Ask about that 20-year-old rookie in New York in the midst of a blazing start to the season, and you’ll probably get four suggestions for what Kristaps Porzingis’s nickname should be. That’s fair: Porzingis is a unicorn in a Westchester paddock, a 7-foot-3 Latvian that can break down defenders off the dribble and comfortably hit three-pointers before checking WorldStarHipHop in the locker room.
Nets rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson isn’t that. We’ve seen players like Hollis-Jefferson before, even if none of them have a back tattoo of themselves. “Myself has to watch my back,” Hollis-Jefferson said of the tattoo, explaining that it was part of a much bigger idea before he realized how much the tattoo hurt.
But that lack of uniqueness — and lack of back foresight — doesn’t make his start to the season any less impressive. After a lackluster two games with Wayne Ellington and another three with Markel Brown in the starting lineup, Lionel Hollins elected to swap in Hollis-Jefferson, which gave the Nets an immediate jolt on both sides of the floor.
It’s worked. With Hollis-Jefferson joining Jarrett Jack, Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young, and Brook Lopez, the Nets have outscored opponents by a robust 14.2 points per 100 possessions in 142 minutes, ranking third among all NBA lineups with at least 75 minutes played. Of the team’s qualifying four-man units with a positive plus-minus, Hollis-Jefferson is the only common denominator. (Did I mention he’s a 20-year-old rookie?)
Hollis-Jefferson lacks a reliable three-point shot, which was the biggest knock on him coming out of college. He only hit 6 of 29 attempts from beyond the college three-point line, which is three feet shorter than in the NBA.
He makes up for it with his decision-making on the offensive end. Hollis-Jefferson has at least one assist in ten straight games, the longest streak among rookies that aren’t point guards.
His teammates have noticed his impact.
“I think he has a lot more capability (on offense) than he probably realizes,” Jack said. “His quickness, his athleticism, I think people are surprised by (it). He can really pass the ball. Him being able to get in those crevices and make the defense collapse is an attribute I think that he really, really can surprise people with.”
Most of Hollis-Jefferson’s assists look something like these: Hollis-Jefferson dives into the lane in some way or another, draws defenders, and dumps a pass off under the basket to someone open.
Here’s one way that Hollis-Jefferson uses his lack of a shot in his favor. Because Avery Bradley doesn’t respect his outside shot, Bradley floats down towards Joe Johnson, who’s posting up to Hollis-Jefferson’s right. But Hollis-Jefferson uses the space to drive left — remember, he’s a lefty — and draws Amir Johnson away from Young, giving Young the space for an open jumper.
But you didn’t come here to watch Hollis-Jefferson make a few smart passes. You came here to see him
The defense is the first thing that jumps out with Hollis-Jefferson. His energy is unrelenting: watch any random possession of him on the floor and you’ll see someone hounding his man on the ball, fighting through screens, anticipating passing lanes as the offense finds them, closing out on threes in a flash, and chasing down loose balls wherever they may be.
It’s early, but Hollis-Jefferson ranks well for a 23rd overall pick. He leads all rookies in total steals, steals per game, and steals per 100 possessions, ranking among the top 15 in a few other categories as well.
Versatility is one of the NBA’s buzzwords: having players that can fill multiple roles and defend multiple positions has become increasingly valuable. Just look at Young, who came into the league as a small forward, and now plays power forward. The best lineup in the universe right now is the “Death Lineup” used by the Golden State Warriors, which features four wing players and 6’7″ Draymond Green at center.
The Nets hardly have a death lineup — maybe call it a misdemeanor lineup — but in Hollis-Jefferson and Young, the Nets have two versatile players that can defend multiple positions, and Joe Johnson’s size allows him to switch more as well. According to Young, the Nets have made it a focus to switch more as the shot clock winds down, and that’s most successful when they have Hollis-Jefferson with him on the floor.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things about having a versatile team, you have a lot of guys on the court at one time that can switch and be able to guard the ball and guard multiple positions,” Young said.
The most obvious example of the team’s ability to switch is on a game-clinching defensive stand against the Atlanta Hawks, which showed Young, Johnson, and Hollis-Jefferson all switching off their man to cut off passing lanes.
Hollis-Jefferson’s activity, length, and footwork are all advanced for someone just a few months out of his sophomore year. He can trap a guard, work around a screen, and deflect a pass, running valuable time off a possession.
His lack of shooting poses a liability like Gerald Wallace for these Nets three years ago. But the other Nets wing players have struggled to hit three-pointers out of the gate, which makes Hollis-Jefferson valuable: if they aren’t getting three-pointers from the shooting guard spot, they might as well get someone who can defend them.
That energy also translates to the glass. He’s the only rookie under 6’10” averaging more than 11 rebounds per 100 possessions (minimum 100 minutes played), and he’s averaging nearly twice as many rebounds per 100 possessions (13.3) as his seven-foot teammate Andrea Bargnani (6.9).
“He definitely has that type of mindset that he wants to start, he wants to get better,” Young said, adding that he saw a little of himself in Hollis-Jefferson. “He’s in the gym shooting every day after practice, he’s probably always the last one to leave the gym. He just puts the work in. He’s been able to knock down some mid-range jumpers when we’ve needed them too. He’s been very very active on the glass, very very active defensively. He’s just all over the court. That’s what we need him to be, we need him to be all over the court to help us win games.”
“He’s active, man,” Jack added. “He comes up with a lot of plays that you wouldn’t be expecting a rookie to make.”