TUSCALOOSA — Prior to his injury, Herb Jones may as well be known as Alabama’s Hoover vacuum for how much he had to do the dirty work and clean up his teammates’ defensive mistakes.
It’s because of that extra effort that the junior wing leads the Crimson Tide in most defensive category, including deflections (62), floor dives (23) and charges taken (18), as well as ranking third on the team in steals (20) and blocks (11).
As such, the 6-foot-7 Jones has also laid claim to the team’s postgame “Hard Hat” award, presented after each game to the player with the most “blue-collar” points. He’s won the award a team-high 11 times already — which is nearly three-times better than the next closest contender (sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr. has won it four times) — thanks to a commanding 418 “blue-collar” points on the season.
But with its diligent vacuum effectively in the shop for the next few weeks after Jones underwent wrist “successful” wrist surgery Saturday morning, Alabama is in dire need of a defensive replacement. Of course, as is the case with any trustworthy cleaning appliance, that’s never a simple task.
“It affects us a lot. Guys really have to step up harder and play defense at a higher level,” junior wing John Petty Jr. said Monday. “That’s a guy that takes away mistakes, who comes in and gives you his all. … His absence really affects us, but we’ve got his back and we’re going to do the best we can until he comes back.”
Jones is expected to miss “around three weeks,” which would mean, at best, he could return by late February, two weeks before the end of the regular season.
Of course, by that point, depending on what happens during the pivotal three-week stretch in between — during which Alabama (12-9, 4-4 SEC) plays Georgia and Auburn in back-to-back road games before hosting LSU and Texas A&M — it might not matter.
Which is why it’s imperative that other players pick up their game in the meantime, especially as the Tide enters the back end of its conference schedule beginning with Tuesday night’s (6 p.m.) home game against Tennessee (12-9, 4-4 SEC) inside Coleman Coliseum.
“We’re not changing a whole lot, I think other guys just have to step up,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said Monday.
Key among those in line to shoulder more responsibility, will be Petty, who Oats has described as Alabama’s best “two-way player” averaging 15.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game this season.
Without Jones, Petty will have to be especially proficient defensively, and will likely be slotted to guard the opposing team’s stretch-4 wing as well as being the Tide’s designated “clean-up guy” in much the same way Jones was.
Petty, who is also long and rangy defensively like Jones, is often matched up against the opposing team’s best wing player, with Jones slotted to cover the 4-man, which in turn allows him to play more zone defense than man-to-man. The combination of the two playing on the court together has been the key to much of Alabama’s defensive success so far this season.
But with Petty taking over that zone defensive role, that would require someone else to handle his man-to-man duties and defend the opposing team’s best guard/wing, and that could very well be freshman guard Jaden Shackelford.
Offensively, Jones’ absence forces junior forward Alex Reese to play more at the 4 as opposed to a stretch-5 role he’s been working at most of this season, which would leave junior Galin Smith and redshirt freshman Javian Davis as the lone options at the 5 or center spot.
“That last game I had to step up a couple of times and guard who we would have Herb matched up on,” Reese said. “It’s tough, losing Herb, we want him back (as soon as possible), … but we’ve just got to step up as leaders and keep pushing forward.”
That includes the role players like freshman wing Jaylen Forbes, who Oats said should see his minutes increase in Jones’ absence.
But where the loss of Jones will be felt most drastically is as the team’s vocal leader on the court.
“You miss Herb both his play on the floor, but you also miss some of his leadership (on the court) getting guys to play hard,” Oats said. “When a guy plays as hard as Herb plays and does all the blue-collar stuff Herb does, when he talks, you’re going to listen. When he tells guys we’ve got to guard, we’ve got to guard.”
That’s where veterans like Petty and Lewis Jr. might have to break out of their box some and make themselves heard more during games.