A reporter asked me during the third round of the NCAA Tournament in Portland, Ore., if Arizona men’s basketball was better than when it beat Gonzaga in early December.
I said yes and that coach Sean Miller shifted the starting lineup to insert forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to start the Wildcats’ best five a few weeks after the win over Gonzaga.
The reporter was shocked — first, that someone as good as Hollis-Jefferson was a reserve, and second, that someone as good as him would volunteer to come off the bench.
That was Hollis-Jefferson in a nutshell for Arizona: a Swiss Army knife that was willing to do whatever the team needed.
Now that Hollis-Jefferson has declared for the NBA Draft, whichever team that picks him will get just that, and he will be hard to replace.
Miller said Hollis-Jefferson is unselfish and is a leader.
“To me, that’s his greatest gift, and that’s what people in the NBA will love, because he doesn’t bring one skill to the table; he brings amazing versatility,” Miller said. “We huddled this year about 1200 times — before practice, after practice, before a game — and I think he was 1200 for 1200 in leading the huddle.”
Hollis-Jefferson led Arizona in double-doubles this season, as well as rebounds (6.8) and blocks (0.8), and was third in scoring (11.2) and steals (1.2).
He also led the Pac-12 Conference in free-throw attempts and was eighth in the league in defensive rebounds (4.8 per game), 12th in offensive rebounds (2.0) and field goal percentage (.502), and 14th in steals (1.2).
One thing that made Hollis-Jefferson so good isn’t really reflected in the stats: his defensive prowess. He was counted on to shut down the opponents’ best offensive weapons game after game, like Pac-12 Player of the Year Joe Young and likely top-five NBA Draft pick D’Angelo Russell.
Hollis-Jefferson said he hopes to defend the team’s best offensive players in the NBA, and when he gets there, his focus will be on defense. He added that he will work hard on his offense, though.
Hollis-Jefferson is hardly a one-way player. He worked hard over the summer to improve his offense.
Still, in this age of ball hogs and me-first players, Hollis-Jefferson remains focused on defense.
After scoring a career-high 23 points against Texas Southern in the NCAA Tournament, Hollis-Jefferson said he didn’t really care, that he was bummed he didn’t play well on defense.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever enjoyed coaching a player more than I’ve enjoyed coaching Rondae,” Miller said.
Arizona went 67-9 with Hollis-Jefferson.
Draft Express projects Hollis-Jefferson going to the Portland Trail Blazers with the 23rd pick and getting a salary of $1.11 Million. NBADraft.net has him going to the Brooklyn Nets with the 29th pick.
“He did everything that we wanted him to do, and I think that as he gathers information, it’s very obvious that he’s a first-round pick,” Miller said. “His stock will only soar as they get to know him.”
The Wildcats will also miss Hollis-Jefferson’s incomparable personality.
“I’ve never seen him more serious in my life,” Miller joked after Hollis-Jefferson read his prepared statement saying he was leaving early.
Press conferences that included Hollis-Jefferson were always the most fun.
After he dunked on the 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye of UC Irvine, he made sure to point out that Ndiaye was his cousin. We weren’t sure if he was joking.
“I think that Rondae is a guy that brings a smile to everybody’s face, because he embraced Tucson,” Miller said. “He loved the fans and the community. … No matter if you saw him at a restaurant, if you’re old, young, it didn’t matter. I think he’s always someone that had time to approach him.”
Miller said the greatest compliment that coaches give is that they look for guys like him in recruiting.
“You’re on the hunt for the next Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, because you know … that type of person, that type of competitor, that type of player, translates into a lot of great moments.”
Follow James Kelley on Twitter.