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The Hidden Impact of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

Brooklyn’s defensive specialist doesn’t look like a star, but on a team starved for a future, the Nets might want to start featuring him like one

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

It’s been only a season, but the 2015 NBA draft class seems destined to be one of the best ever. Even beyond clear superstar talents like Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, the class is teeming with players who, in one way or another, serve as a key to understanding their respective teams’ long-term identity. Over the next few weeks, Jonathan Tjarks will be looking at 2015 draftees entering Year 2, and how their teams can best serve their pillars of the future.

The Nets season went from bad to worse when Rondae Hollis-Jefferson went down with a broken ankle in December. The rookie out of Arizona was one of the only rays of sunshine in a lost season that is turning into a lost decade. Without a first-round pick of its own until 2019, Brooklyn is a bad team without a clear route to improvement, so getting the most out of the young talent the Nets have on hand is essential. Hollis-Jefferson might not be a franchise player, but the Nets have no choice but to treat him like one.

The Nets acquired him in a draft-day trade with the Blazers, who took him at no. 23, but he could have gone in the lottery were it not for a fatal flaw. Many prospects, like his college teammate Stanley Johnson, needed to improve their 3-point shots. Hollis-Jefferson didn’t have one, going 8-for-39 from 3 in two seasons at Arizona. In 29 games with the Nets as a rookie, he attempted only 14 3s. There are a lot of hitches and contortions as he brings the ball up from his chest, and it looks painful and awkward coming out of his hand. He’s a surprisingly decent midrange shooter, but the range to shoot from the 3-point line might never come. In that sense, Hollis-Jefferson is a test case for how good a perimeter player in the modern NBA can become if he can’t stretch the floor.

When you are as good an athlete as Hollis-Jefferson, you don’t need a jumper to impact the game. At 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds, with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Hollis-Jefferson is a physical marvel who tested out as one of the three fastest players at the 2015 draft combine. He is longer than most big men and faster than most guards. The Nets’ defensive rating was 8.2 points lower when he was on the floor (101.4) than when he was off (109.8), by far the best mark on the team, and they are going to give him every chance to translate that production into a bigger role next season. To get a feel for how he will fare, I looked at three games from his rookie season in which he played major minutes.

November 20 vs. Boston — 13 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, and 5 turnovers on 5-of-12 shooting

This was the first double-double of his NBA career, but the conventional stats don’t always reflect a player like Hollis-Jefferson’s impact on the game, good or bad. The Nets started him at shooting guard and stuck him in the corner on offense, where the Celtics didn’t have to guard him. Avery Bradley got a couple of steals by ignoring Hollis-Jefferson completely and stationing himself in the middle of the lane. They didn’t get much out of him on defense either, since he was primarily guarding players like Bradley and Marcus Smart, who rarely had the offense run through them. There’s not much point in having a defensive specialist guard another defensive specialist, and there’s no reason to not cross-switch Hollis-Jefferson onto a guy like Isaiah Thomas.

The bigger problem was the Nets starting lineup as a whole. The floor spacing has to come from somewhere in today’s game, even if it’s not your starting shooting guard. Jarrett Jack shot 30.4 percent from 3, and neither Thaddeus Young nor Brook Lopez was much of a threat from the 3-point line. The only consistent perimeter shooter was Joe Johnson, so there was never anywhere for him to go against an aggressive and collapsing Celtics defense. Hollis-Jefferson committed five turnovers driving the ball into traffic, and he wound up taking a lot of awkward pull-ups after the ball was swung to him.

November 28 vs. Cleveland — 6 points, 10 rebounds, 1 assist, and 5 steals on 2-of-4 shooting

The Nets stationed Hollis-Jefferson in the short corner instead of the 3-point line against the Cavs. It still wasn’t great from a spacing perspective, but it at least left him in a part of the floor where he could make shots. His jumper isn’t pretty, but he was a good midrange shooter as a rookie in the 29 games he was able to play, shooting 63.6 percent from 10–15 feet and 40.6 percent from 16–23 feet. The league averages for those spots are 40.5 percent and 39.8 percent, respectively. A lot of Hollis-Jefferson’s attempts from those spots come from the defense leaving him open, but he’s shooting them confidently instead of holding the ball and ruining the flow of the offense.

