Rondae Hollis-Jefferson strolled into today’s press conference singing "Oh Happy Day.” When he left, he picked up the tune again.
Arizona Wildcats fans might consider doing the same.
Considering that it was expected that Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson are leaving the Wildcats this spring, the really big news was that Hollis-Jefferson was returning, giving Arizona a team on paper that should be at least as talented as it was last season.
Arizona will have a frontcourt with Hollis-Jefferson, Kaleb Tarczewski and (a presumably healthy) Brandon Ashley, along with incoming center Dusan Ristic and incoming forward Craig Victor. The backcourt could have even more punch with Stanley Johnson, Kadeem Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright joining T.J. McConnell, Gabe York and Elliott Pitts.
“We’ve never really paid attention to rankings but as far as the depth on this team, we’re really excited,” Ashley said. “We’re going to return a team that’s just as good or better than this year.”
Hollis-Jefferson could be a critical piece, especially if he continues on the upward arc he reached toward the end of last season. His late-season play helped elevate his draft stock so much so that he was expected to become a first-round pick if he left this spring.
But Hollis-Jefferson said he wants to become a Top 10 NBA pick -- and he's projected as a late lottery pick next season -- so he decided to stick around a little while longer.
"My goal my whole life was to be a top 10 pick, and I believe I can do so," Hollis-Jefferson said. "I think I'll put on about 10 more pounds of muscle and work on my jump shot and just become more of a leader. I think I can do that."
The Wildcats’ undisputed personality leader also made it clear in his inimitable way that he’s enjoying life as a college student in Tucson.
“I embrace all the love you get around town,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “Going through the mall, a lot of people are chanting your name, going through campus it’s `Hey, Rondae’ – and I love that type of stuff.
“This is a great city to play basketball in. It’s a great university to play for and the fans are unbelievable. You don’t see fans like this everywhere, especially on the East Coast. It’s just a great feeling to know no matter what that the people in Tucson still have your back.”
Ashley and Tarczewski accompanied Hollis-Jefferson to the second part of today’s news conference, after a 40-minute first wave of Gordon, Johnson and Sean Miller.
Ashley had already said he planned to return while Tarczewski indicated he never really gave the idea of leaving much of a thought. None of the three returning players at today’s news conference said they asked for an NBA advisory committee report.
“The one reason we’re all coming back here is we have sort of unfinished business here at U of A,” Tarczewski said. “There’s no question that all three of us could say we’ve had a great career no matter how long it’s been. …
“When we signed on here our goal was to make it to a Final Four, to be able to play for a national championship and next year that’s our goal. We’re all grateful to say we have another year and hopefully we’ll get it done.”
Johnson just missed that goal over his three seasons, being a freshman on an NIT team, a sophomore on a Sweet 16 team and the Pac-12 Player of the Year as a junior on a team that fell short of a Final Four by a point (or a foul, or an extra dribble, if you want to look at it that way…)
“We had our ups and downs throughout my career but I felt this season we really put it together and we made a pretty solid run with a great team,” Johnson said in his opening statement. “I’ve taken the time to think about my decision since the end of the season, talked to coach Miller and a few people I trust. The feedback I got was something I was confident in. I can’t stress enough it’s been a great experience at Arizona but I’ve chosen to put my name in this year’s draft.”
Johnson is not projected as a certain first-round pick – Draft Express has him in the middle of the second – and Miller said earlier this season that leaving early to be in the second round can set a player back significantly.
But Johnson also faced the prospect of slipping in the draft if he came back and did not top a year when he was the Pac-12 Player of the Year and undisputed leader of an Elite Eight team (In fact, the arrival of Stanley Johnson and Kadeem Allen suggest that Johnson might even get fewer shots next season).
When I asked Johnson if he felt he might be in a better spot to leave now than next season because he may have maxed out his draft stock at the college level, he said “not really.” But Miller said the timing was right.
"Generally if someone leaves early you want them to be a first-round pick," Miller said. "Learning a lot form the feedback we got on Nick, looking at how physically developed he is... there’s a chance he comes back for that fourth year and maybe not be as coveted."
Meanwhile, Miller said he doesn’t expect any transfers out of the program this spring, though “there’s always surprises.” That means as of now, the Wildcats could be unusually stable the rest of the offseason, having a full complement of 13 scholarship players set for next season.
“I think we’re pretty locked in,” Miller said. “I think we have a great group with knowing who’s leaving and who’s staying. So I think this really slows everything down. Now it’s about having a great offseason.”
Arizona will have eight returning players plus five newcomers. Four of them signed during the fall signing period: Stanley Johnson, Allen, guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, and forward Craig Victor. Meanwhile, center Dusan Ristic will sign his letter-of-intent Wednesday, the first day of the spring signing period, according to his coach at Sunrise Christian Academy, Kyle Lindsted.
One thing that could change this balance is if departing Boston College forward Ryan Anderson opts to transfer to Arizona. Anderson would have to sit out a year but if he were to be on scholarship for that redshirt year, UA would need somebody to transfer.
Gordon will sign with BDA Sports, according to his mother, Shelly Davis. BDA represents his brother Drew, who is playing in Italy, as well as former UA players Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger.