Herb Jones-Led New Orleans Pelicans Defense Off To Fantastic Start

The New Orleans Pelicans have jumped out to a 2-0 start in the Western Conference standings for the second time in as many years. While the trio of Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Zion Williamson is fueling the offense splendidly once again, averaging 64 points per game and making 53.1 percent of their field goal attempts to begin the 2023-24 campaign, the team’s suffocating defense feels the more pertinent story this time round, with Herb Jones leading the way.

After holding Memphis to 104 points and New York to 87 points in the first two games, New Orleans sits atop the league with a 93.6 defensive rating. While some correctly pointed out the Grizzlies were without Ja Morant and Steven Adams, the Knicks were a fully healthy squad, one that finished with the fourth-best offensive rating last season.

It is true that New York was playing their third game in four nights and was on the second night of a back-to-back, but statistics show such rest disadvantages do not astronomically affect the outcomes. Moreover, the Knicks posted an 11-7 record last season when they suffered a rest disadvantage — they’re a proven Tom Thibodeau-tough team.

The Pelicans have stifled opponents through two games in part by following last season’s blueprint of limiting attempts in the restricted area and forcing opponents to shoot a low percentage from 3-point range.

Opponent FGA in Restricted AreaOpponent FG% in Restricted AreaOpponent 3PTAOpponent 3PT%
2022-2324.9 (8)71.2% (30)36.0 (23)33.9% (1)
2023-2420.5 (3)58.5% (6)40.0 (25)23.8% (1)
Via NBA.com/stats

If these early improvements hold true, the Pelicans defense could be on track to finish higher than last season’s sixth place ranking, especially if the rebounding returns to form and the turnovers are kept to a minimum, thereby limiting opponent transition opportunities. The brightest spot moving forward, however, might be the high degree of activity. Everyone that’s stepped onto the court has contributed positively to the defensive effort.

“Our defense was fantastic,” Willie Green said after Sunday’s practice about the victory over the Knicks. “We caused a lot of havoc, deflections, steals. It allowed us to get into transition and get some easy baskets.”

The Pelicans have stolen the ball 16 times through the two games, but what has really stood out is the amount of deflections. After finishing second with 16.2 deflections per game last season, the Pelicans have increased that total to 19.0 deflections. That’s impressive considering Jose Alvarado, Trey Murphy and Naji Marshall have yet to appear in a game, and additionally, sitting at the top of the individual leaderboard are several names never noted for their defensive prowess.

2023-24 2022-232021-22
CJ McCollum4.01.51.4 (Pelicans only)
Brandon Ingram3.01.71.4
Matt Ryan2.50.3 (Lakers/Timberwolves)N/A
Dyson Daniels2.01.5N/A
Kira Lewis2.00.71.2
Zion Williamson2.02.1N/A
Herb Jones1.53.43.1
Larry Nance Jr1.01.92.0 (Pelicans only)
Via NBA.com/stats

The amount of buy-in from the team has never been greater on the defensive end. It has honestly felt playoff-caliber. The question, of course, can this effort be somewhat sustained, especially from McCollum, Ingram and Williamson? According to Larry Nance Jr., there’s a real chance that the group remains incredibly competitive because everyone’s fully engaged.

“We’ve just got basketball players,” Nance said after last Thursday’s practice. “Just hoopers. No real pigeons right now. We’ve got BI, CJ and Z bought in on the defense end. Obviously, that’s a key for us, but like you said, if we can maintain fluidity and versatility on the defensive end, sixth defense last year, I don’t know what we’ll be this year…higher.”

The Pelicans have done a great job of mixing up their defensive coverages, strategically employing a zone defense at times and trapping key offensive scorers in others.

“In today’s NBA, you don’t want to show teams the same look over and over throughout the course of a game,” Green said after Sunday’s practice. “Being able to mix up a little zone, a little switching 1 through 5, trapping, blitzing, I think it’ll continue to throw teams off a bit.”

Everything obviously starts with Herb Jones. He immediately sets the tone by guarding an opponents’ most lethal scorer. Herb not only makes his defensive assignment’s life miserable, he always lends teammates a helping hand. Outside of thwarting legitimate-sized NBA centers, there’s no one better-suited in my opinion to switch all five positions and good luck trying to score when Jones is sitting in front of the rim.

Herb was credited with three blocks and two charges against the Knicks, but one can never gauge his full value from a regular boxscore. For instance, did you know that outside of Atlanta’s Jalen Johnson, Jones leads all non-bigs in shot contests so far, sitting ahead of Ausar Thompson, Jeremy Sochan and OG Anunoby?

Williamson believes Herb has taken a step forward defensively this season, saying “somehow he’s improving on defense. I didn’t think that was possible.” after defeating the Knicks.

“The biggest thing I’ve noticed with Herb is his endurance on defense,” Williamson later explained. “Since his rookie year, it’s improved a lot. He’ll fight through screens and not only fight through them but slip through them and be there. There was one late in {last night’s} game, I don’t know how he made the recovery but he was able to block a 3-point shot.”

That was an NBA All-Defensive Team worthy block of Josh Hart’s 3-point attempt. Jones registered 13 3-point blocks last season, fifth-most in the league.

“He’s just getting better and better,” Green said. “Each and every year he’s been here, he’s improving. I said it last night, Herb is a fantastic basketball player. He should be one of the top defensive players in the NBA and he’s showing it already night in, night out.”

Don’t sleep on Herb Jones’ chances of finally getting recognized for his exploits, especially if the New Orleans Pelicans continue to lock down opponents more strongly than a year ago while adding more W’s than L’s in the win-loss column.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunesSpotifyStitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel


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