First things first. Let’s get the name right. Pelicans rookie Herbert Jones may not quibble if you shorten his given name to Herb, but at least one person in the family would appreciate it if you would skip the shortcut.
“I’ve always called him Herbert,” said his father, Walter Jones Sr.
Herbert is a mature name befitting a young man with an old soul, the SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year for the University of Alabama’s 2021 SEC regular-season and tournament champs. The 6-foot-6, 206-pound Swiss Army knife led the Crimson Tide in an array of unglamorous statistical categories: rebounds, assists, steals, blocks – as well as deflections, floor dives, Blue Collar Points and Hard Hat Awards.
Now retired, Walter Jones Sr. was a high school coach who, along with his wife, Verlander, a longtime educator, raised not one but two state players of the year in Alabama who went on to play college basketball. As parents, they get plenty of credit, but if Herbert is a chip off the old block, Walter Sr. said, it’s his father, Herbert’s grandfather, for whom the young man is named.
“He’s a lot like his granddad,” Walter Sr. said.
Herbert Jones Sr. dropped out of school at 12 when his own father died to help take care of his siblings and his mom. He later took care of his own children so well, Walter said, that he and his eight brothers and five sisters all graduated from college.
“He never was outspoken,” Walter said. “He got up every day and went to work, and when the work day was done, he came home.”
Sounds a lot like his grandson.
Antwan Butler coached Herbert Jones his final two years at Hale County High School. Herbert had previously played at Sunshine High for his dad, getting on the court in spot duty as early as the seventh grade. He and older brother Walter Jr., who competed so ferociously as kids their dad had to intervene at times, were teammates. They led Sunshine to the Class 1A state championship game in the final game for Walter Jr. as a high school player, for Sunshine as a high school. The school was going to shut down, and the Jones family did everything in its power to send it out on a high note, but the Tigers lost in overtime.
“It was heart-wrenching,” Walter Sr. said. “I so wanted to do something positive at the end for that school and that community.”
From there it was off to the big local school, Class 4A Hale County, with Walter Sr. as an assistant coach and Herbert as a junior. Butler, the head coach, was thrilled.
“I was jumping for joy with that kind of player coming to our program,” he said. His enthusiasm accelerated during the first week of school early one morning before classes when he spotted the new kid “running around the school”. Doing conditioning. On his own. I didn’t tell him to do that.”
Butler said there were “tons of times” that Herbert would get to school at 5 a.m. with his dad to get up shots, and on the rare occasion when he would struggle in a game, he’d hit the gym afterward to get back to work.
“I never saw a kid that dedicated at that age,” Butler said.
Dedicated and motivated to go one step farther than Sunshine High had gone in his final game there. As a senior, Herbert led Hale County to the 4A state championship game – and a victory. He later was named the state’s 4A player of the year. What does Butler remember most about his star’s final high school game?
“He guarded the other team’s best player the whole fourth quarter to close it out.”
There comes a point in every dad’s life when he realizes he’s no longer the only apple of his son’s eye. For Walter Jones Sr., it came early.
Walter had taken both sons to a University of Alabama basketball day camp where Crimson Tide players ran individual skill groups. Herbert found himself in the group led by point guard Antoine Pettway while Walter Jr. landed with forward Chuck Davis. On the way home from the camp, Walter Jr. declared himself a Davis fan while Herbert wouldn’t stop talking about Pettway. Herbert was 5 years old.
“My ego got hurt a little bit,” the elder Jones joked.
Fast forward a decade and change. Herbert was a top 100 national recruit. Pettway was (and is) an Alabama assistant coach. Despite that connection and his family’s Crimson Tide fandom – “it’s been Roll Tide here a long time,” his dad said – Herbert kept an open mind and took official visits to five schools: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and Georgia Tech.
Philip Pearson, a former Alabama player and current UAB assistant, recruited Herbert for Georgia. The first time Pearson visited, they spoke in the high school library. The coach came away impressed on a personal level, a first impression that only strengthened over time.
“Recruiting conversations with him were at a higher level,” Pearson said. “If he said to call at 7, he would pick up at 7. If he said he’d call back, he’d call back. His size and length would get your attention in the SEC, but after you talked to him and his parents, you knew this guy was made of the right stuff, and you wanted him on your roster.”
As a versatile, dependable, highly skilled but team-first individual, Pearson, said, Jones reminds him of former Alabama star Keith Askins, who played nine years with the Miami Heat and has spent the last three decades with that organization in a variety of roles.
“Size, length, demeanor, intelligence, IQ,” Pearson said. “Herbert has it all. We could make a long list.”
Eventually, Pettway’s persistence and the Jones’ family’s long affection for Alabama paid off for the Crimson Tide. Pettway remembers his recruiting visits to the Hale County gym at 5 a.m. and Herbert’s official visit to Alabama, where he did something few recruits do. He insisted on working out each day. He remembers Herbert playing with a broken wrist as a junior and grabbing 17 rebounds against LSU with one hand, his off hand.
Pettway doesn’t remember 5-year-old Herbert in his group at Alabama camp, but he knows the story and says, “I’m glad I did a good job at that camp.”
Pettway gave Herbert a nickname that caught on at Alabama: “I called him Turbo. Never gets tired. Goes one speed. Full speed. Every drill. Every day.”
The Alabama program would suffer the growing pains of a coaching transition from Avery Johnson to Nate Oats, but Jones’ maturation as a player and leader helped propel the Tide to its best season in decades a year ago. Oats has raved about his All-American, most recently after the 35th overall draft pick signed his contract with the Pelicans: “He does everything the right way – high character, great teammate, incredible work ethic, high IQ and so on. I could not be happier for him and his family.”
The family will stick together at the next level. Walter Sr. said his older son will move to New Orleans to be there for his younger brother during his rookie season. Meanwhile, Dad is still processing Herbert’s growth from multi-sport youth athlete, who wanted to be a quarterback but was better suited to safety – where he read offenses like the basketball ballhawk he would become – to NBA rookie.
“I’m still waiting for somebody to tap me on the shoulder and wake me from this dream,” Walter Sr. said. “It gives me chills right now talking about it.”