PHOENIX, Ariz. — When they arrived to face the Suns Monday night at Talking Stick Resort Arena, the Nets were towing a four-game losing streak, trying to regain their early season mojo and searching for leadership within their young core group. While the focus has been on new faces such as D’Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe, the player with the longest tenure on the Nets, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, has emerged in a more prominent role.
Hollis-Jefferson is just in his third season, but he’s the only player still on the roster since the arrival of general manager Sean Marks 21 months ago. In the Nets’ past two games, Hollis-Jefferson set a career high with 21 points in a home loss to the Suns and then tied it in a road loss to the Lakers on Friday. His scoring has spiked to a career-high 15.7 points per game, but it’s his effort on both ends of the court that has set the standard for a young team.
“Yeah, the guys look at me as the emotional leader as far as the energy and that hustle and that mentality,” Hollis-Jefferson said Monday before facing the Suns just up the road from where he went to college at the University of Arizona. “I feel like if I come in every day consistent with that, the guys will start to follow. It will rub off on them. You’ll slowly start to see that translate.”
No one has advocated harder for Hollis-Jefferson than Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, who put him in the starting lineup last season as an undersized power forward because of his length and defensive energy. Now, Atkinson sometimes uses him at the five to guard true centers.
“His focus, purpose, consistency is improving by leaps and bounds,” Atkinson said of Hollis-Jefferson. “I just think he’s maturing and that’s the reason his play is better. He’s really improving before our eyes.”
Atkinson doesn’t encourage his players to use isolation plays to score, but he permits Hollis-Jefferson to do it in the paint area because he has been so effective in either making the shot or drawing a foul. “His decision-making is getting better,” Atkinson said. “Sometimes, it’s too much. Listen, ‘You’re a great penetrator, but mix in that drive-and-kick pass.’ I think he’s capable of that.”
Hollis-Jefferson came into this season shooting 43.8 percent for his career. But through nine games, he’s up to 52.2 percent. “You’ve got to give credit to the coaching staff, give credit to myself for putting in the work and give credit to God at the end of the day,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “I feel like my confidence is going up and I feel more comfortable and relaxed.”
During his first two seasons with the Nets, Hollis-Jefferson developed a close relationship with veteran center Brook Lopez, who was their unquestioned leader on and off the court before being traded to the Lakers over the summer. Hollis-Jefferson said it was fun to visit in person with Lopez in Los Angeles before he had to wrestle with the 7-foot center while covering him at times in the game.
“In practice my first year I would go against him when we switched [on defense], and I’d be like, ‘Holy cow, this dude weighs a lot,’ ” Hollis-Jefferson said with a laugh.
That challenge prepared the 6-7 Hollis-Jefferson for the ones he now faces regularly against bigger players, especially against true centers like Lopez. “It’s definitely a big adjustment, especially when an actual five is out there, him being like 50 pounds more than me, five inches taller,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “But they’ve got the right man for the job. I love a challenge, and I love to compete. No matter what they ask me to do besides jump off a bridge, I’m good with it.”