Brooklyn Nets' Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on the Rise and Heading Home

The last time the Brooklyn Nets played the Philadelphia 76ers, things did not end well.

Jimmy Butler's 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds remaining lifted the Sixers to a 127-125 win on Nov. 25, one of a string of heartbreaking losses that would haunt the Nets over a two-week stretch.

“I can’t lie, man," said Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, tasked with guarding Butler on the play. "I really felt and knew that he was going to that shot. We watched it. He hit that same shot. I can’t remember which team he was playing against. He hit that same shot. And I’m like, I can tell the way he’s sizing me up right now, he wants to side step. He still was able to get it off. I contested it. It went in. The basketball gods were on his side.”

But all things considered, the Nets got what they wanted on the possession. Leading by one, they forced the opponent to take a step-back jumper 27 feet from the rim. "Almost perfect defense," is how Nets coach Kenny Atkinson described Hollis-Jefferson's action on the play.

"I think if we had me on Jimmy Butler we’d probably say double team," said Atkinson. "But the fact that we have Rondae with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and can move as well as anybody in the league and gets a great contest, the process is right. The outcome was not to our liking.”

In the big picture for Brooklyn, the game was notable not for how it ended, but how it started: with Hollis-Jefferson on the floor, back for what would turn out to be a full-time return to the starting lineup after coming off the bench for 15 of the first 16 games he played this season.

Four nights ago, Hollis-Jefferson found himself in a similar situation as that Philly game — twice. Matched up against another elite player in Toronto's Kawhi Leonard, Hollis-Jefferson got a miss from Leonard on Toronto's final possession in regulation as the game went to overtime. With the Nets leading by a point, Hollis-Jefferson forced Leonard to give up the ball, and Fred VanVleet's 3-pointer rimmed out at the buzzer.

Two games. Two different results. Same process of trusting Hollis-Jefferson against the opponent's best player.

"I told Kenny, I said, 'hey man, you want me to stop him? Put me on him.' That's the mindset," said Hollis-Jefferson. "You want me to make it tough for him, put me on him. That's how I feel no matter who it is, no matter who I'm going against, and that's how it has to be for everybody."

"He wants that responsibility," said Atkinson. "He’s embracing it more now that he’s feeling better physically.”

It was an injury — a summertime adductor strain — that limited Hollis-Jefferson early on. He missed Brooklyn's entire preseason schedule and made his regular-season debut a week in when Brooklyn played its fourth game of the season.

Since returning to the starting lineup, Hollis-Jefferson's minutes are up from 21.1 per game to 29.4, and he's averaging 11.3 points and 6.5 rebounds in these last eight games as a starter. Saturday night against the Knicks, Hollis-Jefferson scored 20 points on 7-of-14 shooting with six rebounds. Against the Raptors on Friday, he played 36 minutes and scored 11.

Lately, there even seems to be a new wrinkle to Hollis-Jefferson's offensive game. He's a career 24 percent shooter from 3-point range, but after opening the season 3-for-19 from deep, he's made three out of his last five against the Raptors and Knicks.

Against the Raptors, it was a big one in the fourth quarter that loomed large when the game went to overtime.

"Man, I've definitely been shooting a lot," said Hollis-Jefferson. "It feels good to knock 'em down and be able to shoot them. Day-in and day-out you see yourself just putting up a lot of shots. And some days they don't go in. A lot of them. To see them go in in a game when it really counts man, words can't describe. I'm just going to keep shooting them."

But Hollis-Jefferson's biggest impact has always been on the defensive end. And while there could be plenty of factors in play, his return to the starting lineup has coincided with a significant jump in Brooklyn's defensive rating, which had taken a slight hit after Caris LeVert was injured.

Through Nov. 12, when LeVert was hurt against Minnesota, the Nets had a 110.2 defensive rating. In the first seven games without him, that number rose to 112.8. Over the last seven games, all with Hollis-Jefferson in the starting lineup, the defensive rating has plunged to 105.1.

"Rondae is coming back," said Atkinson before the Knicks game on Saturday. "He’s not 100 percent, he’s not at peak Rondae form. I feel it. Obviously, he was out a while, a long time and missed preseason, which hurt him, and was out a long time in the summer. He’s starting to come back and he was huge. I really think he’s starting to embrace that role again, defender, guarding multiple positions.

"Listen, offensively, he’s not finishing as well as he has in the past, but I like how he’s driving it, I like how he’s moving it. And listen, I hear the fans: ‘Don’t shoot that corner three.’ He hit a corner three last night that I think helped us win the game. Our message is, if you’re wide-open and your feet are set and you’ve got time and space, you can let that corner three go. I was glad he made that last night."

Hollis-Jefferson is hitting his stride as he gets ready to go home, with the Nets visiting Philadelphia Wednesday night. He starred nearby at nearby West Chester HS, about 30 minutes west of the city center.

"Going home, it’s always a different type of energy, a different type of feel," said Hollis-Jefferson. "It feels good to go home, man. The love and support, it’s amazing.”