. Third, the success of Oats’ team last season – winning the SEC and making the Sweet 16 – helped elevate his players. Oats said part of the reason Primo, the star of Oats’ recruiting class last year, was picked by the Spurs was because he was part of a winning team last season.
Pelicans.com: As a junior, Jones played through a broken wrist for part of the season, a testament to his fortitude. New Orleans front-office members have stated recently that toughness is a necessity to add to the roster in 2021-22. How important was that attribute to Jones’ success as a player? He was named SEC Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year last season.
Rodak: At Buffalo and now Alabama, Oats’ staff has tracked “blue collar points” during games for taking charges, diving for loose balls, etc. that normally would not show up on the stat sheet. The winner each game gets a hard hat in the locker room to wear. Jones overwhelmingly led the team in blue collar points the past few seasons and it usually went without saying that he would win the hard hat. So, yes, toughness was the cornerstone of Jones’ tenure at Alabama. He will always be remembered for making critical free throws with his off hand during a game against LSU when his shooting wrist was in a cast. He dealt with a slew of other injuries, too, including a nagging lower back injury and dislocated finger last season, and an elbow injury as a junior. There was a point last season where Jones was so banged up we were asking Oats if it made more sense to sit Jones, but he kept playing through it.
Pelicans.com: Oats said recently that Jones was already good enough to play rotation minutes for an NBA playoff team this past season. How prepared might Jones be for this level as a rookie, based on his extensive college experience?
Rodak: Jones has always been praised for his maturity and basketball intelligence, and I think those qualities will go a long way to him getting on the floor as a rookie. There were never any questions about his work ethic or effort at Alabama, and if he can translate that into some success as a lock-down defender off the bench in the NBA, he should be valuable even early in his career.
Pelicans.com: What are the most underrated aspects of Jones’ game?
Rodak: A lot has and will be made of Jones’ shooting, and he ended his final season at Alabama on a particularly sour note by missing his final 20 three-point attempts as well as four key free throws in the closing minutes of an NCAA tournament loss to UCLA. But over the entirety of his senior season, he made some strides as a scorer that should not go unnoticed. He came out of the gate strong, reaching double digits in points in 13 of the first 17 games while showing some effectiveness as a three-point shooter.
Pelicans.com: What areas do you think he has the most room to make strides, or aspects of his game he may need to improve or adjust as he transitions to NBA competition?
Rodak: It will still be his shooting. That was the reason why he dropped into the second round and ultimately he will need to be at least an adequate shooter to see significant minutes in the NBA.
Pelicans.com: What’s one thing even diehard Alabama basketball fans might not know about Jones?
Rodak: I actually did not know this until Jones did several pre-draft interviews, but he actually played football growing up and had aspirations to be a defensive back. He credits that defensive mindset with shaping his mentality in basketball. Of course, should I really be surprised that a kid in Alabama grew up playing football?