JEFFERSON’S NBA CONNECTION
By BRANDON HURLEY
Family has rarely been far out of reach.
Despite his highly-regarded potential among basketball circles as well as his lottery pick status, New Orleans Pelicans rookie Jaxson Hayes has remained relatively grounded.
Even after riding the pine for the entire game without any action for the fifth time in seven games back in early March, Hayes took time out of his postgame routine to mingle with family from Jefferson and beyond during a March 8 trip to Minneapolis. He shook off any feelings of disappointment and frustration to share a few smiles with fellow Kinne cousins, grandparents, uncles and aunts.
Hayes could’ve shunned his family members, which included Greene County high school special needs counselor Kyle Kinne (brother of Kristi Kinne Hayes), opting to rub elbows with some of the world’s most elite athletes and prepare for a flight out of the Midwest, Instead, he flirted with missing the team bus to mingle with some of his biggest fans. That’s just who Jaxson is, said his mother, Kristi Kinne Hayes, Jefferson girls’ basketball all-time leading scorer, the school’s only athlete to ever cross the 3,000-point plateau. He’s managed to stay somewhat grounded despite his sudden rise to NBA fame.
“It’s wonderful, I don’t expect anything less of Jaxson,” Kristi said when the Jefferson Herald reached out to her in March. “He’s been around professional sports all of his life. He gets a unique perspective. Not everybody gets to be around professionals. He understood (the importance of family) at an early age. He’s done a great job with that.”
Kristi and her husband, former NFL tight end and former Cincinnati Bengals assistant coach Jonathan Hayes, have groomed Jaxson for moments he experiences everyday. Jonathan was a staple on the Bengals coaching staff for nearly two decades, an atmosphere Jaxson latched onto from day one while growing up in Ohio. He’s witnessed first hand how professional athletes are supposed to interact with fans and the general public. He’s processed and studied the mental fortitude it takes to survive on a professional’s schedule.
Hayes’ meteoric rise to basketball supremacy has been nothing short of unique. The gravity of her son’s career isn’t lost on Kristi. She appreciates Jaxson’s dedication and his relative humility through it all.
“We prayed and we’ve prayed some more,” Kristi said. “It turned out how its supposed to be. It’s remarkable to see all that our family has gone through.”
Hayes grew 11 inches in the middle of high school, transforming from a football-crazed youngster into a ridiculously athletic center with truckloads of untapped potential. He excelled at a premier high school in Ohio, Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati. His late-blooming career drew significant interest from Division I schools all over the country, which led Hayes to enroll at the University of Texas under head coach Shaka Smart. In fairly limited action, Hayes impressed pro scouts enough to provoke him to leave school early, declaring for the 2019 NBA Draft after his freshman year. Hayes potential wouldn’t go unnoticed as he was selected eighth overall by the Atlanta Hawks last summer, before being promptly traded to New Orleans. The entire Hayes family was in attendance on that historic night, where Jaxson was seen on national TV, sporting a “Sideshow Bob” diamond necklace, hugging his mom, Kristi before partaking in a choreographed handshake with his sister, Jillian, a 6’1” basketball commit to the University of Cincinnati. Draft nigh was something Kristi and her family will never forget. It may have even surpassed the pride from any of her prior athletic accomplishments.
“I think the most wonderful thing for a parent is when your child is happy to reach his goals, to see how much he’s overcome,” Kristi said. “He’s not the type of kid that’s been a basketball star his whole life, but he never lost his confidence, to see that was wonderful.”
Kristi was quite the athlete herself back in the day, helping guide Jefferson-Scranton to its only two state tournament appearances during the tail-end of the six-on-six craze, in 1988 and 1991. She averaged 52 points per game her senior year, the highest scoring mark in the entire state that winter. Her high school success would vault her into a prominent career with nearby Drake University. The family genes clearly trickled down to their oldest son.
Jaxson’s NBA career started swiftly as he witnessed significant playing time early in the 2019-20 season, filling in for injured, would-be-starters Zion Williamson and Derrick Favors. Since their return to the lineup, Hayes’ minutes have suffered drastically, even recording several “Did Not Plays” over the course of February and March. Despite the up and down rookie season, Hayes has managed to produce quality numbers for a raw and talented big man. He’s averaging 7.5 points per game to go with a field goal percentage of 66 in addition to hauling in four rebounds per game. He’s also tallied just a shade under one block per game while producing a handful of vicious, highlight-reel dunks.
It’s a tough pill to swallow for any highly-successful athlete, riding the bench night after night, but nothing he wasn’t prepared for, his mom said.
“I think he’s handled it really well, they’ve already played two seasons worth (compared to college and high school),” Kristi said. “He’s young enough that he’s OK. In the long run, I think it’ll be a good test. He’s handling it wonderfully. He’s got other rookies that are going through the same thing. In professional sports, it’s not the same grading scale, he’ll wait for his time. He’s really got a grasp on his role right now.”
