If you’re looking for someone on the Nets to make a quantum leap this season, there’s a good chance it will be Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Hollis-Jefferson’s talent has been undeniable since he was drafted out of Arizona in 2015. His play, however, has been inconsistent. He was good enough to start last season, but coach Kenny Atkinson said “he had a lot of ups and downs.”
Two things could be paving the way for a potential breakout: The way the NBA game is changing and the improvements Hollis-Jefferson has made. The latter included the usual physical training and skill work but also talking to a sports psychologist.
The early results are good: He has started the first three games and is averaging 12.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.7 steals in 24 minutes.
Hollis-Jefferson projected to be a shooting guard or small forward when he was drafted. By the end of last season he was playing a hefty dose at power forward. He always had the defensive skills — his trademark — to cover every position except center. But the game is more and more about perimeter play and less about brawn.
“He came here and — because he’s got a certain skill set in terms of passing the ball and being a good ballhandler and facilitator — automatically I think you could always say ‘2’ or a ‘3,’ ” Atkinson said. “It’s part of the evolution of the ‘4’ position: It’s becoming more and more of a perimeter position, a hybrid . . . I see him evolving. It’s almost in step with where the NBA is going on that position.
“Sure it’s [an] interior [position], but there’s a perimeter part to it, but it fits his skill set.”
That includes dynamic leaping ability and length that allows him to play bigger than his 6-7 height when going for rebounds.
Then there was the matter of looking at his inconsistency. Atkinson saw a lack of maturity in games when Hollis-Jefferson would let a play that went wrong affect him in the next possessions and maybe beyond.
“Young players have a lot of ups and downs. How do you handle three missed layups in a row? Or how do you handle a turnover and did it turn into three turnovers?” Atkinson said. “Bouncing back when you do make an error — that’s where he’s made a big jump.
“We call it the ‘next play mentality’ — you have to move on to the next play. It’s an improvement area and I think he’s gotten better with it.”
“I feel like I kind of held on to things a little longer than I should, made [a miscue] bigger than what it was, as far as just having that ‘next play mentality.’ It’s something I had to work on over the summer,” Hollis-Jefferson said.
His goals of improving his ballhandling and jump shot were accomplished through work in the gym that he said he is very proud of. To better his mental game, he sought a different kind of help.
“I would definitely say it helps to talk to people: Veterans, therapists, just people that have knowledge of under-pressure situations. It’s kind of hard,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “Like, people can tell you a million things about how to react when they’re . . . calm, when their heart rate is low. But when their adrenaline is rushing and when the game’s on the line, how many people can tell you how to react to that? So pretty much getting some people that went through it and understand it, talking to them and then talking to a therapist has helped.”
The Nets have a psychologist, Dr. Paul Groenewal, for just such a need. Hollis-Jefferson didn’t speak comfortably about meeting with Groenewal, but he was clearly pleased that GM Sean Marks has him in place.
“The big focus is basketball here. [Marks] wants you to be exceptional at it,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “He wants you to focus on your craft, so what better way than to give the players the tools to do that.”
Atkinson is simply happy with the results.
“I felt like he had a lot of ups and down last season and it got better as the season went on,” the coach said. “And this season I see he’s making progress from a maturity standpoint . . . I feel so comfortable with him out there. It’s big for us.”