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Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the big surprise

NBA: Preseason-Miami Heat at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Kenny Atkinson finds optimism in a lot of things, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s improvement over the off-season is no exception.

“I think he’s starting to find himself maturity-wise,” said Atkinson. “I think that from a basketball standpoint and an emotional maturity standpoint. I felt like he had a lot of ups and down last season and it got better as the season went on. And this season I see he’s making progress from a maturity standpoint.

“I think he’s figuring out where his kind of niche is with this group, with that first five he’s been playing with,” Atkinson continued. “I think they have helped him out a little bit. He’s starting to find his niche and defensively. And I said last year when we inserted him into the lineup, we got better defensively. We just feel he’s been really good defensively. I feel so comfortable with him out there. It’s been big for us.”

Atkinson spoke extensively about The Hyphen at Friday’s practice. As anyone who’s watched any of the preseason games or listened to Atkinson knows, RHJ is the big surprise. It’s not just the maturity (which first showed itself when he played in the NBA Africa Game in xxxx), but an improved offense to go with that confident defesne.

People tend to forget that Hollis-Jefferson may be the longest tenured Net, but he is still only 22, the fourth youngest player on the team after Jarrett Allen, D’Angelo Russell and Isaiah Whitehead. He remains a work in progress and that’s a good thing.

Hollis-Jefferson himself sees growth, with his mentality and approach to life as a now third-year NBA player.

“Last season? Yeah. I feel like I kind of held on to things a little longer than I should, made it 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,” he said.

He’s not talking about holding on to the ball more, but instead letting his disappointments linger. He’s noted that he’s had help from a variety of sources getting him beyond that issue, including the team’s sports psychologist, Dr. Paul Groenewal.

“Just I felt like going into the summer after last season, just putting together a plan and just executing it to the best of my ability, the coaching staff’s ability; and that was just to come out and be 10 one of the best competitors, 20 someone who’s going to work on their ball handling, working on his jump shot, and then working on being a leader.

“So I feel like as far as that, I did a really, really good job staying in the gym, communicating with people, just the little things that count.”

You could start to see it in Johannesburg, where he played well for Team World, with seven points on 3-of-4 shooting, adding four rebounds, three assists and a steal. But he also saw another side of life that altered his perspective. “It humbled me, man. It was definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life.”

Still playful, RHJ has accepted more of a leadership role this season and it gets noticed. Atkinson has praised Hollis-Jefferson for what he called a ‘really good off-season,’ harping on his off the court demeanor and attitude as a sign of growth.

That improvement extends to his on-court performance, particularly his jump shot, which has lost its hitch and gained some credibility. He shot 67.9 percent overall and not been tempted to take a three-pointer. Hollis-Jefferson says his deep shot is coming along, but not where he wants it yet.

“I feel like I still have some improving to do,” he said. “Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t.”

Atkinson thinks that while Hollis-Jefferson may not become a stretch 4, he can be a playmaking 4 on offense. He’s grown into, really, a prototypical interior forward (size aside) because of his skillset.

“That’s where people saw value – at the power forward, then I think he came here and – because he’s got a certain skill set in terms of passing the ball and being a good ball-handler and facilitator – automatically I think you could always say 2 or a 3,” Atkinson said of RHJ. “It’s part of the evolution of the 4 position: it’s becoming more and more of a perimeter position, a hybrid.”

And getting him closer to the basket is going to help his offense too.

“(It’s) definitely closer to the basket than 2 or 3, but also he brings it up at times in our offense – I see (Rondae) evolving,” his coach said. “It’s almost in step with where the NBA is going on that position. Sure it’s interior, but there’s a perimeter part to it, but it fits his skill set.”

“Um, yeah. It helped being closer,” RHJ admits.

Defense, of course, will always be Hollis-Jefferson’s forte. His 7’3” wingspan gives him advantages as does that quick-twitch athleticism. How big can he defend? Probably not Joel Embiid, Atkinson now admits.

Embiid, who Hollis-Jefferson did guard in a few instances, had his way, primarily against the experimental small ball line-up, which had the likes of the 6’7” Hollis-Jefferson, and the 6’8” Trevor Booker, together in the front court, or even switching at center.

“Are you just going to blindly do it?” Atkinson asked rhetorically about small ball. “We’re going small because we have to go small. Part of the equation is what does the other team have out there? For example, Rondae on Embiid: that’s probably a little much for him and that’s where we could get another bigger guy in there to help out.”

On the other end of the scale, Atkinson likes what he can do with Hollis-Jefferson against smaller players. He’s the Swiss Army Knife from Chester, PA. Yeah, Yeah, we know, basketball is more position-less, but the point is, the Arizona-alum is down in the low post, out on the wing, defending, at times, all five positions, serving as a ball-handler, etc.

So, is he ready to debut the new Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on the regular season stage after all this preseason “stuff?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m looking forward to it, looking forward to getting out there, getting after it, being competitive. Just bringing that Brooklyn spirit that we all have is something I’m looking forward to.”