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Rondae becoming a fixture at power forward

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NBA: Indiana Pacers at Brooklyn Nets Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA is changing, and undersized power forwards are the new wave.

Look around the league: Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Jabari Parker (get well soon) and others are all part of that new wave. The game has evolved from the previously dominant bunch, the likes of Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, near seven footers.

Green, Barnes and Parker all range from about 6’7” to 6’8”. Green and Barnes weigh around 220-230 pounds or so. That was a prototypical small forward in the old NBA.

The evolution is here to stay, or at least until someone comes along and changes things again. And Brooklyn is looking ahead (or forward, pun intended), which explains the recent decision to start Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in favor of Trevor Booker.

Hollis-Jefferson is typically pegged at 6’7” and around 220-225 pounds. He has the needed attributes, starting with a long wingspan, 7’2” in RHJ’s case; hyper-athleticism and a defensive mindset. Booker, while enjoying a career year as a starter, is headed back to where he has been most effective in his NBA career: as a sixth man.

In the 43 games Booker started at the 4, he’s averaged 9.8 points and 8.6 rebounds in 26.6 minutes per contest, all of which are career highs. Coming off the bench for six games, Booker’s actually given Brooklyn better production, 11.2 points and 9.7 rebounds in 23.2 minutes of play.

"I feel comfortable just being on the court, whether it's starting or coming off the bench,” Booker said at Sunday’s practice. “I just go out there and do my job, and I feel pretty comfortable right now. It (not starting) wasn't a big deal. Whatever they want to do, I'm totally fine with it. I feel good with that second unit. I feel like we move the ball well, we push the pace, and we just compete."

"He's seems like he's more in his comfort zone,” Kenny Atkinson added. “I think the pace of that second unit helps too because they play a little faster. What's great about Trevor is that he never saw it as a demotion, he's embraced it - his energy's been really good. I think he saw that we're trying different things.”

In the same six-game span, we’ve seen Hollis-Jefferson continue his growth as a starter, posting 8.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 24.2 minutes per contest, while shooting 54.8% from field goal and 83.3% on free throws. His lack of a long-range shot, a real problem at the 2 or 3, is less an issue at the 4.

For the season, Hollis-Jefferson’s averages sit at 7.8 points and 5.1 boards in 21.8 minutes in 50 games (22 starts). So his numbers, like Booker’s, are up.

“I think it's helped us defensively,” Atkinson said, adding to his sustained admiration for Hollis-Jefferson’s ability to guard just about anyone put in front of him. “Rondae's used to guarding perimeter guys. He's quite comfortable switching to guarding a big too.

"So far, we really like it. The way Rondae rebounds it's rarely been a mismatch for teams posting us up. Rondae's a heck of a post-up defender, and we like the mismatch it causes on offense.”

Simultaneously, the 22-year old’s athleticism —and length— has helped him when saddled with the responsibility of guarding bigs like Kristaps Porzingis. And those same gifts made it hard for bigger PFs —like the Knicks’ 7’3” star— to guard him. Hollis-Jefferson had 16 and 8 against Porzingis.

Atkinson likes what he’s seen so much that he plans to keep RHJ in the starter’s role and Booker coming off the bench.

“I think for the immediate future, we're going to stick with it,” Atkinson said. "I can see him playing both. In this new NBA, he's very comfortable at the four, and we're comfortable with him there. I'd like to see him evolve into that 4-3, 3-4 guy…”

As for Booker, who turns 30 in November, Atkinson highlights his career best numbers as “real development” a positive for this grueling campaign.

"It’s a credit to him, that's the type of guy he is, the type of work ethic he has,” coach said of Book. “That's part of what we're doing here. Despite the win/loss record, that's a positive sign.”

It’s the “new NBA.” I then threw out Draymond Green’s name as point of comparison. Atkinson replied…

“Sure, same length, same height, people don’t realize that. (Rondae) moves the ball, rebounds (and is) a good defender. I mean that (Green comparison) is big...but Rondae's 22 years old,” he continued. “I do think we have this model, we're thinking ahead, where is this NBA going and what does it look like? He fits that. I think him going from the three to the four has helped him and helped us, I'm just being real honest.”

And it can’t be lost on him that Hollis-Jefferson is also seven years younger, another advantage as the team rebuilds.