Chester, Pennsylvania native and Nets rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had more than one reason to laugh when asked about his childhood hero, Lower Merion native Kobe Bryant.
The two towns have a bitter high school basketball rivalry. When Bryant was a junior in high school, Chester dominated Lower Merion in their junior district final, 77-50. As a senior, Bryant got his revenge with two wins, but only as Chester annoyed him into a 12-for-29 shooting performance in one overtime slog. After that game, Bryant said “there was too much jelly in my jam.”
Bryant has outgrown high school beef, and roots for young Pennsylvanians like Hollis-Jefferson to succeed. But when Hollis-Jefferson was asked before Friday night’s game if Bryant would take it easy on him in his first career NBA start, well, that’s where the laughs come in.
“Take it easy!?” Hollis-Jefferson said incredulously. “Not at all, not at all, man. He’s trying to win. If he’s trying to win, he’s definitely not going to take it easy. So looking forward to his best shot, and vice versa.”
Both did just that. Hollis-Jefferson displayed his manic defense and made some nifty plays, finishing with a season-high in rebounds (11) and assists (3) in 25 minutes, breaking into the scoring column with two fast-break dunks in the fourth quarter. A 37-year-old Bryant, who has missed shots in spectacular ways this season, struggled through another poor shooting performance (5-for-16) before hitting the game-clinching free throws in the waning seconds, as the Lakers picked up the 104-98 victory.
The two Pennsylvanians on opposite ends of their respective careers shared a private meeting after the game, as reported by Yahoo! Sports. Hollis-Jefferson said Bryant told him to “just keep working.”
Hollis-Jefferson has had no shortage of challenges in his early career. He matched up against All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard in his first two games. But the results have been positive. In his 105 minutes on the floor, the Nets have outscored opponents 210 to 195; he’s the only Nets player with a positive on-court differential. When Hollis-Jefferson sits, opponents have outscored the Nets 535-431. Opposing teams have a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio with Hollis-Jefferson on the bench; when Hollis-Jefferson has played, the Nets have forced more turnovers (42) than opponents have assisted on baskets (34).
The caveat: there have only been six Nets games, against widely varying levels of competition. But the difference is palpable, and though Lionel Hollins declined to get into his reasoning for starting Hollis-Jefferson, his impact on the team’s defense was surely on the list. With the team heading to Milwaukee still seeking its first win, Hollis-Jefferson made a strong case to stick in the rotation.