Expectations for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's Rookie Season with Brooklyn Nets

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistJuly 1, 2015

Arizona forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson celebrates after scoring against California during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, March 5, 2015, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

The Brooklyn Nets hardly found their savior when they acquired Arizona Wildcats product Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on draft night, but they did get some help.

Hollis-Jefferson, the 23rd pick in Thursday night's draft, came over later in the evening as part of the deal that sent Mason Plumlee to the Portland Trail Blazers and brought Steve Blake to Brooklyn. Now, the 20-year-old slots in as another defensive weapon for coach Lionel Hollins.

He's just another crop cut from Arizona coach Sean Miller's farm.

Sure, Arizona has long athletes. That's a trend we've seen year after year with the Wildcats. But that's not necessarily why they're consistently one of the best defensive teams in the country. The greatest Arizona defenders know how to compete on that side of the floor because of their smarts.

It sounds cliche, but it's true. Arizona defenders just know where to be on the floor.

Aaron Gordon was a freak athlete, but his intelligence amplified his explosiveness and versatility.

Nick Johnson? Smart.

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Brandon Ashley? He's so quick and intuitive as a help defender that he could end up being one of those guys who's still on an NBA roster in seven years, leaving us to ask, "Wait, how did Brandon Ashley go undrafted?"

Miller has this habit of producing guys who genuinely understand team defense. Hollis-Jefferson may have the length and the leap, but he's also firmly in that category.

"The way [Miller's] philosophy is, if you play defense, you make it to championships, pretty much. And he sticks by that," Hollis-Jefferson said. "He holds you accountable on defense at all times, and that's something—a lot of people should live by that. It'll make you better."

Hollis-Jefferson guarded all over the place during his college career. He's not just talented. He's versatile, and he showed it by defending 1 through 5 at Arizona. Heck, there were moments during the Elite Eight when the team assigned him to Wisconsin Badgers star Frank Kaminsky in the post—and he played well when doing it.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

It's funny, because the guy Brooklyn shipped off to receive Hollis-Jefferson, Plumlee, isn't that player, even if he is a strong, leaping athlete. His inability to play both the 4 and 5 contributed to his departure from Brooklyn.

"I think the way the league is going, I don't think you are going to play two guys like that," Nets general manager Billy King said about Plumlee and upcoming free agent Brook Lopez, whom the Nets hope to bring back. "You're not going to play Mason at the 4 and Brook at the 5."

The NBA is heading in that positionless direction. It's not just because the Golden State Warriors won 67 games and the title with a switchy, homogeneous defense that planted the 6'7" Draymond Green at center for meaningful playoff minutes. The league has been trending in this direction for a while.

"You look at Golden State," King said. "They can throw [Andre] Iguodala out there. They can throw other guys out there."

So King is trying to build something similar on the defensive end. But he started searching for those types in previous drafts.

Markel Brown, whom the team drafted in 2014, showed that he could ferociously defend the 1 and 2 this past season. A fellow member of Brown's class, Cory Jefferson, has the athleticism and length to go at it with 4s or 5s. And those guys were second-round picks.

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Hollis-Jefferson is cut from a different cloth. He's a more refined creature.

"Looking at Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's defensive ability, trying to get athletic on the wing position was something I thought we needed," King said. "And I thought he was the best defender in the draft."

The kid's all arms. Standing at 6'7" with a 7'2" wingspan, he's long enough to defend multiple positions in the NBA, as he did in college, though guarding pro centers is a pipe dream.

He's a high-effort product both on and off the ball. He's a demon in transition because of his speed, strength around the rim and sadistic desire to dunk on everyone. Think of him as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Lite.

But even if he's ready on defense, that doesn't mean Hollis-Jefferson is ripe to come into Brooklyn and make an immediate impact. He still has notable issues with his general offensive game, especially his jump shot. And if Brooklyn wants to give Brown, who started the team's final 29 regular-season games, his minutes back, it'll be tough to play both of those guys. 

John Locher/Associated Press

Even if they don't play together, and even if neither of them requires more than 17 to 20 minutes per game, it's tough to sustain offense without shooting on the wings. Brown—who hit 38 percent of his long-range opportunities in 2013-14, his final season at Oklahoma State—could rediscover his stroke, but it's not like we should wait around for that to happen. Hollis-Jefferson, meanwhile, shot just 8-of-39 from three during his two-year collegiate career.

It took Brown some time to infiltrate Hollins' rotation as a rookie. Even if Hollis-Jefferson enters the league in higher esteem than the 2014 second-round pick, don't be surprised if he gets similar treatment early.

In that sense, RHJ has to join Brooklyn with tempered expectations, but it's possible that his defense is too overwhelming to ignore.

If that's the case, Brooklyn got a steal at No. 23.

If it isn't, the Nets play the long game and wait out a time when they can deploy multiple perimeter-oriented athletes to defend the wings. We may constantly knock Brooklyn for its lack of a future, but at least we're starting to see some modern role players with whom it can progress.

Follow Fred Katz on Twitter at @FredKatz.

All quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics are current as of June 30 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless noted otherwise.

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