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Jaxson Hayes, a walking highlight reel, could provide New Orleans Pelicans several timely sparks in Orlando

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Can a rangy, raw rookie wind up the ultimate dark horse contributor in a few months time?

NBA: Utah Jazz at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

From the moment the New Orleans Pelicans made Jaxson Hayes their eighth overall pick at the 2019 NBA Draft, he’s drawn attention. Rocking a Sideshow Bob necklace with 1,000 stones and a matching head of hair, Hayes showed he has more than enough personality, posting raucous highlights just two weeks later at Las Vegas Summer League.

“I don’t know what stands out to people more: the overall verticality that he gets or how quickly and explosively he gets off the floor,” David Griffin said in June. “His second jump is mind-numbing.”

Griffin went on to compare Hayes explosiveness with that of former Phoenix Suns star Shawn Marion, while possessing the size and hands of teammate Amare’ Stoudemire.

But while Hayes has continued to rack up the highlights befitting of that lofty praise, we’ve yet to see him make any discernible impact on winning. Prematurely forced into action due to injuries suffered by Zion Williamson and Derrick Favors, Hayes appeared in 20 or more minutes in 16 of 17 games between November 16th and December 17th.

On the surface the returns looked good with a line of 10.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 25.3 minutes per game. After winning three of those first four contests during that span though, the Pelicans would go on to lose their next 13 because the defense cratered (114.9 rating). During this period, opponents averaged over 117 points per game, shot 47.7% from the field and 38.8% from behind the three-point line, and found themselves at the free throw line almost 20 times a game.

“We don’t get nearly enough stops, and one of the reasons for that is while Jaxson has been spectacularly positive in a lot of ways, he’s also...he’s learning how to actually play at this kind of level minute after minute and to bring it defensively minute after minute,” Griffin said. “He’s been thrown into a situation that was really unfair to him. You might remember at one time we talked about he might be a redshirt for the season, and now he’s having to play a focal role as a defender on this team.”

“At 19, his body is still developing,” Gentry said at the time. “The more he’s out there, the more I think it will help.”

With Hayes getting a heavy dose of minutes and entrusted to limit competition in the paint, the Pelicans struggled immensely. Once Favors returned, the defense went on to post a 109.4 defensive rating from December 18th through March 8th (36 games), good for eighth in the NBA over that period.

“When Derrick Favors is healthy, he does that,” Griffin said. “Jaxson Hayes doesn’t have that nuance yet, and so you see that when he’s in this situation. But, like Brandon (Ingram), Jaxson’s going to do whatever it takes to be successful.”

Favors impact can’t be overstated, and yet we’ve seen enough from Hayes to show the jaw-dropping potential that made him a top-ten lottery selection.

Offensively, Hayes quickly emerged as one of the most deadly transition finishers in the NBA scoring in the 98.8th percentile (1.6 points per possession) and 94th in points per 100 shot attempts (136.9). Hayes is uniquely suited to Gentry’s run-and-gun style offense that sports the NBA’s eighth-fastest pace despite his extensive frame and 7’4” wingspan. Hayes glides across the floor in a way few bigs can, and possesses soft hands capable of making plays in traffic.

He’s also the only rookie in NBA history to shoot 66 percent from the field and 63 percent from the free throw line while scoring at least 400 points and 200 rebounds - and one of seven players EVER. The other six were 24 or older. Hayes is only 19 years old.

Hayes isn’t just suited to transition scoring. He was just as scary in the pick-and-roll, ranking 12th in frequency and second in free-throw frequency. He quickly formed a unique bond with JJ Redick in that action as the two complemented each other’s off-ball actions perfectly. And of course, Hayes is one of the best at the rim, grading in the 98th percentile, with 91 percent of his shots coming at the cup. With great length, special hands and that explosive bounce, why take shots anywhere else for now?

There are many other parts of Hayes’ game on the offensive end that will need refinement if he’s to run with Zion and the starters a bit more regularly. He’s been prone to careless mistakes, typically of a rookie. And yet, he’s shown glimpses of being able to run actions from the top of the key.

The Pelicans seem content to let Hayes discover the game from the bench, watching and learning from some of the veterans and elder statesmen like fellow rookie Nicolo Melli. Over the last 15 games, Hayes totaled 71 minutes in ten games, 11th on the team and only ahead of Jahlil Okafor (22 minutes) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (seven).

“Garbage time is another man’s opportunity to find his rhythm and confidence,” Antonio Daniels said. “Coaches used to tell us, if you’re in the end of the game like that, you can find your stroke.”

Melli’s role expanded once the Pelicans added Zion, garnering 22.3 minutes per game over the last 15 after playing just 16.1 between November 16th and December 17th. The fit is just better. Melli’s role as a floor-spacer accentuates Zion’s current skill set as a finisher and low-post bulldog.

With both Hayes and Zion needing to operate in the post and at the dunker’s spot, the floor shrinks to an untenable level. This could change in time as each’s game expands.

The Pelicans will probably need Hayes when the season resumes in Orlando. The rotation may shorten with every one of the eight games carrying the weight of a playoff contest, but health or foul trouble could limit that plan. It’s also worth wondering about the conditioning of some players. Derrick Favors rarely looked 100% physically all season. We know Hayes can run the floor without breaking a sweat, but what kind of game shape will the others be in? Will they be ready to play 30-35 minutes per game following three months of quarantine and participating in four weeks of practice?

If forced into action, Hayes will need to display improvement on the defensive end, both physically and mentally. We’ve seen glimpses of his effect as a help defender and shot-blocker. If we can put those tools a little more together, he may be ready for select matchups that may benefit the Pelicans.

“I don’t think anything tops the experience of being in the game,” Gentry said. “Learning from your mistakes or just figuring out what you can do to help the team in a positive standpoint. Hopefully this is something that can help us down the road.”

Can he crack the rotation?

The minutes are there for the taking. Josh Hart and JJ Redick should have the sixth and seventh spots off the bench on lockdown. But after that? If the coaching staff wants to explore a nine-man rotation, who should join the regulars?

Melli really came on as a floor spacer, shooting 39.1 percent from three since after Zion Williamson’s debut. Like Hayes, Melli was exposed defensively on numerous occasions and was one of just two players to score a negative net rating alongside Zion while playing more than ten minutes beside him. (E’Twaun Moore was the other.)

Still, filling out the rest of a nine-man rotation likely means including Melli and another. Could it be Kenrich Williams, a player who understands defensive responsibility? Maybe Frank Jackson, someone Alvin Gentry favored down the stretch in small ball lineups?

Kenrich’s effect as a perimeter defender is notable and could be strategic in specific situations though he struggled badly offensively, shooting just 34 percent from the field on four shots in 22 minutes per game. We learned at summer league that the coaching staff is comfortable with him in the game due to his penchant for finding the right spots on both ends, provided he remained aggressive throughout.

Jackson suffered through his share of disappointments, but he seemed to be rounding into more confident form before the season was suspended due to Covid-19. He enjoyed good efficiency on his perimeter jumper in February and March and the coaching staff entrusted him with slowing down good opposing backcourt scorers.

These two players may be more dependable at this stage and deserve first crack at meaningful minutes. But opportunity may present itself for Hayes if he can start living up to the lofty goals Griffin set for him. No one should expect good production on a consistent basis, but Hayes could turn the tide of an important game. His penchant for highlights can shift momentum and potentially give the New Orleans bench a boost it needs in times of droughts.

The Pelicans have promised patience with their eighth overall pick, but if Hayes’ awareness and recognition has improved during this down time, he may give the coaching staff a weapon off the bench that opponents may not expect in a couple months time.