But defense is the hallmark of his game, and he didn’t disappoint, forcing turnovers and creating havoc all over the floor. He did a great job on J.R. Smith, staying right in front of his dribble and using his length to contest shots. He makes up ground like an NFL defensive back, and his wingspan surprises offensive players who don’t expect a player his size to reach that far. It also makes him incredibly effective on the boards, where Hollis-Jefferson pulls down rebounds as well as the Nets’ frontcourt. He averaged nine rebounds per 36 minutes last season, and like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, another strong rebounder at the wing position, his impact is best seen in how well the team is rebounding as a whole with him on the floor. The Nets had their highest defensive rebounding percentage (77.7 percent, two points above their overall figure) and total rebounding percentage (52.3, nearly three points higher) when Rondae was in the lineup.

April 11 vs. Washington — 14 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocks, and 2 steals on 5-of-10 shooting

The Nets brought Hollis-Jefferson off the bench when he returned from his ankle injury in late March, and the team around him looked dramatically different than the one he left in December. Lionel Hollins was fired, Jack tore his ACL, and Johnson had his contract bought out. Young and Lopez, the team’s remaining primary scorers, sat out the last two weeks of the season. The Nets’ interim coaching staff was free to experiment, particularly with their promising rookie. Hollis-Jefferson spent part of the game against the Wizards at power forward next to Chris McCullough, and another chunk at center next to Bojan Bogdanovic.

The logic behind the move was sound. Hollis-Jefferson can block shots (with a block percentage higher than Young’s) and rebound, and his lack of an outside shot is less of a concern when he is playing closer to the basket. The Nets were down 18–0 when Hollis-Jefferson came in, and his energy and defensive activity quickly changed the dynamic of the game. He forced turnovers and brought the ball up the floor himself, blowing by the slower Wizards players, and his athleticism was more of a factor in transition than it would have been in a half-court game.

Hollis-Jefferson played as a 2 in college, but he could end up as a 4 or even a small-ball 5 in the NBA, given the way the league is trending. The key to defending the pick-and-roll is having smaller and faster defenders in the frontcourt who can switch screens and guard on the perimeter, two things Hollis-Jefferson excels at already. He’s also long enough to hold his own against bigger offensive players in the paint, and he’s not that much smaller than Young, who made a similar shift from the 3 to the 4 earlier in his career.

The obvious comparison for Hollis-Jefferson is Tony Allen, an elite defensive player whose lack of a 3-point shot is exposed every year in the playoffs. Playing a nonshooter at the shooting guard position shrinks the floor for everyone else and forces you to play 4-on-5 on offense. The Thunder found a way out of this problem in last year’s playoffs with Andre Roberson, when they used him as a roll man in lineups with Kevin Durant at the 4 and Serge Ibaka at the 5, which put four shooters around him. The Nets don’t have that type of personnel to put around Hollis-Jefferson, so they might as well cut out the middle man and play him at the 4 in the second unit, if not in the starting lineup.

It’s much easier to find shooting in the backcourt than the frontcourt, and Hollis-Jefferson’s defensive versatility gives the Nets a lot of options in terms of filling out their lineups. They already have the outlines of an interesting small-ball unit with Hollis-Jefferson, McCullough, and rookie Caris LeVert, three players 6-foot-7 and up who can switch on defense and force bigger defenders to guard them on the perimeter. Hollis-Jefferson can be the tip of the spear on defense while creating mismatches on offense. A few tweaks to the way the Nets use him could turn him from a player who was a matchup problem for them as a rookie to one who is a matchup problem for the rest of the league.