LOS ANGELES – It didn’t take more than a few minutes of Nicolo Melli and Jahlil Okafor sharing the practice court with Jaxson Hayes this fall to recognize something NBA highlight viewers have come to understand over the past few days: Hayes’ athleticism, particularly at 6-foot-11, is off the charts, capable of generating eye-popping plays at the rim. Elevated to starting center due to New Orleans frontcourt injuries, Hayes averaged 26.9 minutes and 9.0 points on the Pelicans’ three-game road trip, while throwing down a few dunks that were immediately ticketed for SportsCenter. There was the flying one-handed slam he had off a Lonzo Ball pass at Utah, followed later in the same half by a preposterous reverse putback dunk off a Jrue Holiday miss.
“His athleticism is unbelievable,” Melli said of the fellow NBA rookie’s gifts. “You haven’t seen anything yet, because I’ve seen it every day in practice. When he develops his skills, it’s going to be unbelievable. The potential he has is just crazy.”
“He can jump through the roof,” Okafor said Sunday, shaking his head. “His potential is as high as he jumps. He’s only 19, but you can see how he changes the game, and this is only his (14th) game in the league. It’s really exciting to think about.”
With three DNPs at the outset of the regular season, Hayes initially seemed to be headed for the NBA version of a “redshirt” year, something that’s become a bit more common as the crop of incoming rookies continues to be so relatively young and inexperienced. However, in a one-sided defeat to Golden State on Oct. 28, the University of Texas product played 24 minutes, mostly in the second half, and produced 19 points. Amid injuries to Derrick Favors (back) and Okafor (ankle), Hayes has logged at least 20 minutes in six straight games, picking up valuable experience along the way. The Cincinnati native only played one college season for the Longhorns and did not focus exclusively on basketball until his final two high school years.
Hayes has 10 blocks over those past six games of significant playing time, including three-block outings vs. Golden State and Portland, using his leaping ability and length to smother shots, highlighted by a rejection of a Carmelo Anthony dunk attempt.
“He has a lot of potential,” Holiday said. “He’s a freak of nature, one of those mutants. Defensively, I don’t think he knows how good he can be (yet). He can make an imprint on this league and make a lot of money, just off of defense. Adding that offensive quality to him will make him even more (money).”
In the early stages of his offensive development, Hayes – who averaged 10.0 points a game last season as a Texas freshman – is relying mostly on a diet of dunks, often via alley oops or offensive rebounds. As a result, he’s shooting 62.5 percent from the field, a constant threat to catch a lob pass when Pelicans guards penetrate and draw Hayes’ defender.
“His athleticism by the rim is crazy,” Holiday said. “He’s always, always going to be a problem (for interior defenses).”
The eighth overall pick in the ’19 NBA draft also has impressed with his relentlessness in beating opposing bigs down the court, something he tries to capitalize on in many matchups.
“I know I should be able to get one or two buckets a game, just off outrunning someone down the court,” he said. “I just need to hustle, that’s all it is.”
“He reminds me so much of LaMarcus (Aldridge), when we had him in Portland,” Phoenix first-year head coach Monty Williams said prior to Thursday’s game. “He runs rim to rim, the whole game, and never gets tired. Watching him (Nov. 19 against Portland), offensive rebounding, rim to rim in transition, (he is a) long, dynamic diver. He’s a good young player. You can see why he’s on the floor: He’s earned some minutes.”
Hayes is quick to acknowledge that he still has a great deal to learn about the NBA and how he can continue to improve. One long-term focus is adding weight and muscle – at 220 pounds, he sometimes can be moved off his spot at both ends of the floor. He’s also dealt with foul trouble, a bigger area of concern while starting and playing greater minutes. Still, the Pelicans are very encouraged by some of what he’s shown so far, with so little NBA experience under his belt. To a man, they’ve been complimentary of Hayes’ attitude and work ethic.
“I think he’s going to get better,” New Orleans fifth-year head coach Alvin Gentry said. “There is nothing that can take the place of actually being out there and the experience of playing. He’ll grow in those ways. As a 19-year-old, his body is going to change tremendously in the next two or three years. That’s one of those situations where you can’t do anything except continue to work like he’s doing, put in the work, and you can see his body changing day after day.”
“I feel like this is crucial for him, to be able to play like this so early (in his career), and play some great minutes and really contribute to our team,” Holiday said. “He’s just understanding the game, (things like) being able to know positioning, understanding the rules a lot more, verticality, what you can do with your hands guarding people. But he’s super smart and super bright, and he’s willing to work. I feel like that’s showing. Throwing him in there, just to see what he can do, has been pretty good.”