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Full-time duties at 4 helped Rondae Hollis-Jefferson make big leap

New York Knicks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

It’s late March of 2017. A 6’10” 247-pound Derrick Favors backs down a much smaller Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and bullies his way into a 19-point, 12-rebound game in a victory over the Nets.

Kenny Atkinson had recently made an adjustment to turn Hollis-Jefferson into a small-ball 4. Hollis-Jefferson recalls the struggles of covering a bigger player, somewhat of a wake up call for the then second-year pro.

He simply says, “Wow” when asked about that night covering Favors.

One season later, following his third year in the league, Hollis-Jefferson started 59 of 68 games at the 4, taking the biggest leap of his career. He averaged 14 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds per game. He finished with 12 double-doubles after recording a total of 10 during the first two seasons of his career.

Becoming a modern 4 (if not a stretch 4) wasn’t easy by any means, but he showed why it paid off for himself and the Nets.

“The way the game’s going, I feel like that’s definitely my natural fit,” Hollis-Jefferson said at Baggie day. “For the most part it was tough because most of the 4’s have been in the league for a while. They pretty much all have 15-plus pounds on me. Some 30, but for the most part, I think it’s about how hard you compete at the end of the day and coming out being ready to match that physicality, to match that energy.”

He admits that it wasn’t easy but he felt like he did a good job in his first full season at the four.

“You’ve got guys like Paul Millsap who plays more than me, he’s strong, skilled, a veteran, you’ve got to know how to compete. Be ready, know his motor, know his game, know his tendencies, which I’ve done. I felt like I’ve done a really good job,” he explained.

The position change wasn’t the only evolution we saw from RHJ. He stepped up as the heart and soul of the team, doing things that don’t show up in the box score. You’ll catch him happily bickering with everybody in the locker room, whether it be veteran DeMarre Carroll or his best friend on the team, Caris LeVert. He brought much-needed positive energy during a 28-win season.

For example: After RHJ missed 11 games - a span in which the Nets went 1-10 - rookie Jarrett Allen told reporters how good it felt just having him back around the team and on the court. Allen is smart, a quiet kid. He doesn’t just say these type of things for no reason.

“People get confused with being a leader by what they say,” Hollis-Jefferson said earlier in the season. “It’s about what you do and your work ethic and how you come in every day.”

Remember, he is only 23-years-old, but he’s been around long enough to understand that it’s critical to stay calm and optimistic even when times are tough. This has been his outlook on life since he was a kid, his outlook since he entered the league.

The only Net still standing from the old era, transformed into what the new era wants him to be. He credits Kenny Atkinson and assistant Jacque Vaughn for his development, both of whom have played a huge role in developing other players on the Nets.

“It says a lot; you know? Program’s great, the structure, the organization, everything that they have in place is phenomenal and we believe in it. I think that’s the biggest part, believing and trusting in our process, which makes things a lot easier for their side and ours, because when you’re aligned I feel like that’s when you get the best out of everything.”

He’s gotten much better and that “broken” shot everyone talked about so much was a thing of beauty this season ... from mid-range, at least. He shot an impressive 47 percent from two, but alas, is not what he should be, wants to be. His shooting beyond the arc was still a putrid 24 percent.

For him to take that next step, deep shooting must be his biggest area of improvement. And he knows it.

“Shooting less mid-range and adding three’s (laughs). I would say just adding that to my guy, I feel like would be better for our team and for myself. Just because analytics, efficiency. You want to do what’s best at the end of the day to make your team better. Coaches want it, staff wants it, teammates want it, so I’m all for it.”

Notice the word “analytics” he mentioned? Earlier Thursday morning, before exit interviews, the Nets held an “analytical meeting” to show players where they improved the most and what they need to improve on.

That’s why Hollis-Jefferson, despite his efficiency from the floor, emphasizes his need to develop a 3-point stroke. The Nets attempted the second-most in the NBA this season, and in order for him to keep his spot, he’ll need to become some sort of threat from deep. It will also help his payday next summer.

“I’m not perfect. There’s some things I do great and some things I don’t do so well. We all know what that is, look at the numbers, so I’ve just got to do better,” Hollis-Jefferson said on what he needs to improve this summer.

And that’s what will be the biggest question for the popular Net going forward. While he proved that he can be a force on the court and a leader off the court, can he expand his game even more? It’ll be crucial.

He looks forward to it and refuses to look backwards.

“I don’t really want to talk too much about the past but I’ll just give credit to what we did this season.”