By Steve Lichtenstein
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If you were to ask me to list the areas in which the Nets would be most adversely affected by the groin injury to forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, defensive rebounding probably wouldn’t have made the top five.
Listed at 6-foot-7 and 214 pounds, the 23-year old, third-year pro is severely undersized for the power forward position he’s playing. The Nets believe Hollis-Jefferson’s speed, athleticism and general quirkiness counterbalance the size discrepancies he faces on a nightly basis. They were so committed to the plan that they had no qualms about trading Trevor Booker, a more traditional power forward, to Philadelphia in December.
Hollis-Jefferson was no monster on the boards, averaging about 8.6 defensive rebounds per 48 minutes. That places him 30th among forwards who have played over 750 minutes. Yet Brooklyn was 10th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage (78.4 percent) and in the middle of the pack in second-chance points allowed per game (12.6) through Jan. 26, the night Hollis-Jefferson went down with a right groin strain in Milwaukee. Brooklyn has not provided a timetable for his return.
The Nets have since lost seven of eight games with Hollis-Jefferson out of the lineup, including an excruciating 138-128, double-overtime defeat to visiting New Orleans on Saturday, in which they came all the way back from a 28-point, second-half deficit.
In this timeframe sans Hollis-Jefferson, the Nets suddenly became the league’s second-worst defensive rebounding team in both percentage (73.6 percent) and second-chance points allowed (17.8).
With Booker gone, DeMarre Carroll, who has made a very good living for himself as a 3-and-D wing, has started in Hollis-Jefferson’s place the last three games. Prior to that, Quincy Acy and two-way contract player James Webb III split the minutes at the “four.”
“We have noticed that our rebounding has taken a hit since (Hollis-Jefferson) has been out of the lineup,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said prior to Saturday’s game. “We have to combat that by doing it by committee. We always preach guard rebounding, so they’ve got to do a better job. DC does a heck of a job at the four and helps us offensively, but rebounding-wise, it’s a little different than Rondae, so we just have to do it by committee — all five of us.”
Atkinson called the Pelicans “a big, talented team,” but they came into the game as a bottom-feeder in most of the league’s rebounding rankings and were missing All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins.
Of course, Atkinson was right to be worried, as New Orleans feasted on the glass early in Saturday’s contest. In the first quarter, the Pelicans had more offensive rebounds (nine) than the Nets had defensive rebounds (seven). New Orleans had been averaging 11.8 second-chance points per game — they collected 13 such points in the first quarter alone.
With Dante Cunningham, the veteran forward who was acquired at Thursday’s trade deadline in a salary dump by New Orleans, making his Brooklyn debut, the Nets did get their act together on the boards thereafter (though it should be noted that the Pelicans shot 64.2 percent from the floor and missed only 15 field goal attempts in the second and third quarters combined). Still, the trend is troublesome.
In Hollis-Jefferson’s eight-game absence, the Nets have rebounded just 62.9 percent of opponents’ missed shots in the first quarter. No other team has a first-quarter defensive rebounding percentage lower than 71.1 percent.
As Atkinson said, it wouldn’t be fair to pin all the blame for the Nets’ rebounding woes on one position. In fact, we shouldn’t ignore the impact from having 19-year-old rookie Jarrett Allen start the last seven games at center, replacing the benched and since-traded Tyler Zeller. Allen’s on-court versus off-court defensive rebounding percentages have the largest negative variation (70.5 percent versus 79.5 percent) of any Nets big in that span. The combination of Allen’s physical immaturity and inexperience in knowing when to leave his man to protect the paint has surely compounded the rebounding problem.
Then again, Zeller started at center for Hollis-Jefferson’s first game out at Minnesota, and it produced the ugliest first quarter of the season. The Wolves had nine of their 27 second-chance points in a 30-11 frame. Brooklyn’s defensive rebounding percentage during Zeller’s nine minutes on the floor that night? 50 percent.
Get well soon, Rondae.
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