Jaxon’s dad, Jonathan played football at the University of Iowa in the 1980s, joining forces with the great Chuck Long for some stellar years. It’s no wonder why Jaxson is flying high in the NBA, he’s blessed with some incredibly gifted parents. Jaxson and his father chat about the impact of life and sports almost daily, even when Jaxson’s on the road and Jonathan is back home. They send a few texts back and forth as well. Jaxon’s father, as well as his mom, have both been great sources of inspiration. Jonathan, above all else, has preached a level head. It’s important to keep an eye on the big picture and not what may be going wrong at the moment.
“He told me to be patient,” Jaxson said. “Take in all the knowledge I can.”
Jaxson’s situation is unique even to the Hayes family. Despite his dad having played in the NFL and his mom, Kristi, compiling a remarkable basketball career at Drake University, eventually securing Missouri Valley Conference player of the year honors, neither of them had so much freedom, talent and fame placed on them as a teenager. Jaxson essentially became an overnight millionaire once his name was called at last June’s NBA draft. He signed a two year, $9.9 million contract a few weeks after, ushering in his status among some of the world’s richest teenagers.
New Orleans can be a city of various temptations for a young adult who still hasn’t reached the age of 21. With all the possible extra curriculars to dive into, from the blossoming cultural district to the constant, year-round warmth and sunshine, many players would wilt under the pressures of the Big Easy, far from the structure of family and college life. Not so for Jaxson, said his mom.
“I laugh, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” Kristi said. “It’s a hard adjustment. When I was 18, it would’ve been hard. You listened to your parents then.”
Kristi has been calculated in her parental discussions with Jaxson, careful not to push too much on him. She feels he’s handled success quite well, so far.
“There’s so much advice that’s normal day-to-day that you give your own kid, from being kind to supporting your community to being grateful and working hard. All the things (we) do normally.”
Add in the fact New Orleans boasts one of the youngest and deepest teams in the entire NBA and one can certainly see how Jaxson was placed in quite the promising situation. Zion Williamson is a bona fide rising star, J.J. Reddick is a longtime veteran and one of the game’s best shooters, Brandon Ingram, nearing the tail-end of his fourth year, is proving to be a star-in-the-making as well while Lonzo Ball has tremendous potential as a point guard. It’s a solid core that, if Hayes develops as he’s predicted, could become quite the unit in the next few years.
“I really do think its a good fit from him, from the front office down to the team,” Kristi said. “I couldn’t ask him to be in better hands right now. He has great veterans to guide him and they have a really amazing front office staff. It couldn’t be a better scenario.”
Hayes and his teammates were forced to shelve their competitive nature and drive to succeed for four months when the league shutdown in mid-March, just a few days after New Orleans’ trip to Minnesota. Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert tested positive for the Coronavirus, and within a few hours, the league was put on hold. Players were banned from team practices and even visiting basketball facilities for several months as NBA commissioner Adam Silver tried to figure out a plan. As par of the NBA’s attempt to finish out the 2019-20 season in Orlando, Florida, the Pelicans were one of six teams sitting outside of the playoff picture allowed to participate in the “bubble” on Disney World’s expansive campus. The Pelicans were sitting just 3.5 games back of eighth-seeded Memphis as of July 30. Each squad in Orlando will play eight regular season games to determine the final playoff field.
Hayes and his teammates arrived in Orlando in early July, immediately attempting to adapt to the “new normal” of daily testing and intense restrictions.
“We are all getting tested every day, so if one of us tests positive, we are going to find out,” Hayes said in a press conference in Orlando prior to the restart July 30. “None of us are getting to close to each other besides guys on the team. Little stuff like that makes it feel a lot safer.”
Hayes, being one of the younger guys in the bubble at the age of 20, said the atmosphere has a familiarity to it. It’s similar to the barnstorming circuit many teenagers have grown up on.
“It most definitely reminds me of AAU. All the teams and the guys being here staying in hotels,” Hayes said. “Being around each other for a period of time and just playing basketball. It feels almost the exact same.”
As the Pelicans bear down for one final playoff push, things will look and feel a little different than usual. There won’t be any fans in the stand the remainder of the year, all teams will play on the same set number of courts and to cap it all off, players aren’t allowed to leave the Disney World campus. It’s a strange time, Jaxson said.
“It’s obviously going to be a lot different than anything we’ve ever been apart of,” Jaxson said. “They told us they are going to put some screens behind the bench and let our family be there. That’ll be nice and I’m excited to see what happens.”
The 2020 postseason will begin Aug. 15 with a few possible play in games, before the first round begins Aug. 17.