Rondae Hollis-Jefferson did not have a great start to the season. However, an unexpected shift completely revitalized his game — and the Nets’ performance late in the season.
Hollis-Jefferson played only 29 games during his rookie season due to injury. In that brief time, however, he showed his potential as an elite defender on the wing. Hollis-Jefferson combines a 6’7″ frame with a 7’2″ standing reach and elite athletic tools. During that brief rookie season, his defense alone made him one of Brooklyn’s best players. Despite his minuscule 13.5 percent Usage Rate, Hollis-Jefferson had a positive Net Rating in 2015-2016 for a 21-win Nets team.
This season, Hollis-Jefferson struggled mightily to start the year. His poor shooting from his rookie year actually regressed to start the season, and Hollis-Jefferson was sent to the bench to start December after missing three games with an injury.
When Rondae returned to the starting lineup in February, he found himself in a brand-new role. Hollis-Jefferson started at power forward on February 1st, despite having barely played there as a rookie. The move allowed him to take advantage of some of his strengths without neutralizing his top-notch defense. Here is a breakdown of how Rondae’s unexpected move changed his season–and potentially his future.
Early Season Struggles
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson spent 60 percent of his rookie year minutes at shooting guard, per Basketball-Reference. He started the season as a nominal shooting guard as well. The Nets’ opening night starters featured Brook Lopez and Trevor Booker as the big man tandem, with Hollis-Jefferson and Bojan Bogdanovic on the wing.
While Rondae played well as a shooting guard as a rookie, his sophomore season on the wing did not start well. Hollis-Jefferson made three of his twelve shots in October and continued to struggle in November, shooting just 36.4 percent from the floor. Teams exploited his weak jump shot by going under any screens on pick-and-rolls, forcing Rondae to throw up tough shots near the rim under heavy pressure:
In Kenny Atkinson’s pace and space offense, a wing player without a jump shot is anathema to the team’s goals. Brooklyn needed to have their wing players at least be threats from beyond the arc to generate any space. Notice how Milwaukee happily allows Rondae to let it fly on this play, even as they sprint out to Brooklyn’s other shooters:
The Nets attempted the fourth-highest number of three-pointers in the league this past season. That number alone does not tell the full story, however. Their 31.6 attempts from deep per game would have tied last year’s Warriors for the second-highest total ever prior to this season.
While Rondae’s defense remained stellar on the wing, the Nets struggled to make up for his poor shooting. Justin Hamilton‘s hot start did help to counter-act Rondae’s relative lack of shooting touch. However, it became increasingly difficult to find wing minutes for Hollis-Jefferson once Hamilton lost his stroke from deep.
Moving Up in the (Positional) World
It would not be fair to say that Rondae’s strong second half was entirely of his own making. The additions of Jeremy Lin and Caris LeVert to the starting lineup after the All-Star break did wonders for Rondae’s game.
However, Lin and LeVert did not start alongside Rondae when he first moved to power forward on February 1st. Rondae’s number from then until the All-Star break show that the positional shift drastically improved his production. Although Rondae finished the year with a poor True Shooting Percentage (51.7 percent) Hollis-Jefferson put up a ridiculous True Shooting Percentage of 62.5 percent during that stretch in February. That number would have been tied with Isaiah Thomas for 23rd in the league over a full season and would be just ahead of Steph Curry’s 62.4 percent mark.
In exchange for the loss of his size advantage on the wing, Rondae gained a huge speed advantage over his matchups in the frontcourt. That allowed him to drive to the rim with reckless abandon:
Kristaps Porzingis is not the quickest power forward in the league, but Rondae’s speed advantage is palpable on this play. Porzingis has a foot on the three-point line as Rondae crosses halfcourt, but Hollis-Jefferson still blows by him en route to the rim.
On the defensive end, Rondae continued to lock down his opponents. Rondae compensated for his size disadvantage with his huge wingspan. Furthermore, his move to power forward magnified his speed advantage and made him one of the league’s quickest bigs at hedging on the pick-and-roll.
Rondae finished the year with a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.77, which was in the top 20 percent of forwards. He also averaged 7.1 rebounds per game after February 1st, as his lack of size did not overcome his tremendous hustle.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s eventual NBA position is still up in the air. The Nets might acquire a power forward in the offseason that shifts Hollis-Jefferson back to small forward. They may also decide that Caris LeVert belongs at shooting guard which would also necessitate moving Rondae back to the wing.
However, Brooklyn was tremendously successful down the stretch with Rondae at the four. Their starting lineup to end the season of Jeremy Lin, Randy Foye, Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Brook Lopez was Brooklyn’s most played lineup this season. That group also finished with a Net Rating of +3.8 per NBA.com. That number is remarkable in the context of Brooklyn’s overall Net Rating of -6.1.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s move to power forward was unexpected in the context of his rookie season. However, the positional shift allowed Rondae to take advantage of his speed on offense without giving up much on defense. Rondae’s long-term position will likely depend on his ability to improve his jump shot. Then again, his success as a power forward makes that improvement less necessary than before. With Brook Lopez’s improved shooting touch, Rondae can be the only non-shooter on the floor in the starting lineup.
Rondae might not have a solid jump shot, but the rest of his game makes up for it. His success to finish the season was a far cry from his struggles to start the season. Rondae could benefit from bulking up in the offseason if he continues to be a power forward. Given his success there to close out the season, he will probably be a fixture there for years to come.