LAS VEGAS — Jaxson Hayes impressed in his inaugural week with the New Orleans Pelicans, finishing on the NBA Summer League's second team. But his 28-point, four-rebound, three-block debut July 8 versus the Chicago Bulls was just a footnote beneath his sky-high slam.
"My reaction was, 'Holy...'" Pelicans summer-league head coach Fred Vinson said. "I just can't say the last part."
"I was hype," Nickeil Alexander-Walker added before Hayes cut him off.
"I just want to say that the only reason for the dunk was cuz of the fire pass," Hayes said. "Don't look at the dunk; look at the pass. He threw it around two people."
"I can't repeat what I said," Alexander-Walker continued. "I hope the camera didn't get it, but it was crazy. Kodak moment."
With a 7-foot frame, a 7'4" wingspan and massive hands, Hayes has the measurables to succeed in the NBA. He also has a personality to match, as he rocked a Sideshow Bob necklace on draft night with 1,000 stones and his nickname "Sideshow Jax."
But because of the NBA moratorium and complicated transactions involving the Los Angeles Lakers, Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards, Hayes was left in limbo. With the deals finalized Saturday night, he was finally able to begin practicing and playing with the Pelicans, and he soon threw down perhaps the most explosive dunk in the Las Vegas Summer League's 15-year history:
For Hayes, who had been itching to play Friday and Saturday as he looked on from the sidelines, the play wasn't enough. He had to have a little bit of fun after earning the first technical foul of his career.
"Jaxson told me after he got the dunk, he smacked the backboard after he got a tech," Vinson said. "He came over and said, 'Hey, Coach, I had to get that tech. You understand? I been waiting to play for so long.'"
"I told him, young fella, you dunked the ball. It's OK," Vinson said with a laugh.
Many had pegged Hayes as a prototypical rim-runner coming out of Texas as the eighth overall pick, capable of getting up and down the floor with ease and even rising above would-be shot-blockers. Jonathan Wasserman, the lead NBA scout at Bleacher Report, noted his athleticism and intangibles in college.
"Hayes was No. 5 on my board," Wasserman told Howard Beck on The Full 48 podcast. "Obviously, in terms of value, I love what they [NOP] did. Not only did I think he was the best player available, but what a great fit. [He] reminds me of Mitchell Robinson."
Hayes is far from polished, and he needs to add muscle before he can begin measuring himself against the Rudy Goberts, Nikola Vucevics and Marc Gasols of the Association.
"[He] has room to get stronger but was not shy about mixing it up in traffic as a freshman," Synergy Sports noted (h/t NBA.com). "[He] could grow into a difference-maker on that end as he gets stronger and learns to guard without fouling."
Hayes will continue to grow into his role with the Pelicans, and they should practice patience with him—as Director of Basketball Operations David Griffin has with No. 1 pick Zion Williamson. But if summer league is any indication, Hayes is already giving the Pelicans a glimpse of a far more versatile skill set than even they probably anticipated.
In this instance, Hayes was given space above the break and, without hesitation, took a single dribble into a converted three—a skill his head coach didn't know he possessed.
"I've been working on it a lot," Hayes said in regard to his three-point shot versus the Cleveland Cavaliers. "I used to shoot them in high school. I was open, so I took it."
Hayes' jump shot came as a welcome surprise to the Pelicans' coaching staff, but his form and release will need more fluidity should a jumper become a part of his arsenal. If he can continue to build confidence in it, his comparisons may shift from the rim-runners of the NBA to a more explosive version of Jonathan Isaac.
"I did not," Vinson said when asked whether he saw a three-pointer from Hayes coming. "That caught me off guard. He must've been feeling pretty good."
"One of the things I've noted was, he shot an extremely high percentage at Texas," Jim Eichenhofer said on the Locked on Pelicans podcast. "A lot of times though when you do that, it's because everything is a dunk, a tip-in or something right around the basket."
In addition to Hayes' displays as a rim-runner and mid-range threat was his ability to move in transition as both a ball-handler and a recipient of assists from Alexander-Walker and Marcos Louzada Silva.
"But he's able to make mid-range shots," Eichenhofer continued. "He made a three-point shot. He had some good low-post, back-to-the-basket plays. Also, his ability to catch the ball on the move. People have already seen he has the fluidity and the footwork to be able to catch a ball on the fast break, take a step or two and throw down a dunk or draw a foul."
Hayes displayed great vision at times, such as when he noticed a cutting Alexander-Walker underneath the basket and hit him in stride, returning the favor from Monday night's highlight-reel assist. Hayes was described previously as an athletic rim-protector, shot-blocker and finisher, but few could have predicted the other benefits he could bring in an uptempo and explosive offense.
"Not a passing big," Spencer Pearlman of The Stepien assessed before the draft. "He had a few flashes passing out of the short roll on the pick-and-roll but was not used as a passer basically at all—2.6 assist percentage and nine total assists the entire season. To be fair, his role was simply to finish plays in the paint, so he was not tasked with creating."
And of course, he does boast those other talents too. In this clip, we see Hayes' recovery speed, length and explosiveness all in one motion, making him one of the more exciting shot-blockers in the NBA already.
"That's my guy right here. That's my dude," Alexander-Walker said when asked why he and Hayes only interview together.
"Why wouldn't we do it together?" Hayes echoed. "Our whole team clicks. A lot of us coming in already know each other. Nickeil knows one of my best friends."
Alexander-Walker has been every bit the revelation Hayes has, finishing on the NBA Summer League first team. The two paired well from the start, both on and off the court.
When Alexander-Walker wasn't directly dishing to Hayes, he was attacking the defense off the pick-and-roll, converting three-point looks off the dribble, initiating the offense from the point, showcasing a hesitation move and a step-back, and providing tough defense and a shot-blocking presence on the other end.
"The chemistry off the court helps," Alexander-Walker continued. "From the moment he [Hayes] introduced himself, he was real cool and chill. It's rare to find a top-10 kid that's open like that. He's a friendly dude, and it makes you want to be a selfless person. ... The sky is the limit, as you can see."
"Our whole team is clicking so well," Hayes added. "We bond really well off the court. We're all already spending time together."
He also offered: "You gotta play with confidence, but you just have to have fun with it. I'm just trying to enjoy every moment."
Hayes put on a noteworthy performance at Las Vegas Summer League, eclipsing his college high of 19 points in his first game. His ceiling is difficult to peg, and like Anthony Davis, he experienced a late growth spurt. Davis grew from 6'2" to 6'10" between his sophomore and senior years of high school; Hayes jumped from 6'0" to 6'11".
As a junior at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati, Hayes produced a paltry one point and two rebounds per contest before contributing 12 points, seven rebounds and four blocks per game as a senior en route to a first-team All-State selection and Division I state title with a record of 27-3.
It's not hard to imagine Hayes becoming more than a Clint Capela or a Mitchell Robinson (shot-blockers and alley-oop threats), but for now, the Pelicans are trying to keep their expectations measured.
"I don't want to get overly excited," Vinson cautioned. "The NBA season is totally different from summer league, but I think they [Hayes and Alexander-Walker] definitely have an opportunity to compete and contribute along with our other guys."
Hayes' performance thus far has been impressive, and how his abilities translate (as well as Zion's) to the regular season could be a significant indicator of what chance the Pelicans have of competing for a playoff spot in 2019-20. Should Hayes rise to these elevated expectations, the Pelicans could develop one of the most frightening and explosive frontcourts in the NBA.