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When development —and patience— turns a “bust” into a “steal”

Phoenix Suns v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

We have enough of a sample size to declare that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is an offensive threat on a nightly basis.

Hollis-Jefferson has scored 10+ points in 13-of-17 games so far this season. Last season, as an NBA sophomore, the two-way combo forward didn’t reach 10+ points 13 times until he played his 37th game of the season, which was on January 17.

That’s just a microcosm of RHJ’s scoring improvements, which has jumped from 5.8 as a rookie to 8.9 last season to 14.7 this season.

We also know that he is very good and very versatile defensively. In a lot of ways, he’s the engine that makes this Brooklyn Net team go.

In fact, he’s quietly become one of the standouts of a talented 2015 NBA Draft Class as a result. Who knew?

RHJ, still only 22 and the fourth youngest player on a young team, has gone from a player many (including some unnamed fans) thought was a draft bust to a draft steal.

In any event, Hollis-Jefferson, who is shooting 49.4% from the field and a team-best 83.1% from the free throw line while pulling down 5.8 rebounds per game, stacks up well against most of his fellow draft classmates (one of whom is his teammate, D’Angelo Russell).

Hollis-Jefferson was selected right around where he was projected to go, at pick No. 23, but became a draft day trade piece. He was selected by the Trail Blazers and moved to his current Brooklyn home.

In said deal, the Nets had to take on Steve Blake’s $2.2 million, along with the rights RHJ while giving up a young, promising first round pick (from two drafts earlier) Mason Plumlee, and Pat Connaughton, a second rounder. The next month, the Nets moved Blake to the Pistons for Quincy Miller afterward; a nothing deal.

At the time, the Hollis-Jefferson deal came with mixed reviews for Brooklyn. Plumlee, averaged 8.7 points and 6.2 rebounds while shooting 57.3% in 21.3 minutes per game the year before, a season in which he played all 82 games. It’s an unwritten rule that you don’t trade a prospect for a prospect straight up (although in this case, there’s a five-year difference in age).

And of course, there was another reason for skepticism. After all, it was, that regime.

Then, things didn’t go well in his rookie season. The kid from the University of Arizona missed 50 games with a broken ankle. He had shown some promise on defense. When he went down, he was leading all rookies in steals and twice had games of five steals.

But he. Could. Not. Shoot.

Last season, he was healthy, but his shooting took a dip. Then, in mid-January Kenny Atkinson made a move that caught a lot of people by surprise. He began giving Hollis-Jefferson time at power forward. And why not? In his first season and a half, he was shooting under 25 percent from three point range. The Nets liked what they had but as one inside source noted, when your offense is predicated on deep shooting and your small forward can’t shoot, that’s a problem.

The “small ball” power forward movement was propelled by Draymond Green’s success at Golden State. And Atkinson liked the other parts of Hollis-Jefferson’s game: his defense, his passing, his energy. The success of the switch became evident when comparing Hollis-Jefferson’s production before the All-Star break (7.8 points and 5.1 rebounds and 42 percent shooting overall) to after (10.3 points and 7.2 rebounds and 45 percent).

As it turned out that was just the start. Hollis-Jefferson devoted his summer to making that the foundation of something bigger. There were long days (and nights) at the HSS Training Center, perfecting his shot, losing a hitch while gaining credibility, working on his ball-handling.

There was something else as well, something very Nets-like, talks with a sports psychologist, Dr. Paul Groenewal. Neither Hollis-Jefferson nor Groenewal will talk about what was discussed, but one aspect of his game beyond his shot and ball-handling, is decidedly different this season. His maturity. It’s about getting to a “next play mentality,” as the Nets call 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 told reporters in late October.

Of his talks with Groenewal, Hollis-Jefferson said simply, “The big focus is basketball here. (Sean Marks) wants you to be exceptional at it. He wants you to focus on your craft, so what better way than to give the players the tools to do that.”

But now we’re in a place where the 6’7” forward (with a 7’3” wingspan) might very well become a top-5 or 6 player from his draft class. The numbers suggest it, as would the eye test shows it.

Among those taken in 2015, he ranks 11th in career minutes per game , 9th in career scoring, and 5th in career rebounds.

This season alone? Only his teammate Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Kristaps Porzingis and Myles Turner (scoring aside) are definitively better across the board. Other than him, that’s that’s three of the top four picks, and two late lottery choices.

Think of who he’s surpassed...

Jahlil Okafor, the third pick, was offensively great as a rookie (17 and 7), but has had a historical decline ever since and is stuck in “The Process” limbo.

Fifth pick Mario Hezonja, who was famously supposed to be “the European J.R. Smith”, would have been a steal if that were the case. It isn’t. He’s averaging 3.5 points this season, which is far from his career-best of 6.1 as a rookie. The Magic declined to exercise his rookie option.

Sixth pick Willie Cauley-Stein has improved to 10.2 points and 6.0 rebounds this season, but he’s ultimately been disappointing.

Emmanuel Mudiay (10.9 points and 3.5 assists per game), the seventh pick, is more efficient (shooting 43.5% from three and a career-best 40.2% from field goal), but not as productive, and no longer starting.

Eighth pick Stanley Johnson? As we say in New York: He iight.

Ninth pick Frank Kaminsky? 11.3 points per game, and not a ton else worth mentioning. Defense???

Tenth pick Justice Winslow? Who could’ve went as high as number 4, and who was drafted at the same position? The injury was impactful, so the jury is still out, but the clock is also ticking.

The rest of the draft? You have your Terry Rozier’s, Kelly Oubre’s and Larry Nance Jr’s, but you get the point.

Hollis-Jefferson has altered perception.

No one will ever hit on 100% in their mock drafts. In 2015, Bleacher Report did not, but one thing they did get right, as many others did, was the following bit of analysis.

“The big question is whether he (referring to RHJ) can ever develop that jumper, something he's failed to do through two years at Arizona.

“However, Hollis-Jefferson's defensive outlook could be too enticing to pass on this late, especially for a team that can surround him with quality offensive options. He'll be a steal in the 20s if he can ever learn how to shoot.”

Chad Ford, late of ESPN, got it right, too. He described RHJ as the "sleeper of the draft" with a little "Andre Iguodala in him." He also noted that improving a shot is the easiest development skill.

And now, he is that steal.

Atkinson thought he saw it before the season even began.

“I think he’s starting to find himself maturity-wise,” said Atkinson in mid-October. “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 feel so comfortable with him out there. It’s been big for us.”


For more on Rondae’s journey and more insight into how Dr. Groenewal helped him, read Steve Serby’s interview in Sunday’s Post