NBA rookie wall never stopped former Alabama basketball star Herb Jones | Goodbread

Chase Goodbread
The Tuscaloosa News

Rookie wall? What wall?

Herb Jones had heard all about the NBA grind and the daunting challenge its rookies face in making a leap from the 30-plus games of an NCAA season to the 82-game NBA regular season. First-year players unaccustomed to it have been known to reach a point of exhaustion when their bodies reach the equivalent of the college season, with another 50 games staring them in the face.

The former Alabama star and Greensboro native never really felt it, despite this incredible disparity: in his last year at Alabama Jones played 33 games and 900 minutes. His first year with the New Orleans Pelicans, including playoffs: 84 games, 2,561 minutes.

Instead, he wanted more.

"I think we were capable of keeping it going, but it ended earlier than we wanted it to," Jones told me last week, referring to the Pelicans' first-round playoff loss to the Phoenix Suns, in which New Orleans pushed the Western Conference's top seed to a six-game series.

Apr 19, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Pelicans' Herb Jones (5) makes a three-pointer against the Suns during game two of the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs at Footprint Center.

Jones' first year in the NBA was an unmitigated success, primarily because of the defensive prowess he was known for at Alabama. His 130 steals led all NBA rookies and ranked third in the league, and he blocked 60 shots. He quickly developed into a starter because of his ability to defend from multiple positions, often against opponents' top scorers.

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His toughest defensive assignment?

"Kevin Durant," he said. "The guy plays like a guard, but he's like seven feet," Jones said. "He got me in foul trouble."

Meanwhile, Jones' offensive game flashed real potential in averaging 9.5 points per game. A career 60% free-throw shooter at Alabama, he jumped to 84% as an NBA rookie with help from assistant coach Fred Vinson, who tweaked his mechanics.

In the end, he was named to the NBA All-Rookie second-team, just a few votes shy of first team. Not bad for a guy carried the team-first attitude he was known for at Alabama straight into the pros. The highlight of his season? It wasn't pouring in a season-high 26 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Dec. 28. It was the Pelicans claiming the No. 8 playoff seed with a 105-101 road win over the Los Angeles Clippers in a play-in game on April 15.

Alabama forward Herb Jones (1) goes to the hoop against Auburn guard Devan Cambridge (35) Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Coleman Coliseum. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

His biggest challenge? It wasn't the rookie wall. It was, again, about team. And adapting to the shake-up of a seven-player trade with the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 8.

"For me, the adjustment was about figuring out how to complement guys on the team, and figure out what other guys wanted to do in certain situations. Learn what spots guys wanted to get to," Jones said. "Before the trade, I started figuring it out around the December. After the trade, it was toward the play-in game before I started to figure out my new teammates."

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Second-round NBA picks don't often make the splash that Jones did. It's akin to the last day of the NFL draft, where clubs are hoping for the best, not necessarily counting on major production. But any low expectations of Jones were miscalculated. The five players who beat him out for first-team All-Rookie honors were drafted No. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 8 overall. Jones just missed that cut as the No. 35 overall pick.

Rookie wall?

Herb Jones only heard about it.

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