December 20, 2019, 8:29 pm
Jaxson Hayes is undoubtedly one of the most positive storylines of the Pelicans season. Because of the amount of time Derrick Favors and others have had to miss, Hayes has gotten considerably more playing time than front office members or fans could have anticipated. Yes, it has come during an awfully unsuccessful stretch for the team, but the minutes have value and Hayes is playing very well for a rookie big.
The positives are easy to see, with his outrageous athleticism evident in the way he runs the floor and finishes around the rim. However, there is one place where he has struggled: defensive rebounding. This article will focus on that weakness, not as a means of diminishing his bright future, but to highlight and analyze an area where his production needs to increase to reach a starting-caliber level. Hayes, despite his tools, has been a very poor defensive rebounding big by league standards. None of this is meant to gloss over the other things he has done very well, and the lack of production certainly seems to have nothing to do with effort, as Hayes’ motor is one of his finest attributes. Hayes is still very new to the sport, as he picked up basketball late in life, and his frame is still filling out after only one year of college basketball.
The truth is that “rebounding” is really a combination of many things, and even offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding differ. Hayes is already a good offensive rebounder, so there is no need to analyze this further. Defensive rebounding is where his growth needs to occur, and that is the combination of many different things.
Where a player tends to be on any given defensive possession is important in understanding his “ability” to rebound. Today’s bigs are much more mobile on the perimeter than those of past eras, as they have to step out and defend the 3 point line to an extent that the dinosaurs never did. But scheme matters, a lot, and bigs are asked to do very different things based on what their defense wants to accomplish and what they are actually capable of doing. Robin Lopez, all whopping 280ish pounds of him, used to have to step out and hedge on pick/rolls in Monty Williams’ system. Doc Rivers had DeAndre Jordan drop on pick/rolls to keep him close to the rim for both shot-blocking and rebound. There is no one size fits all answer. If the Pelicans construct a roster moving forward that is extremely mobile at positions 1-4 and Hayes is the center, Gentry or whatever coach may say, “stay close to the rim at all times and trust that our other players can exert pressure on the perimeter.” Or Hayes may show the ability to defend the perimeter extremely well and thus be asked to step out on pick/rolls and recover to his man. In this way, a great “actual rebounder” can put up subpar rebounding stats in the box score but greatly impact his team’s success. What Hayes will be in the future will depend a lot on what he is asked to do. Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram are both guys who could grab defensive rebounds and go in transition, and Hayes may be tasked with simply boxing out like Steven Adams did for Russell Westbrook to collect rebounds. In this case, what maters would not necessarily be how Hayes rebounds, but how his effort translates into dangerous transition options getting the ball in their hands early.
Shocker. Jumping is a pivotal part of rebounding, and not just getting high off the ground for the rebound. A great rebounder times his leaps well, even if he doesn’t necessarily jump as high as someone else. Hayes gets off of the floor very well on both a first and second jump basis, but he is also unusual in that he does a lot of jumping off of one foot. You see it a lot when he dunks. Rebounding is very often a two step jump, and at the moment, Hayes doesn’t appear to be quite as elite jumping off two feet.
Reading the Ball Off the Rim and Reading Offense
This is something Michael McNamara mentioned in a group chat with Bourbon Street Shots in regards to Hayes. Hayes doesn’t have a lot of basketball experience and may be still learning to read where the ball will carom off of the rim when players miss. But it’s more than that, too. It probably belongs in another category, but it’s also helpful to know the offensive games of the opposing players. Knowing Player X is going to pull up from midrange at any opportunity helps Rebounder Y know that he should be boxing out a moment later.
This is what Hayes has in spades. Hayes has a phenomenal catch radius and vacuums bounces passes and lobs with ease uncommon of 7 footers. If not for the fantastic hands of Anthony Davis, Pelicans fans would probably be more impressed. This will always be an area of strength for Hayes, as will his wingspan, which is 7’4 and certainly big enough to reach out of his immediate area.
This is where Hayes has a lot of room to grow (literally). Like the vast majority of 19 year olds, Hayes still hasn’t filled out his frame, and this limits his ability to box out and to muscle opponents for space. On offense, this is less of an issue, as Hayes can go over the top to grab long rebounds. On defense, he has to work way harder way earlier to carve out an area near the basket versus stronger opponents. As he continues to fill out, this is likely to be less of a problem.
A search on Basketball Reference was done to get some comparisons for Hayes’ season so far. With a filter of rookies with 400 minutes played, the last 10 seasons, and only centers or forward/centers, the vast majority of the lowest 15 (the bottom of the barrel) almost entirely improved (and materially) their DRB% stats as their careers went on. This was somewhat surprising, but there are probably reasons. For example, assuming these players continue to get floor time, it is easier statistically to make more substantial “gains” since the rebounding numbers from the rookie season are so low. Improving from 12% to 18% is a 50% increase (and still poor rebounding), but a 50% increase from a 24% launching off point would be 36%, which would almost be the best in the NBA. There is a bit of selection bias here, as most NBA rookies don’t get a lot of minutes. This is one reason that it’s hard to make any sort of premature conclusion about Hayes: most 19-20 year old centers are barely even seeing the floor because there are so many areas in which they aren’t ready. Hayes’ 15% DRB would place him 6th worst out of the 76 in this group. So the good news is that improvement is the norm. The bad news is that it would take substantial improvement for Hayes to reach a reasonable level for a center, and he also wasn’t a great rebounder at Texas (though basketball inexperience was very much a thing then, too). Hayes has a lot of the tools to make a leap in this department, and it’s possible that experience and added weight are what allow him to make that leap. So far, he has exceeded expectations in many ways: moving forward, defensive rebounding is the area in which he needs the most growth.