They all talk about Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s athleticism. And they’re not wrong.
He leaps like a leopard with lifts, getting as much air as a helium balloon.
They all talk about Hollis-Jefferson’s energy. And they’re not wrong.
He’s like a toddler on a sugar-high playing with a new toy.
They don’t talk enough about his toughness, though.
Quickly, Hollis-Jefferson has become one of the Arizona Wildcats’ best finishers, sacrificing his body in the paint, taking bumps and bruises at will.
And again on Monday night, in a 77-44 win over visiting Northern Arizona, as Hollis-Jefferson had a career-high 14 points and tied his career-high with eight rebounds.
“Obviously he’s a great basketball player,” Arizona guard Gabe York said. “As a freshman coming in, he’s been working hard in the weight room. He’s honestly like a freak. His wingspan is 7-3, something ridiculous.”
Hollis-Jefferson’s size matters, particularly as the Wildcats have lacked some recently with 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski sidelined with an ankle injury.
Hollis-Jefferson stepped up in place of Tarczewski last Friday in a 69-43 win over visiting Southern, his first career start. He had eight points and tied his career-high with eight rebounds in 27 minutes.
It’s a sign of maturity that the bigger the responsibility, the better the play. Maybe that comes with being more than a dozen games into his college career.
The clearest indication of Hollis-Jefferson’s increased comfort level: free-throw shooting. Hollis-Jefferson was 6 of 7 from the free-throw line Monday, making him 19 for his last 24. This, after starting the season 18 for 32.
“Rondae has been almost like a sixth starter really since the first game,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He’s gotten better, gives us so many things — energy, rebounds at both ends, getting better on defense. He’s an underrated passer — lot of times, he makes a clever pass that leads to a score. He’s certainly one of our best players.”
Thrust into the starting lineup, Hollis-Jefferson hasn’t lost any of the energy that he provided off the bench.
“He’s definitely provided a spark,” Arizona guard Nick Johnson said. “We usually get that off the bench but now he’s in the lineup. He’s finishing the ball well, passing well, rebounding. But Kaleb is such a big body down low, takes up a lot of space. That’s probably why our rebounding numbers are down.”
On Monday, the Wildcats out-rebounded the Lumberjacks just 31-30, but that was no fault of Hollis-Jefferson.
He had five on the defensive glass and three or fensive, giving him six or more in six of his last seven games.
Back to that toughness…
“That’s a product of Chester, PA,” Sean Miller said, and being a Pennsylvania product himself, he knows a thing or two about the hair on one’s chest. “The toughness is, you judge it by this — when the stakes are their highest, game pressure, who do you want out there? You want him out there.”
And it’s not because he’ll always score the basket, Miller said, or come up with the perfect pass. It’s because he’ll hang in there, as he’s done through 13 games, and as the Wildcats will need him to do come conference play.
“He relishes the challenge,” Miller said. “Where he’s from, that’s what he does in Chester. The bigger the moment, the better you are. That’s how they always are. That’s one of the reasons we coveted him — who he is and where he’s from.”
It’s more than the hops with this kid, it seems.