TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson came into the media room all smiles, seemingly a kid again. He was even singing: "Oh, happy day, oh, happy day."
The voice was fine, but the meaning was unclear since it was just minutes after teammates Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon had announced that they were leaving Arizona to enter the NBA draft.
Or perhaps Hollis-Jefferson was seeing opportunity, as the departures of Arizona’s two standouts should not only move the left-handed wing into the starting lineup but make him an impact player on a team that appears to be both talented and dynamic enough to make a run at a national title.
Next season will be about visibility to show off his versatility. Hollis-Jefferson, who averaged 9.1 points and 5.7 rebounds, is already projected to be a lottery pick in 2015, as Draft Express has him going No. 7 overall in a very early mock draft.
"I know what I’m capable of, and my goal my whole life is to be a top-10 pick," Hollis-Jefferson said in explaining why he didn’t take his chances in the upcoming draft. "I said that since before I could remember."
He said he plans on coming back 10 pounds heavier — "muscle", he clarified — with a better jump shot and improved leadership skills.
As for an expected move into the starting lineup, Hollis-Jefferson said he’ll do whatever is asked.
"Whatever role coach (Sean Miller) gives me," he said. "I’ll just play it to the fullest. I want to help my team play for a national championship."
Early projections have that as a possibility, although as junior forward Brandon Ashley pointed out, it’s far too early to pay attention to hype and predictions. Chemistry, health and luck all play a part. And last season, the Wildcats had just one of the three come March; healthy and lucky they were not.
But there’s always next season.
"We have some talent," Ashley said. "I think we can accomplish some things."
Ashley’s return will certainly help. The 6-foot-9 forward’s foot injury in early February stunted Arizona’s offense, although the short-handed Wildcats did an admirable job making due without him by going smaller and faster. Heading into next season, the return of senior point guard T.J. McConnell, junior shooter Gabe York and junior center Kaleb Tarczewski will anchor a team that will also be bolstered by the addition of highly touted incoming freshman Stanley Johnson, the likely replacement for Pac-12 player of the year Nick Johnson. The freshman Johnson, a 6-foot-6 forward, also is projected as a lottery pick next season. Ashley has been ballparked as a late first-rounder or second-rounder.
"We return a team that’s just as good or possibly better than the one we had," Ashley said. "(That’s) nothing against Nick or Aaron, because they are two amazing players."
Depth should be improved next year as well, as sophomore guard Elliott Pitts has gotten stronger and better, as has junior forward Matt Korcheck. Throw in standout recruits Kadeem Allen, a juco transfer who gives Arizona the true scoring guard they lacked last season, and freshmen Craig Victor and point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright and it’s easy to see why those around the program are optimistic.
We return a team that’s just as good or possibly better than the one we had. (That’s) nothing against Nick or Aaron, because they are two amazing players.
Arizona forward Brandon Ashley
"For me, it was about going to a place that could develop me for the NBA," Victor told ESPN.com when he committed to Arizona last summer. "I also wanted a chance to win a national championship."
It’s a bit of a catch-22 for programs such as Arizona, of course, as elite players with one eye on the NBA — the kind typically required to compete for championships — won’t be around long. That’s been the case for years and likely will continue to be in the future, pending changes to the NBA draft’s entry restrictions.
Just this week, Arizona locked up a potential future replacement for Tarczewski by signing center Dusan Ristic, a Serbian 7-footer who will add to the Wildcats’ depth next season.
"One of the things that’s so exciting about Dusan coming to Arizona is that his skill level starts in the low post, which is unique in today’s game," Miller said in a statement. "He has fantastic hands, a high basketball I.Q. and great size, but he also comes to us very well-versed on how to play in the post."
How much the 18-year-old will play remains to be determined, as is the case with all the freshmen. But as Miller learned (or re-learned) last season — after insisting for much of the year on a six- or seven-man rotation — depth must be embraced and developed, be it for the short term or long term.
Perhaps next season, when more opportunities undoubtedly arise, it will be another player singing "Oh, happy day."