Just as Point Guard U had anticipated, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson confirmed on Tuesday that he will be returning to Arizona for his sophomore season. Among Wildcat fans, RHJ’s announcement is a huge cause for celebration, although he is still seriously underrated both as a player and as possibly the missing link in next year’s quest for a championship.
In 25 year of watching the Cats, I have never seen another player like him. A few weeks ago, my good friend Mark asked me to describe RHJ’s game.
To put that conversation in context, Mark is one of the most avid Wildcat fans I know. Even though he is visually impaired and lives on a remote island in the South Pacific, he never seems to need much help from me to stay on top of every Wildcat game and recruiting move. Still, I am happy to serve as his eyes and ears in Tucson, providing informal scouting reports on each player.
When Mark said that he had heard comparisons between RHJ and former Wildcat Andre Iguodala, I had to disagree.
Yes, both are athletic small forwards with tremendous court sense. But Iguodala, whose Golden State Warriors are about to start their NBA playoff run, was a much more deliberate player. RHJ plays on instinct, energy, and raw emotion. When he enters the game, it’s like a shot of pure adrenaline. I see elements of Michael Jordan in his ball-hawking style and explosiveness.
But if I had to compare his game to anyone, there is no doubt in mind about who that would be: the Tasmanian Devil. Just like the classic Looney Tunes character, RHJ comes on the scene like a whirlwind. One moment he is poking at the ball with his freakishly long arms. Then he is diving on the floor, running the break, jumping past an opponent for an offensive board, or contorting his body as he drives to the hoop.
RHJ attacks the ball and basket like they are mortal enemies, and he is often the catalyst for the “feeding frenzy” style of defense that made the Cats so dangerous this past season. Sean Miller has noted that good things just seem to happen when RHJ is on the court.
“There have been many instances when he’s come in and changed the game in our favor,” Miller observed. “He’s a very aggressive player.”
In the Pac-12 and NCAA tournament, RHJ’s frenetic style made him one of Arizona’s greatest weapons and perhaps the team’s most efficient player. He led the team in productivity rating (PR, measured as a ratio of total productivity to total minutes played) in four of seven tournament games, and in the “Round of 32” game against Gonzaga, he maxed out with a PR of 1.593—the season high for any Wildcat player.
Miller has said about RHJ, “He’s someone who has a bright future.” The way he elevated his game in the postseason may be an indication of how bright that future might be.
In seven tournament games, RHJ improved on his season averages in scoring (11.6 vs. 9.1), FG% (57% vs. 49%), FT% (84% vs. 68%), rebounds (6.1 vs. 5.7), blocks (1.3 vs. 1.1), steals (1.0 vs. 0.7), and turnovers (1.0 vs. 1.2), all in just an additional minute of PT per game.
Compared with future NBA lottery pick Aaron Gordon, his postseason scoring average was almost identical, his shooting percentages were dramatically higher, and he got nearly as many rebounds. Keep in mind that RHJ played six fewer minutes per tournament game than Gordon. When projected over 40 minutes, here are RHJ’s tournament stats: 17.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.9 blocks, and 1.5 turnovers. Those numbers are hallmarks of a rapidly maturing and exceptionally efficient player.
If his game is not NBA ready, it is awfully close. In describing his teammate’s tournament performance, Nick Johnson said that RHJ is “playing like the best freshman in the country.” In a class that includes Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Kentucky’s Julius Randle and the Harrison brothers—not to mention Gordon—that is certainly high praise.
At Tuesday’s press conference, RHJ said, “My goal my whole life was to be a top 10 pick.” There is little doubt that if he continues at his present rate of improvement, he will be. And just imagine what happens if he takes a huge leap forward in his offseason development, as many UA players have done between their freshman and sophomore years.
While singing his praises, I do not want to discount the existing weaknesses in his game. As with any player, RHJ has tremendous room for growth. Here are the areas where we can expect him to get better next season:
Outside Shooting– RHJ only took 10 three-point shots all season and made exactly two of them. Although he has gotten more consistent on his 15-foot baseline jumper, he has to develop three-point range in order to put more pressure on opponents’ defenses. If he plans on playing small forward in the NBA, he will need to extend his range to 24 feet and beyond.
Foul Proneness– In the postseason, RHJ’s aggressiveness did not always pay off. He went from 2.4 fouls per game in the regular season to 3 per game in tournament play. The trick for RHJ will be to rein in the cheap fouls without sacrificing any of his intensity. Miller anticipates that RHJ will become an even better defender next year—a possibility that should strike pure terror into the hearts of Wildcat opponents.
Assists– In the tournament, RHJ averaged one assist per game, whereas Gordon averaged 3.7. With the anticipated loss of Gordon, the Cats may need RHJ to step up his passing game in order to break the zone defenses that are guaranteed to be thrown at them by smaller and less athletic teams.
Leadership– RHJ has said that next season he is expecting to “just become more of a leader.” His continuing maturation in this area becomes particularly crucial with the loss of Nick Johnson, who may be one of the smartest and most effective team leaders in school history.
One of RHJ’s greatest strengths as a potential leader is his fearlessness. In his freshman season, he never backed down from opponents. Even in the most hostile environments, when some of his teammates had that unmistakable deer-in-the-headlights look on their faces, RHJ always managed to step onto the court in full warrior mode. The confidence he exudes is not only palpable; it’s contagious.
Getting RHJ for another season is a stroke of luck for the Cats. Make no mistake about it: If RHJ had entered this year’s draft, some NBA team would be counting its blessings come October while watching him put the hurt on the opposition.
Instead, he will be a major headache for the 30-some teams that the Cats will face. If you have any doubts about his intensity, enormous talent, and sheer determination, just go back and re-watch the clip of his ferocious dunk against New Mexico State. That is all the convincing you will need.