As every NBA player knows, when you get to the big show, everyone has to prove themselves all over again. It doesn’t matter how well you did, how big of a man on campus you were. Everyone is in the same situation.
That said, losing hurts and for the three Nets taken in the 2015 NBA Draft — a big part of their young core, it’s been particularly frustrating. Coming out of well-respected programs with winning records —after being high school stars and champions— Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor have experienced losing on a massive, maybe unprecedented scale, particularly in their rookie years. RHJ won 20 games with the Nets in 2015-16, DLo 17 with the Lakers and Okafor a mere 10 with the 76ers. None has smelled the playoffs.
Combined record for the three of them over their first two years in the NBA: 122-370, nearly 250 more losses than wins.
There were complicating factors with all three, Hollis-Jefferson missed more than 50 games his rookie year; Russell was a bit player in Kobe Bryant’s long goodbye and Okafor exemplified “The Process.” Russell and Okafor both had lingering off-the-court controversies.
So, we took a look at how they won, won, then lost, lost, lost ... and how they’ve reacted to it. In the case of Russell and Okafor, the Nos. 2 and 3 picks, their comments are tinged with bitterness. So be it. They’ve been body slammed by pundits, coaches and GM’s. Rondae being Rondae— and playing in the Nets culture— was more positive.
Take a look...
In high school, his team (Chester PA), was 91-5 and won two state championships in 2011 and 2012 ( losing in the finals the third year he played.) Hollis-Jefferson was named the Class AAAA player of the year following his junior and senior seasons.
At Arizona, his teams were 67-9 in the two years he played at Tempe, 31-5 in the Pac-12. Both teams won the PAC-12 and got to the Elite 8. He was taken at No. 23 in the 2015 Draft.
In the NBA, his teams have won 41 games and lost 123 prior to this season.
“In high school I felt like I couldn’t lose,” Hollis-Jefferson told Fred Kerber on Friday. “College, I felt the same way.”
“It comes down to who you are as a person. I feel my foundation and my core is so solid even with adversity, I stayed with who I was: a positive, happy, fulfilled person who is eager to want more and eager to be better.”
In high school, his team (Monteverde Academy, FL) won the national high school championships in 2013 and 2014, playing with Ben Simmons. They were 45-2 in those two years.
At Ohio State, where he played one year, the Buckeyes were a disappointing 24-11, losing in the second round to Arizona (and Hollis-Jefferson) but he was setting scoring records for a Big Ten freshman. Russell was consensus first team all-American and winner of the 2015 Oscar Robertson Trophy, Wayman Tisdale Award and Jerry West Awards.
He was taken No. 2 in the 2015 NBA Draft and was named a member of the 2016 USA Select Team that trained with and scrimmaged against 2016 U.S. Olympic Team.
In the NBA, his teams have won 43 games and lost 121 prior to this season. He was taken No. 2 in the 2015 NBA Draft
“I went through a lot when I was here,” Russell told Lakers and Nets beat writers on his return in L.A. “It’s nothing I could really control. It was out of my hands by that point [when he was traded].
”I went through a lot -- Kobe’s farewell, everything. ... So just to overcome that, I salute myself for that.”
No one had the career Okafor had before being drafted in 2015, winning championships in high school, the NCAA and international competition. It’s worth reviewing it all because in light of what has happened since it’s so extraordinary.
In high school, his team was 84-29, (58-9 his junior and senior years) and winner of the Illinois State Championship his senior year. That year, he was named 2014 Morgan Wootten National High School Player of the Year and was co-MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game. He was also ranked as the top high school prospect in the country by all the high school scouting services.
He played one year at Duke and the Blue Devils won the national championship with a 34-5 record. Okafor was both the ACC Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year. He won the National Freshman of the Year award and was consensus first team All-American along with Russell.
Prior to that, he won gold medals at the 2013 FIBA U19 World Championship, the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championship and the 2011 FIBA Americas U16 Championship. He was the MVP of the U17 FIBA World Championship tournament. His teams compiled an 18-0 record in those three tournaments.
He was taken No. 3 in the 2015 NBA Draft (and was named first team All-Rookie). Like Russell, he was named a member of the 2016 USA Select Team.
In the NBA, his teams have won 38 games and lost 126 prior to this season..
“I definitely feel like I’m the scapegoat for a lot of The Process issues,” Okafor told SB Nation just before he was traded to Brooklyn. “Something I learned is that when you lose, people find a reason why you’re losing and I think that’s where the defense thing really blew up — ‘oh, he can’t play defense, that’s why they only won 10 games.’ But there were a lot of other reasons why we only won 10 games that season.”
The three are all in a good place now, it seems. Hollis-Jefferson has become a team leader, Russell has escaped his reputation as immature and Okafor is in tune with the Nets plan to bring him along at a deliberate pace.
Will they ever become winners? They certainly believe they will and Sean Marks, Kenny Atkinson, et al, are trying their best to make it happen. Confidence building —or more so rebuilding— is a big part of the Nets development plan (as is rescuing players from bad situations). Hollis-Jefferson has spoken about how helpful his talks with the staff —and the team’s sports psychologist— have been.
As Okafor said last week about his talks with Russell, “D’Angelo (Angelo) is somebody I talk with often and he loves it here. He had nothing but positive things to say to me even before I stepped foot into the facility, and everything he said is true. They really care about us.”
So, if and when they win, play in the post-season, it will be a welcome return to something that for all three was once second nature.