Coast 2 Coast Hoops
Just about a year ago, at the Oakland session of the Nike EYBL, I remember watching Philadelpia based Team Final take the court. PGU was there to film Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a 6’7 point forward who had just emerged as a serious Arizona recruit.
Shortly before the end of the first half, after a long day of filming various recruits, a cameraman’s worst nightmare happened. The tape ran out, but that wasn’t the problem. I had an extra one in my pocket, and it’s just a matter of seconds to swap it for the old one. But in those few seconds, I missed a gem, one of those rare highlights that makes hours of filming bad basketball worthwhile.
Hollis-Jefferson, defending the point guard, rotated and cleanly stripped the ball from a driving opponent who had beaten his man. He pushed the ball up the court, whipped a pass right on the money to a teammate in scoring position, and then cleaned up the miss with a putback dunk.
It was the perfect encapsulation of who Hollis-Jefferson is as a player, in one beautiful sequence. He finished that game with 14 points, 14 rebounds, 7 assists, and 5 steals.
But don’t be fooled, stats are virtually meaningless in the less-than-structured AAU basketball setting. And the true value of having a player like Hollis-Jefferson doesn’t always manifest itself in the box score.
For the dynamic swingman out of Chester, Pennsylvania, it all starts with defense. It’s rare that you’ll find a top 25 recruit who is most lauded for his defensive prowess, but Hollis-Jefferson is a rare type of player. He typically guards the opponent’s best player, whether they’re a point guard, a post player, or anywhere in between. And he does it well. Really well.
With tremendous lateral quickness, excellent footwork, and a long, athletic, 6’7 frame, Hollis-Jefferson is the prototypical lockdown defender. He has the foot speed to stay in front of smaller, quicker opponents, and he has the strength to hold his own in the post. The ability to be deployed anywhere on the court makes Hollis-Jefferson a coach’s dream.
Of course, defending at the college level is an entirely different beast. But Hollis-Jefferson, as a high school senior, doesn’t just have the physical tools to be an elite defender. He’s got the attitude too.
Hollis-Jefferson smothers people. He digs into his man and doesn’t give him an inch of breathing room. His instincts make him a great anticipator, giving him a disruptive quality that few can match. More importantly, Hollis-Jefferson takes defense personally. He takes pride in it. It hurts him to get beat by his man.
Like I said, that’s a rarity in today’s prep basketball world. Truthfully, it’s a rarity in the college game too.
That’s why Arizona fans are in for a treat next year. Not only do they welcome Hollis-Jefferson, the Wildcats will also debut point guard transfer TJ McConnell, who was among the NCAA leaders in steals during his last season at Duquesne.
And don’t forget about rising junior Nick Johnson, who has evolved into one of the best on ball defenders in the conference and the entire country. Toward the end of last season, Johnson was Arizona’s defensive stopper, and he covered everyone from the opponent’s point guard to power forward. Kind of like Hollis-Jefferson.
Between Johnson, McConnell, and Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona boasts a wealth of defensive ability. In other words, the 2013-14 team should be scary when it comes to perimeter defense. Opposing ball handlers should have nightmares thinking about it. They should be downright nasty. With the personnel on board, there’s no excuse not to be.
Whether that materializes depends on a complex equation of on court and off court factors, and no one really knows how things will come together. But with Arizona’s returning players and new additions they should be among the country’s best defensive units, with the potential to be one of the greats. That’s exciting.