Pelicans 2021 preseason profile: Herbert Jones

Even before he entered grade school, Herbert Jones experienced the adrenaline rush in anticipation of tip-off prior to a basketball game. When he was just 4 years old, Jones’ parents signed him up for a league in Alabama that featured elaborate pregame introductions, far beyond what you’d expect in youth hoops. Jones was immediately transfixed by the sport.

“They had a smoke machine going when the teams ran out of the tunnel,” Jones said, laughing at the memory of kids who couldn’t tie their sneakers being given that treatment. “When you’re 4 or 5 years old, you think you’re in the NBA when you get to do that.”

Now 22, Jones became an NBA player for real this summer, when New Orleans selected him in the second round of the draft, at No. 35 overall. He immediately began demonstrating why perhaps he should’ve been selected higher, after he’d capped his Alabama Crimson Tide career by earning 2020-21 SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards.

Jones impressed during NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, serving as a game-changing reserve who helped the Pelicans go 5-0. Then at September voluntary workouts in Nashville, he was given the nickname “Not On Herb,” due to his knack for making life difficult for whichever offensive player he’s guarding.

“It’s something he earned by no one scoring on him,” fellow Pelicans defending forward Naji Marshall said of the label.

“I don’t know who coined it, but it just kind of came naturally, because it’s true,” said guard Kira Lewis Jr., a college teammate of Jones in 2019-20.

Jones’ defensive ability also generated a nickname in summer league, when fellow 2021 New Orleans draftee Trey Murphy described what he saw Jones doing to offensive players.

“I came up with one that I thought I did a pretty good job with when I called him Herb ‘Straitjacket’ Jones,” Murphy said. “Because he’s an elite defender. Garrett Temple, who’s been in the league for like 40 years, he even said that he’s an elite defender already. Herb knows how to play, even blocks jump shots, which is a skill. It’s crazy.”

During Pelicans preseason, Jones delivered a few of his typical all-around stat lines, averaging 6.5 points, 1.2 steals and 0.8 blocks in only 20 minutes per game.

“He does everything to benefit winning,” Lewis said. “He’s going to do whatever you ask him. He wants to get better, so he’s going to be in the gym and he’s coachable.”

That coachability may come partly from the fact that Jones’ father, Walter Sr., coached his son as a youngster. Herbert credits Walter and his mother, Verlander, for getting him involved in basketball at an early age. In addition to that smoke machine that made for his triumphant arrival to the court as a 4-year-old, Herbert remembers quickly embracing the camaraderie and bond that’s part of being on a sports team.

“I just fell in love with the game,” Jones said of his childhood. “Especially playing with four other players and being part of a close-knit group.”