After a promising rookie campaign, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has struggled in his second season in Brooklyn. Despite his struggles, there have been positive signs from his play this season that indicate that he has a bright future ahead of him.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had a promising rookie season marred by injury but was still more effective than many expected. After being drafted 23rd overall in the 2015 draft, Hollis-Jefferson quickly moved up in the rotation and started 12 of 14 games in November. Unfortunately, Rondae broke his right ankle in December (after starting both games he played in), and did not return until March. By the end of the season, however, he had once again returned to the starting lineup. His strong defensive play made up for his minimal offensive contributions, and he looked to be a key piece of Brooklyn's future.
This season has been far less successful for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Despite playing in 45 games this season (16 more than last year), he has only started 17 games and only three since December 1. His shooting, already an issue, has fallen off this season. His defense has still been solid, but he has not been as successful at jumping into opposing passing lanes and generating turnovers. After a strong rookie campaign, his sophomore season has been concerning.
Rookie Season: Fitting in on Offense and Locking Down on Defense
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was not asked to handle much responsibility on the offensive end, but he did a decent job in his limited role. He shot 45.7% from the field but only posted a Usage Rate of 13.2%. He only shot 14 three-pointers and made four of them. He shied away from his iffy jump shot; the noted hitch in his shooting motion made jump shots even more difficult in the NBA than they had been in college. Those offensive weak points led to a True Shooting percentage of just 51.9%, far below league average.
However, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson truly shined on the defensive end. Even though rookies tend to struggle with defense, Rondae was a difference maker on that end despite missing much of his first season. His length (6'7" with a 7'2" wingspan per DraftExpress) and elite athleticism (Rondae has a 38" max vertical, also per DraftExpress) helped him to be a solid perimeter defender.
Rondae's biggest defensive contribution was his ability to generate turnovers. He ranked 23rd in the NBA in Steal Percentage out of 441 players who played in more than 10 games last season. He was able to read passing lanes like a seasoned veteran despite his age:
Rondae manages to use his massive arms to intercept this pass to Jae Crowder even as he is keeping an arm on Amir Johnson to prevent an easy shot near the basket. Hollis-Jefferson was not just a steal maven, however; his Defensive Rating of 101.4 was the best on the Nets last season by a significant margin (Willie Reed was second-best at 105.8) and far better than the team's overall mark of 108.5. His offensive game appeared to need work, but his defensive potential seemed almost endless.
Sophomore Season: A Bigger Role, for Better and for Worse
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has played a bigger role in the Nets offense this year and has struggled to adjust to his new responsibilities. His Usage Rate is up to 18.6% this season, and he is taking more shots per game — 6.5 FGA per game as opposed to 4.8 FGA per game last season. His True Shooting percentage is also down to just 50.4%. Rondae has improved as a secondary ball-handler and creator, and has upped his assist numbers by 0.5 per game; however, that has also been coupled with an increase in turnovers.
Hollis-Jefferson has still been above average on the defensive end but has not been the steals maven he was last season. He allows 0.88 points per possession according to Synergy Sports, which puts him in the 61st percentile league-wide. His Defensive Rating of 108.2 is far below last year's mark; however, it is still below the Nets overall mark of 109.5 and is fifth on the team among players with more than 100 minutes. His steal percentage has dropped to 27.3% from last year's 31.7% rate per NBA.com.
A major and subtle factor in Rondae's struggles on both ends is his positional shift this season. Hollis-Jefferson spent 60% of his minutes last year as a shooting guard and 27% at small forward; just 3% of his minutes were at power forward last year. This season, Rondae has spent more time at power forward than at shooting guard (28% at PF and 22% at SG) and has played the remaining 50% of his minutes at small forward. The size advantage he had as a shooting guard helped him to score more easily and use his size to lock up opposing players. However, he is too thin to guard power forwards effectively. Additionally, his skills on defense are mainly perimeter-oriented; this doesn't make him as useful guarding bigger players.
Looking Forward: A Blip On the Radar
Despite his struggles this season, there are many reasons for optimism about Rondae's future. After a very inefficient start to the season, Rondae posted a True Shooting percentage of 53.9% in January — not great, but far better than his number for the season overall. Furthermore, he is still adjusting to his shift in position on both ends.
Unlike his rookie season, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is not having a strong sophomore year. However, he still shows flashes of great play, and his defense continues to be better than expected from a sophomore player. He is also much better with the ball in his hands; in addition to his improved assist numbers, he will occasionally run the break for Brooklyn with Jeremy Lin out. Rondae would not have tried this coast-to-coast drive last season:
Even though his sophomore season has not been as expected, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson still has all the tools to be an elite defender. While there is room to grow on offense, he is a useful off-ball cutter who will look even better in that regard once Jeremy Lin returns. This early stretch of the season has not been as impressive as Rondae's first year but is almost certainly a blip on the radar in the career of a potential future All-Defensive player.