Arizona freshmen Gordon, Hollis-Jefferson playing beyond their years
ANAHEIM, Calif. — When Sean Miller was recruiting Aaron Gordon many moons ago, he had Gordon look at the depth chart and then put a puzzle in front of him.
"They told me I was the missing piece," Gordon said. "It’s worked out really well."
The Wildcats take a 33-4 record into Saturday’s Elite Eight matchup against Wisconsin — and safe to say Gordon has played a large role in getting them here.
Gordon has become one of the best freshman players in the long line of Arizona freshmen that includes Jerryd Bayless, Mike Bibby, Sean Elliott and Gilbert Arenas. He recently was named a third-team All-American by Sporting News.
Now he’s just one of just a couple of top freshmen left standing in the NCAA tournament with the Final Four just a week away.
Duke’s Jabari Parker? Gone in the first round.
Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid? Done.
Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis? How was the No. 1 ranking in January?
"I don’t really buy into all that stuff," said Gordon, who leads the team in rebounds (7.7) and double-doubles (eight) and is second to Nick Johnson in scoring (12.7). "All I care about is winning. That’s what I’ve been doing lately. Hopefully, I can keep that going. Winning is the only thing that matters for me."
Everything else — including the chatter about the NBA — can wait, although all the talk since he arrived on campus has been about Gordon being a one-and-done player.
"I’m still focusing on the present and what’s happening right now and that’s the NCAA tournament," he said.
He did have a moment of hilarity when asked about whom he models his game after: "Scottie Griffin."
It’s a combination of former Chicago Bulls great Scottie Pippen and Clippers star Blake Griffin.
"I love the defensive intensity of Scottie Pippen and his ability to handle the ball and he can play the point," Gordon said, "And I love Blake Griffin’s athletic ability, and his potential is unlimited."
That’s Gordon in a nutshell.
Draftexpress.com has Gordon going at No. 8 in this summer’s draft. It has Johnson, a junior guard, going in the second round, and no other Wildcat among its two rounds — though there have been whispers about both sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski and freshman sixth man Rondae Hollis-Jefferson considering turning pro.
Whether it’s next year or further down the road, the time likely will come for each. All need work and polish, and all have obvious potential. Draftexpress.com has Hollis-Jefferson going at No. 14 next season.
Like his fellow freshman, Hollis-Jefferson waves on the talk. There’s too much to play for now.
"I just try to play basketball," he said. "If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen."
The two freshmen have made plenty happen already. Each had 15 points and six rebounds in Thursday night’s victory over San Diego State.
Stage fright hasn’t been a problem.
"We knew it would be a highlight show," Gordon said. "There’s athleticism and defense and all kinds of dunks. I knew we’d be very prosperous."
Hollis-Jefferson has played starter’s minutes (25.1 a game) but is fine with coming off the bench as a jolt of instant energy, as he was in Thursday night’s victory.
"I’m comfortable with it," he said. "I bring that energy, and it’s what we need. I give it to my teammates and that’s when we start to kick in.
"I think it’s working out for the best for me, just being able to play hard and give it my all. When you give it your all in practice and you’re focused on film, it all translates into the game. When you get out there, it’s more smooth and less stressful for me."
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan comes from the same hometown as Hollis-Jefferson (Chester, Pa.) and likens his impact to that of Badgers freshman Nigel Hayes.
"Some guys develop earlier physically," Ryan said. "Guys like Nigel and Rondae physically have the tools and mentally have taken on the task of understanding a system and how to play within the system."
Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson were game savers for Arizona on Thursday night, keeping the Wildcats close for the first 35 minutes while All-American Johnson struggled to get untracked. It prompted Johnson to say the two have been playing like the best freshman tandem in the country.
"It’s my will wanting to win," said Hollis-Jefferson when asked about the last two weeks. "Things just kicked in on a whole different level."