The guards and wings look solid, even with Caris LeVert hurt. Jarrett Allen is a growing presence underneath, but the 4 ... It’s still a question.
After starting Jared Dudley at “power forward” for 20 games, Kenny Atkinson opted to re-insert Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, last season’s starter, into the line-up for Sunday’s game with the Philadelphia 76ers.
The position has been a question mark for the Nets heading into the 2018-19 season with no real established 4. They tried to acquire Otto Porter in the 2017 off-season, thinking his high octane offense would fill the bill. But the Wizards matched their off sheet.
Making it more of a question is that every 4 on the roster, outside of Rodions Kurucs, is on an expiring contract. Hollis-Jefferson had held down the fort over the last season and a half, ever since being moved down low during 2016-17, but this season, an adductor (hip muscle) strain put him on the bench for Opening Night.
Hollis-Jefferson posted 13 points and six rebounds on 6-of-9 shooting in his Sunday start, logging a season-high 29+ minutes. He also defended Jimmy Butler well on the game-winner.
“Good, good,” Atkinson said, assessing Hollis-Jefferson’s overall performance on Monday. “I still think he’s coming back from that injury. I don’t think he’s 100% … He was out a while and it just takes time. I think he’d probably agree with me.”
Atkinson added that Hollis-Jefferson’s offense hasn’t caught on yet. The 23-year-old restricted free agent-to-be is averaging 9.5 points (and 5.6 rebounds) in 21.6 minutes per contest, scoring 15.8 points per-36 minutes, down from 17.7 a year ago.
And his coach says he’s not yet a finished product.
“You look at his finishing rate, it’s way below his career average,” Atkinson said. “I don’t think it’s technique wise, it’s just getting to his top form. He’s not in top form, which is good for us, it’s not a negative thing, he’s going to get better as he accumulates more games.
“The thing about it too as we brought him back, we weren’t starting him at 30 minutes, we kind of trickled the minutes until he got where he is now where he’s playing more significant minutes. I think that’ll help him get back into top form.”
Hollis-Jefferson said Monday that his start may or may not be set in stone, but adds that, ‘It felt good.’
“You know you’re not going to be able to start just because,” he said. “You’ve gotta put in the work and do the little things. So knowing that I’m doing the right things and everything, it feels good.”
The original decision to start Dudley appeared to be curious on the surface, but it does work with how the Nets want to operate offensively. The veteran forward doesn’t need the ball, like D’Angelo Russell does and Caris LeVert does. When the ball is in Dudley’s hands, he can stretch the floor, having been one of the 15 most accurate active shooters from deep heading into the season. He also knows from spacing ... and he knows it instinctively.
Dudley’s impact could also be measured outside of points, rebounds and steals. Andy Bailey of Bleacher Report noted 10 days ago that the Nets player with the biggest on-court advantage was the 33-year-old. The Nets he noted were being outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions when Dudley was off the court, but only 0.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.
“That’s a Net Rating swing of +5.2,” Bailey noted, the biggest on the team.
Then there’s DeMarre Carroll, who is listed as questionable for Wednesday with right foot soreness, and had a minor ankle surgery just before the season. He didn’t debut until November 9.
”DeMarre has rebounded well,” Atkinson says of Carroll’s return but noted that like Hollis-Jefferson, he has a minutes’ restriction.
Carroll is averaging 8.3 points and 4.7 rebounds in 20.3 minutes per contest through 10 appearances. Carroll is only shooting above 32% from both three-pointer and the field.
“I think DeMarre’s still getting back to the DeMarre of last year,” Atkinson added. “I don’t think he’s there. It’s just evolution of him coming back from that injury. We gave him minutes in doses, but I don’t think he’s in peak form right now. I know he’ll get there. Just needs more time, more games.”
That leaves Atkinson in a bit of a quandary, particularly if Carroll is out.
”I wish I could put what the timetable is where these guys are at optimal,” he said, speaking on both Carroll and Hollis-Jefferson. “It’s just my feeling watching them. They’re trending in the right direction. I just think like every player in the league it takes time to get back to peak performance.”
The problem at the 4 doesn’t end with Dudley, Hollis-Jefferson or Carroll (who can play the 3 as well, but that position is getting a bit crowded.)
Treveon Graham was expected to spend some time at the 4 as well, but has been sidelined with a hamstring injury. Shams Charania reported it as a tear, but Atkinson shot that down, saying it’s a strain.
As far as his current medical status, there isn’t one, Atkinson stated.
“Not an update today. I’ll talk to our people and see if we can get you one ASAP,” Atkinson responded when asked. ”I don’t want to give you a timetable. Don’t want to give you a set date. We’ll talk about it and try to get you something as soon as possible.”
And then there’s Kurucs, who did play seven games at the NBA level at 11.7 minutes per, but has since been working with the G League group on Long Island, and Kenneth Faried who’s only played 41 minutes all season.
But for now, it appears that the “answer” to the quandary is Hollis-Jefferson, although, Atkinson won’t say that’s definitive.
“We’ll see. I don’t think it’s set in stone. We’ll see tomorrow. Definitely thinking about it but I think I like what I saw from last game,” he said.
- Nets are a hot mess at this one position - Brian Lewis - New York Post