Here's why the Nets' Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has dramatically improved in Year 3
Hollis-Jefferson's college coach Sean Miller weighs in on his former player's impressive season
BROOKLYN – After the first 37 games of the season, there’s been plenty of discussion over the significant progress of several Nets players.
Early on, Spencer Dinwiddie drew plenty of praise for the strides he’s shown filling in for Jeremy Lin, who was ruled out for the season with an ruptured patella tendon injury. Then came the emergence of Caris LeVert, who could be a candidate for the 2018 Rising Stars Challenge and may be a part of the Sixth Man award conversation. But very quietly, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is having quite a superb season on his own.
He has almost doubled his scoring production from a season ago, going from 8.7 points per game in the 2016-17 season to averaging 15 per game this season – second-best on the Nets after D’Angelo Russell at 20.1. Not bad for a player who had question marks about his offensive ability when he was drafted out of Arizona in the first round in 2015.
Hollis-Jefferson, who calls himself “CHAP” on social media -- a self-made acronym for Calm, Humble and Patient -- has dramatically improved his game all across the board. His shooting percentages of .488/.310/.804 are all at least 50 points higher than last year. When asked what’s motivated him, his answer is simple: Trust.
“I’d say whatever you do, you want trust in your leader,” Hollis-Jefferson said after a practice on Dec. 13. “Our leader is Kenny [Atkinson].”
Hollis-Jefferson admits that his adjustment to the NBA wasn’t easy for reasons both on and off the court.
“I have this wall sometimes. It’s hard for me to build that trust,” he said. “That’s where you hit bumps on the road…I feel like once I locked in and trusted him, you started to see the trust and the incline in my game.”
That wall is something that Hollis-Jefferson’s college coach at Arizona, Sean Miller, remembers well.
“He doesn’t trust you easily, you’re going to have to earn his trust,” Miller told BrooklynNets.com. “I think a lot of that is because he grew up in Chester [PA].”
Chester, PA is a blue-collar town that sits between Philadelphia and Delaware. The scenic waterfront area by the Commodore Barry Bridge has been targeted for economic revitalization and hosts a MLS team, the Philadelphia Union, but the town for the most part remains economically depressed. It has a 7.9 percent unemployment rate and Chester High School, where Hollis-Jefferson became a five-star recruit, had just a 50 percent graduation rate in 2011.
“You have a divided group: There’s some who will give you the shirt off their back and help you get to where you want to get to,” Miller explained in giving his impressions of Chester. “Then there’s that other faction of people, who [are] kind of stuck there and aren’t as good of an influence.”
He added, “When you have that, you kind of have it built in, a mentality of making sure, of double checking who these people are or where you’re at.”
THE COLLEGE DAYS
Miller extensively recruited Hollis-Jefferson after he helped put Chester High School on the map as he led them to an undefeated season. Miller was immediately impressed by how Hollis-Jefferson was as a teammate and he felt it resonated on the court as he always looked to make the intelligent play. The college coach felt it was exactly what Arizona needed to get to the next level in the Pac 12. Perhaps motivated to stay away from distractions, Hollis-Jefferson was open to the idea of going out West. He committed to the Wildcats, turning down closer alternatives at Florida and Syracuse.
When Hollis-Jefferson arrived in Tuscon, he was eager to show what he could do, but he was a raw player. It was a collective effort from Miller, his coaching staff and the players on the roster to get the freshman to buy in.
“[It’s important] that he knows that you care more than or just as much about him as a person – someone who’s a teammate, or a player – as much as you do about what he can do on the basketball court to help the organization,” Miller said.
“Once Rondae, in his mind, establishes that you care about him then I think you’re going to get an incredible teammate, a willing learner and a very hard worker."
Miller still remembers the then-teenager’s odd release point on his jump shot. There wasn’t anything wrong with his form, according to the coach, but just how low he was launching his shots from. Miller reveals that Hollis-Jefferson was so embarrassed of it, that he shied away from going on offensive drills with his Arizona teammates. Hollis-Jefferson and the coaching staff agreed to let him shoot on a side court as he worked on improving his technique and confidence. Miller is proud to see that his former player is still growing offensively in the NBA.
“It really doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s continued to add to his game because he’s highly intelligent and he wants to be a great player,” the coach said.
Hollis-Jefferson played two seasons at Arizona and Miller considers him "one of the most popular players that's ever played here."
LIFE IN THE NBA
Hollis-Jefferson looks around the sparkling facilities at the HSS Training Center and sees none of the teammates that greeted him in his rookie season in the NBA.
“Yeah, I’m not going to lie,” Hollis-Jefferson said with a laugh. “Sometimes I sit around at times and I’m like wow [at the changes]. Going through the whole process…Only like three people [remain], and not basketball-wise, just like staff, one trainer, security dude, and [Joe] Cuomo [in equipment].”
Despite just turning 23 on Wednesday, he is the longest-tenured Net on a team that is trying to build a new identity under Sean Marks. The current general manager didn’t draft Hollis-Jefferson, but the converted power forward is thankful about his arrival. The third-year player hinted that things were difficult under the previous set up.
“It’s like high school and college, I pretty much like lost [only] 12 games in my career,” he said. “When I first got into the NBA, I think I only won like 12. It was crazy to be a part of that. It hurt, it didn’t feel right.”
The young Nets are still trying to figure out ways to consistently win in the NBA, but Hollis-Jefferson insists Marks has brought in a much-needed culture change and is appreciative of having an opportunity to work with Atkinson. Miller believes the two men are a perfect fit for Hollis-Jefferson.
“Ken[ny] Atkinson is a younger guy and he knows what he’s talking about,” Miller said before later adding. “It seems like he has really bought into Brooklyn – the program, the coaching staff, his teammates. When he does that, the best will come out of him.”
Hollis-Jefferson will keep on fighting to prove that he deserves he can be an integral part of the Nets’ future.
“It’s crazy man to see how many teammates I’ve been through, but it kind of keeps me motivated,” he explained. “It keeps me grounded, to keep working, keep fighting and make people better.
“To be that energy, that spirit that people can rally around [and] love and embrace. I feel like that’s what it’s all about.”