Can Rondae Hollis-Jefferson be a ‘Special Snowflake’ in the NBA?

Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

J.Z. Mazlish (@jzmazlish) is a Blue Devil at heart and a die-hard Wizards fan. You can see more of his work at his own draft website Wingspan Addicts (wingspanaddicts) and on ESPN’s Brooklyn’s Finest (brooklynsfinestblog).

Last May, Seth Partnow wrote a fantastic piece on evaluating draft prospects regarding what he called “special snowflakes.” The idea is that fans and scouts too often overlook a player’s weaknesses because an NBA player has succeeded with those same deficiencies. One example is Tony Allen, and how it is easy to say the wing that can’t shoot and isn’t very skilled is destined to be the second coming of the Grizzlies defensive ace.

Seth sums up the fallacy in this argument by saying “the subtext is that if the player doesn’t turn into one of the very best on-ball defenders in the league, he’ll be borderline unplayable.” Even if a player is a great defensive prospect, it’s foolish to assume that they will definitely become an elite NBA defender. When it comes to a wing prospect who can’t shoot at all, NBA teams have to be hoping that player either becomes a truly great defender, or that they develop at least some semblance of a 3-point shot.

This brings us to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Hollis-Jefferson fits the special snowflake mold to a T. He’s a fantastic athlete in all physical aspects, and he leveraged that ability with hard work and great instincts to make himself one of the best perimeter defenders in all of college basketball. On the offensive end, he possesses many of the ancillary skills of Allen — he’s a great cutter, good offensive rebounder and has good passing vision and ability. However, he has an average handle and often dribbles himself into turnovers.

Most importantly of all, he cannot shoot.

For Hollis-Jefferson to have a successful NBA career, he either needs to improve his outside shot or develop into such a great defender that he deserves minutes despite the zero spacing he provides on offense. The question is, are either of those likely to happen?

Can he improve his shot?

It has becomes somewhat in vogue amongst draft fans to suggest that taking prospects who can’t shoot is smart because it is easy to develop them into good shooters in time. I blame Kawhi Leonard. On one hand, shooting is probably the easiest basketball skill to improve at, but that still doesn’t mean it’s something everyone can do. Hollis-Jefferson isn’t just a bad shooter, he’s an awful shooter.

For proof, below is a table comparing Hollis-Jefferson’s stats to those of other wings who’d been labeled non-shooters prior to the draft.

Player3PT PercentageFT Percentage2PT Jump Shot Percentage
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson20.7%70.7%32.8%
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist25.5%74.5%35.6%
Andre Roberson32.8%55.1%31.7%
Trevor Ariza23.7%50.4%N/A
Kawhi Leonard29.1%75.9%N/A
Tony Allen29.7%67.5%N/A

Hollis-Jefferson was the worst 3-point shooter of the cohort, but all of them were on a fairly low number of attempts, so it’s hard to extrapolate too much from sample size. Amongst this group, Ariza and Leonard have become good shooters, but there was nothing in their college stats to suggest they would develop more than the rest.

Still, there is a difference between them and Hollis-Jefferson. Both had decent form they didn’t need to fix, but Hollis-Jefferson has poor mechanics in addition to bad results. Looking at this shot from his Draft Express scouting video, we can easily see his flaws.

Hollis-Jefferson cocks the ball back too far behind his head, turns dramatically sideways, and the hitch in his release makes it hard to watch. It’s possible that Hollis-Jefferson can stick with his current form and become a decent shooter, but it’s unlikely to happen. If he is going to develop into a serviceable shooter, he is going to need to re-work his form completely.

The issue is, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. In the context of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, another wing defender who came into the NBA with a broken jump shot, it is not just hard to develop good mechanics, but even harder to develop the confidence one needs to be successful as a shooter.

With that in mind, the odds are stacked against Hollis-Jefferson becoming a reliable threat from the perimeter. The chance he emerges as a decent shooter gives him a little extra upside, but it should not factor too heavily in his draft evaluation.

Can he become an elite defender?

Assuming Hollis-Jefferson never is an outside threat, he is going to need to be an impact player on the defensive end. The good news is that he is a truly great defensive prospect, but as mentioned earlier, it is hard to say whether he will turn into just a good defensive player or one of the NBA’s premier defenders. Hollis-Jefferson’s athleticism and frame are most similar to fellow double last-namer Kidd-Gilchrist, but he is not quite the defensive prospect MKG was coming out of Kentucky.

Hollis-Jefferson is sometimes slow navigating through screens, and he doesn’t have Kidd-Gilchrist’s elite lateral quickness. In college, Hollis-Jefferson’s length and long strides allowed him to make up for his ever-so-slight defensive shortcomings, but little things can be a difference-maker in the NBA. Also, Kidd-Gilchrist has mastered the advanced concepts of NBA defense at an unusual rate even for great defenders. Hollis-Jefferson showed good off-ball instincts at Arizona, yet it is unlikely he will be able to pick up NBA-level schemes to quite the same degree as MKG.

The verdict

Hollis-Jefferson has lottery-pick upside if his shot and decision-making improves or develops into an MKG-level defender sooner than expected. However, he also risks being borderline unplayable at the NBA level if he struggles with the defensive game plans and is only an average defender coupled with being turnover-prone and a space-killer on the offensive end.

The most likely outcome is somewhere in between: a very good but not quite elite defender who does just enough on offense to earn rotation minutes (à la Andre Roberson). As a result, Hollis-Jefferson’s combination of both high upside and large downside leaves him as a fine pick somewhere in the late-teens or early-20’s of this draft.