Hollis-Jefferson ready to shoot into nation’s elite
TUCSON, Ariz. — The Summer of Rondae features 3-point shots, two elite camps and one really juicy quote.
"We have the best starting five in the country," Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said earlier this month of his Arizona Wildcats, a sentence that traveled at Internet speed to Kentucky fans everywhere.
"I was checking out the reaction," said Hollis-Jefferson, a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward for a team expected to compete for the national championship in 2014-15. "But I’m not really worried about that. They’re fans. They’re supposed to do that for their team."
What can Rondae do for the Wildcats?
After a freshman season as an unselfish super sub on a team that fell one possession short of the Final Four, Hollis-Jefferson is expected to be part of the starting five that is in the argument as the nation’s best. Hollis-Jefferson spent part of his summer honing his skills at Kevin Durant’s camp and then at the LeBron James Skills Academy, where he scrimmaged against college’s elite players in front of the NBA scouts he wants to convince he’ll be worthy of a top 10 pick next summer.
"It was good to evaluate yourself and see what things you could and couldn’t do, and then go back and work on it," Hollis-Jefferson said.
He said he didn’t get a chance to go directly against James, but his Arizona teammate — freshman wing Stanley Johnson — did.
"That was exciting to watch," Hollis-Jefferson said.
"He got LeBron a little mad, brought his competitive side out. But that’s what basketball is all about. Stanley got a steal off him and then went down and scored. Then, LeBron caught the ball and slapped it really hard, and then you know, ‘Oh, LeBron is mad.’"
Arizona knows what it will get on defense from Hollis-Jefferson, now pushing 220 pounds after arriving last summer at 205. The work-in-progress part of his game is to tighten his ball-handling skills — he said he recently began to study the game of the versatile Penny Hardaway — and shooting. Lots of shooting.
If the Summer of Rondae is to evolve into the Season of Rondae, he must be a better shooter from mid-range and be something more than an idle threat from behind the arc, where he attempted just 10 shots last season, made two.
"Day in and day out, I’m just trying to get better at it," he said of his jump shot. "It has come a long way since I left my town. The coaches, the managers, they put a lot of time in to help you get better."
Hollis-Jefferson, whose on-court toughness was honed in the basketball town of Chester, Pa., started six games last season, all arms and energy on defense and a tornado near the rim on offense. But coach Sean Miller eventually went with shooter Gabe York in the starting lineup after forward Brandon Ashley suffered a midseason foot injury.
Hollis-Jefferson was OK with that. It wasn’t about starting, just like it wasn’t about scoring. Hollis-Jefferson averaged 9.1 points per game on just 6.5 shot attempts.
"It’s his unselfishness that I think you love," Miller said of Hollis-Jefferson during the postseason. "He gives his heart and soul on defense. On offense, it’s not about scoring for him. It’s about passing, and he’s one of our best offensive rebounders."
Now, Hollis-Jefferson should slide into a lineup that features senior point guard T.J. McConnell, forward Brandon Ashley, center Kaleb Tarczewski and, presumably, Johnson at shooting guard.
The Sporting News this summer declared Hollis-Jefferson as the nation’s No. 1 small forward. Lindy’s college basketball magazine will rank him No. 2 at small forward.
To fulfill those expectations, his shooting has to find the mark, but there have never been questions about the rest of his game.
"The best part of my game will be what I always do — hustle, play hard," he said.
And lead. Guard Nick Johnson, the unofficial team spokesman is gone, and one-and-done Aaron Gordon was the fourth pick in the NBA Draft, leaving a big slice of the spotlight to the gregarious Hollis-Jefferson, who seems to have already taken Stanley Johnson under his wing.
"I feel like I’m going to be a great leader. I feel I could be someone who could relate to him," Hollis-Jefferson said.
"I can speak for the other guys who came in with me — we all know we had to give in to this family atmosphere. The freshmen have done that so far. They say it to me all the time — whatever it takes to win, they will do.
"I’m just telling them the little things, day by day, what they need to know and how to go about things. They’re listening and they’re willing to listen."
Seems like everyone is listening to Hollis-Jefferson. Best starting five? It soon will be proving-time.
"I’m confident that whatever our starting five it will be, it will be great," he said. "We’re all willing and able to sacrifice and we know what it takes."