The New Orleans Pelicans’ impromptu September mini-camp in Nashville after the devastation of Hurricane Ida drew headlines for the one player who didn’t show up: Zion Williamson. But as the outside world fixated on the supposed franchise player’s previously unreported foot surgery, the rest of the Pelicans players were witnessing the birth of a three-word phenomenon that would soon be unleashed on their unsuspecting opponents.
NOT ON HERB.
Herb is Herbert Jones, the unheralded rookie from Alabama taken with the No. 35 pick in the 2021 NBA draft. Defense was his calling card in college, where he won SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. But he wasn’t expected to earn regular rotation minutes this season, even after he showed flashes in Summer League.
That is, until the Pelicans players saw him up close in Nashville. Jones didn’t just impress with his defensive aptitude. He put the clamps on each of his many individual matchups and enveloped the court whenever his man didn’t have the ball. Teammates began chanting NOT ON HERB when someone dared challenge him. It was less a rallying cry and more a simple statement of fact. “I don’t know who coined it, but it just kind of came naturally, because it’s true,” college and pro teammate Kira Lewis Jr. told Pelicans reporter Jim Eichenhofer in October.
The injury-riddled Pelicans struggled to start the season, but Jones was a bright spot after moving into the starting lineup in the team’s second game. A month later, Jones harassed Jazz star Donovan Mitchell into a 6-of-21 shooting performance in a surprise Pelicans road win on Black Friday. That was when first-year coach Willie Green confirmed the existence of the long-rumored catch phrase.
“We have a saying,” the Pelicans’ coach told reporters. “‘Not on Herb.’”
Since then, NOT ON HERB has taken on a life of its own. It’s a popular hashtag, a T-shirt, an in-arena graphic, another T-shirt, yet another T-shirt, and surely more to come. Legions of opposing stars have suffered the indignity of the NOT ON HERB experience. LeBron James. Devin Booker. Paul George. Luka Dončić. Trae Young. And, of course, Mitchell, who has repeatedly raved about the Pelicans rookie.
Jones has breathed new life into a franchise whose future seemed clouded by Williamson’s questionable health. He helped the Pelicans overcome a 3-16 start to reach the play-in tournament as the No. 9 seed in the West; they play the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday as they try to crash the playoffs.
Jones is already the essential versatile wing defender that every great team needs, and perennial All-Star trips are not out of the question if his jump shot and nascent playmaking skills continue to develop. Beyond that, though, Jones’s rise has advanced the Pelicans to the cutting edge of a significant leaguewide defensive evolution.
Since 2014, when the Warriors changed the game with their unparalleled 3-point shooting, NBA defenses have struggled to cover twice as much space on the court with the same number of players. The more “pace-and-space” raised scoring efficiency to new heights, the more teams realized that mastering one pick-and-roll strategy was insufficient. The only way to get on the offense’s level was to be fluent in multiple schemes. Versatile, switchable defenders were once seen as the panacea to the NBA’s offensive explosion. Now, it’s clear they’re just one piece of the puzzle, albeit a vital one.
The effect of that realization is that NBA defenses are increasingly merging man-to-man and zone principles to create ever-changing alignments that mirror the complexity of an NFL coverage. The murky 2022 Defensive Player of the Year race, which includes no obvious favorite and at least half a dozen candidates who span the positional spectrum, is a reflection of this ongoing trend. When effective team defense requires more five-man coordination than ever before, any exercise that attempts to assign credit or blame to an individual is fruitless.
The modern lockdown perimeter defender, then, must be able to shut down many types of players on the ball and address critical threats off it. He must, in other words, play exactly like the guy who got passed up 34 times by nearly two dozen teams in the 2021 NBA draft.
Jones is certainly capable of defending many types of stars. He has spent at least 10 minutes guarding 17 players this season, including point guards like Mitchell, Young, Ja Morant and De’Aaron Fox; high-scoring off-guards like Booker and Zach LaVine; and powerful wings like James, Dončić, Anthony Edwards and Pascal Siakam. Only five players1 rank higher in BBall Index’s “Matchup Difficulty” scale, which combines player tracking data, opponent usage rates and the site’s own player rating metric.
