Herb Jones’ path to play basketball for Alabama was solidified when the Greensboro native was just 5 years old.
It was around that time that Walter Jones Sr. took his two young sons to a Crimson Tide basketball camp just up the road to Tuscaloosa.
Crimson Tide players served as instructors, and Herb was placed into Antoine Pettway’s group while Walter Jones Jr. (age 7) was in Chuck Davis’ group.
After the one-day camp ended, the boys hopped in the back of the car and Jones Sr. drove his two boys to get a treat.
“They are in the back seat of the car and all I hear is Antoine Pettway this and Chuck Davis that,” Jones Sr. said. “From that point on whenever they played one-on-one, Walter played as Chuck Davis and Herb was Antoine Pettway.”
Fast-forward to several years later when Pettway, an assistant for the Crimson Tide, came to Greensboro to recruit Herb Jones, who matured into a 6-foot-8, all-star guard for Hale County.
“I knew when Alabama came... Herb's been an Alabama fan and an Antoine Pettway fan since he was 5 years old,” Jones Sr. said.
So, it was a no-brainer for Herb Jones to pick Alabama. That decision has paid big dividends as Jones leads the Crimson Tide into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
Jones and No. 2 seed Alabama face No. 10 seed UCLA in the East Regional semifinals Sunday (6:45 p.m. TBS).
You could see it coming
It's been a whirlwind 2020-21 season for Alabama, and Jones in particular. He was named SEC Player of the Year, SEC Defensive Player of the Year and third-team All-American. And he's the unquestioned leader of an Alabama team marching toward a Final Four berth.
Who could have predicted that?
Well, just about everyone who knows Jones saw this coming a long time ago.
“It’s something I’ve always seen,” said Kaddell Perry, Jones’ childhood friend and former Hale County teammate. “I knew he would be special at every level.”
Perry got to experience Jones’ penchant for hard work up close. About three times a week Jones and Perry hit the gym, sometimes as early as 4 a.m. There was always something to work on – free throws, rebounding, shooting, and of course, defense.
“He's going to do all the other stuff that no one else will do,” Perry said. “He's going to put in that extra work and extra hours in. You don’t have to worry about him. He’s going to get it done.”
It’s always been about hard work for Jones. It’s always been about perfecting the little things, and doing more than is necessary.
Jones Sr. saw hints of this when Herb was a kid.
For whatever reason, the urge for children to jump and touch the head jamb of a doorframe is too great to overcome. Jones was no different.
His brother, being two years older and taller, had no difficulty in this task. Herb, however, just couldn’t quite make it. That didn’t sit well with him.
“He was so determined to get there,” Jones Sr. said. “He couldn’t quite reach it. He would spend 15 minutes in the doorway trying to touch it.”
Of course, Jones eventually made it. Today, at 6-8, Jones has no issues with reaching much of anything.
Antwan Butler wasn’t Jones’ high school coach for very long. But in those two seasons at Hale County, it was obvious to Butler that Jones was something special.
It wasn’t just the athletic ability that captivated Butler. The work ethic of this kid was off the charts.
“I’ve never seen a high school player work this hard,” Butler said.
Buter recalled the day he knew the future was bright for Jones. Hale County played eventual 6A state champion Paul W. Bryant in December of 2016. Jones was electrifying. He scored 24 points and had 14 rebounds, and of course played stellar defense in the win.
“I remember thinking, ‘man, he’s really got what it takes to get to the next level,’” Butler said.
From the moment he stepped on campus in Tuscaloosa, you could tell Jones was different. He didn’t like the spotlight - he still doesn’t - and he didn’t seem to care about how many points he scored every night.
Jones played 35 games (13 starts) as a freshman and averaged 21 minutes. As a sophomore he started 29 games and saw his scoring average increase from 4.2 to 6.4. That average went up to 7.9 as a junior and 11 this season.
Despite that 11-point average, Jones was still named SEC Player of the Year. His scoring average is the lowest ever for an SEC Player of the Year
It’s not about scoring for Jones. It never has been.
“That never was a concern of his,” said Jones Sr. “To me, that was a level of maturity that you don’t see very often. He was about wanting to win.”
Winning is a big deal for Jones. There wasn't too much of it going on early in his career at Alabama and it weighed on him. Jones Sr. said he didn’t really talk basketball with Herb those first two seasons because of the Crimson Tide’s struggles.
But with the arrival of Nate Oats as head coach and the Crimson Tide reaching new heights, all Jones wants to talk about is basketball.
“You can tell the difference. He loves it, and he loves what coach Oats is doing,” Jones Sr. said. “He really does.”
Jones’ team-first mentality could stem from when he helped lead Sunshine High School to the Class 1A state finals in 2015, the final season for the school, which closed its doors at the end of the school year. Sunshine lost in the title game, and that feeling stuck with Jones when he transferred to Hale County the following year.
In his senior year with Hale County, Jones was determined to get back to the state championship game, and this time win it.
“We were playing in the regionals (against Cordova), and Herb goes on like a 10- 15-0 scoring run by himself,” Butler said. “We win the game and in the press conference he was asked about it and said, ‘I wasn’t going to let my team down,’” Butler said. “He made it to the state championship game with Sunshine and didn’t win. I could see the determination in his face when he said it.
I said, ‘wow, that’s a special kid.’”
Jones did lead Hale County to the state title game, where he was named tournament MVP after the Wildcats’ win against Monroe County.
Whatever happens with the rest of Alabama’s season, Jones has solidified his place as one of the program’s elite players.
He’s not likely to be an NBA draft lottery pick, but his versatility and defensive play should land Jones on an NBA roster. Jones is projected to be a second-round selection.
The knock on Jones is his offense. There are no questions about Jones’ defensive skills and athleticism, but there are concerns about his ability to score. At 6-8 he can get to the rim, but his long-range ability is suspect.
That might be just a consequence of being a team-first player.
“He’s always been defensive minded,” Butler said. “He always shared the ball. Sometimes I’d have to say, ‘Now Herb, you are the best player on the team, now shoot.’ It was always defense first.”
It doesn’t matter where Jones lands in the NBA, everyone who knows him best has every confidence the Alabama star will find success. You can bet he will work hard to make that happen.
“I wish I could take credit,” Jones Sr. said of Herb’s work ethic. “I guess it was just me and his mom getting up and going to work on days when you don’t feel like it. You still have a job to do and there is no use in complaining about it. If you say you love to play, prove it. You got to show it every day and not just game time. It’s practice and doing what you are supposed to do.”