PHOENIX — The Nets’ game against the Suns on Saturday night at Talking Stick Resort Arena was a homecoming of sorts for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson who played down the road for two seasons at the University of Arizona in Tucson before leaving as a first-round draft pick in 2015. He was expecting to be greeted by a contingent of at least 20 friends from his college days.
But there was someone else waiting for Hollis-Jefferson as well — second-year Suns shooting guard Devin Booker, who is emerging as one of the NBA’s brightest young lights. Booker came into the game averaging 21.5 points and earlier this season became the youngest player in NBA history to have back-to-back games of at least 38 points against New Orleans (38) and the Lakers (39) just a week past his 20th birthday.
Covering Booker was the primary assignment for Hollis-Jefferson, who has become a versatile part of the Nets’ starting five with the ability to cover shooting guards and both forward positions. Describing Booker’s leadership role in the Suns’ attack, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson “For a young kid to take on that kind of responsibility and as aggressive as he is, he’s a very confident player. It’s a heck of a challenger for our team to limit his efficiency.”
Although Atkinson planned to give Booker multiple looks against different defenders, he was counting on Hollis-Jefferson’s athleticism to allow him to stay close enough to Booker, a second-year player out of Kentucky, to make it a tough night.
“Just in terms of him feeling super-confident and fearless, it’s going to take the effort I give every night as a defender to limit his uncontested shots and limit the easy looks he gets sometimes,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “I have to make it hard for him. He’s a phenomenal player, so, he’ll make some tough shots. But it’s about making those shots tough for him every time.”
During training camp, Hollis-Jefferson primarily focused on working to improve his jump shot, and he has made progress in that area. But his versatility as a playmaker has come to the forefront recently as the Nets have struggled with injuries to point guards Jeremy Lin and Isaiah Whitehead, who both sat out versus the Suns.
He’s averaging 3.0 assists per game, and Atkinson has asked him to help current point guards Sean Kilpatrick and Randy Foye with ballhandling duties. “Rondae is an underrated passer,” Atkinson said. “Especially with our point guard situation, he can bring the ball up and make a play. He’s a versatile guy . . . We’d love to get his turnovers down, but with more time, he’ll get better.”
As a full-time starter in only his second season, Hollis-Jefferson said he’s happy to do all the little things he can to contribute on offense and defense. “I feel I was always a playmaker,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “I’m excited and happy to do it. Just by going out there and playing hard and competing, all these other things are falling into play.
“As you keep playing, you see the moves you worked on coming to light, whether it’s an assist, a good pass like the hockey (second) assist. You started these things and created them because of what you did in August, June, July. I just feel comfortable now.”
With three wins in their first eight games, Hollis-Jefferson said team-wide confidence is building for the Nets, who won just 21 games last season. “We’re playing with teams that will be top seeds in the playoffs, and seeing us compete with them and go down to the wire is like a ‘Wow’ moment for us,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “We’re like, ‘Yo, we’re better than what everyone expected and thought we would be. So, let’s keep playing like this and even get better.’”