The variety of Jones’s one-on-one assignments is as telling as the names. Shutting down slithery guards and oversized wings alike requires a combination of physical skills that often work against each other. Long arms are a must to contest shots, but lanky players tend to have high centers of gravity that leave them vulnerable to screens and tight drives to the hoop. Players with strong lower bodies, on the other hand, often lack the freakish wingspan to contest shots and/or the lean torsos to slip through the tiny windows between the ball-handlers and their screeners.
Jones’s physical frame gives him the best of all worlds. His 7-foot wingspan looms in all directions and is especially deadly when recovering after getting beat. He can also use his slight frame to get over screens, blowing up entire possessions and frustrating superstars to no end. According to Second Spectrum data, only Desmond Bane of Memphis gets taken out of the play by a screen less often than Jones.2 On top of all that, Jones’s hip mobility allows him to absorb most drivers’ forward momentum without bringing his arms down for fouls.
But while Jones’s on-ball defense is already excellent as a rookie, his off-ball defense is what might make him a revolutionary perimeter defender.
Since the NBA removed the illegal defense rule in 2001, the traditional defensive archetypes of the lockdown one-on-one defender and the towering rim protector have been expanded to include a third category of new-age big men who switch onto perimeter players and roam off non-shooters to fortify the back line. Draymond Green is its founding father, and Jones’s fellow rookie Evan Mobley is its newest member.
A telling term for this group is a cross-sport one: free safety. The job of a free safety in football isn’t to guard a single receiver or just pick one up when he enters that zone. It’s to act as the last line of defense, offer over-the-top support to vulnerable matchups and address any unexpected space that needs to be covered. Nominal big men like Green, Mobley and Giannis Antetokounmpo often guard non-threats so they can play “free safety,” disrupting offenses from the back line before surging out from the rim when deemed necessary.
Jones shares much in common with other “free safeties” — including a football background he’s repeatedly cited in interviews. (You’ll be stunned to learn he played defensive back in high school.) But while NBA free safeties begin their operations near the rim, Jones roams in driving and passing lanes on the perimeter. He stalks the supply lines teams use to get to the rim, whether via the dribble or the pass. He’s less like a free safety and more like a cornerback toggling between man and, say, Cover 2.
Jones’s remarkable “stocks” numbers — or steals plus blocks — reflect his outside-in brand of disruption. He is one of 18 rookies ever to post at least 120 steals and 50 blocks in a season, Nobody in the entire NBA, rookie or otherwise, has more combined steals, blocks and deflections this season.
The variety of Jones’s takeaways is as impressive as the volume. He snatches dribbles from the side, intercepts passes from behind, strips the ball on gathers from all directions and swats all types of shots. He forces turnovers in one-on-one situations, defending either half of a pick-and-roll, and jumps passing lanes. He pokes the ball away after staying in front of his man, when anticipating a dribble or pass, or recovering after getting beat on an initial move. He can instantly convert defense into offense.
Jones has defied the rookie learning curve, cementing his place as one of the league’s most annoying perimeter pests. In March, Mitchell admitted that he had to “game plan” for Jones’s defense, flipping the concept of the defense reacting to a scorer on its head. Mitchell’s claim is difficult to prove statistically, but that hasn’t stopped sites like BBall Index from trying. According to their numbers, Jones is the only player in the league to rank in the 90th percentile or better in matchup difficulty, passing lane defense,3 deflections per 75 possessions, 3-point contests per 75 possessions and its “pickpocket rating,” defined as lost ball steals per 75 possessions. He’s also ranked 17th in FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR.
As is the case for many burgeoning stoppers, Jones’s upside depends greatly on his offensive development. The utility of a great defender fades if he is too limited on the other end to stay on the floor. Just ask Matisse Thybulle, whose offensive struggles limit his court time despite the 76ers’ desperate need for his elite perimeter defense.
But even if Jones’s offense stagnates, he already represents an increasingly essential fourth archetype of elite NBA defender: those who can shut down perimeter space rather than individual perimeter players. These types of players include several known wing stoppers (Thybulle, Mikal Bridges, Dorian Finney-Smith, Aaron Gordon, Gary Payton II, to name a few), some current or potential All-Stars (Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum, Jrue Holiday, Anthony Edwards) and the entire Toronto Raptors’ rotation. As long as NBA possessions extend beyond the 3-point line, these outside-in rovers will be fixtures in the great NBA defenses of the future.
Most players have to learn to thrive in this new role, but not Herb Jones. He was a natural from the minute he stepped onto an NBA practice court. The Pelicans knew it in September. Now the rest of the league knows it, too.
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