Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's game is no act

Arizona´s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
Arizona's Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

THE SWAYING, uneasy shuffle and rhythmic bounce can't be helped. Nerves possess the legs, as they always have, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson shakes his shoulders, trying to convince himself it's just another game.

It's not.

The McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz., is pulsating. Yet Hollis-Jefferson can't decide where to set his eyes, so they fixate on the Jumbotron as it reels off where his life has arrived. It's one of those surreal, step-outside-yourself moments.

A video montage spiels about the 65 players drafted into the NBA, the 29 conference championships, the 25 All-Americas, the 15 Sweet 16s, the nine Elite Eights, the four Final Fours, and one national championship. The sirens blare. The red lights flash. The pyrotechnics begin.

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  • Hollis-Jefferson doesn't hear a thing. He's somewhere else. Sweat runs down the side of his face. He's already playing in his head.

    And then on cue, Arizona greats, including former Sixer Andre Iguodala, repeatedly remind us, "This is Arizona, this is Arizona, this is Arizona."

    It takes 139 seconds before Hollis-Jefferson is introduced in his first start for the Wildcats. It feels like 139 years to him. This is the vibrant new world the former Chester High star has entered, playing an integral role for Arizona, a likely No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday when the NCAA Tournament brackets will be announced.

    The glaring difference for the 6-7, 215-pound freshman forward is that he has been sporadically starting for the No. 4 team in the country heading into the weekend. Beginning the season as the Wildcats' sixth man, Hollis-Jefferson momentarily replaced sophomore power forward Brandon Ashley, who was lost for the season with a foot injury in the Wildcats' 60-58 upset loss to California on Feb. 1, as a starter.

    In that role, Hollis-Jefferson averaged 13 points and 7.7 rebounds, numbers up from the 8.6 points and 5.5 rebounds he averages off the bench. Heading into the weekend, his 172 rebounds were third on the team and he was second with 71 offensive boards. He was leading the Wildcats with 31 blocked shots and tenacity, as U of A headed into this week's Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas.

    It's why Wildcats coach Sean Miller felt Hollis-Jefferson's energy off the bench was more useful. He may not be starting, but he is finishing.

    More important, he understands where he is. His first two months at Arizona were trying. It was the first time in his life Hollis-Jefferson didn't start. It took some adjusting. He masked his discontent under a chintzy smile. While hidden, his teeth were grinding. He'd dig his sneakers into the court yearning to play.

    Time, now, is no longer an issue. He has shown in some 800 minutes played at Arizona why he is ostensibly the greatest player in Chester High's rich history, easily on the city's Mount Rushmore pantheon with Tyreke Evans, Jameer Nelson and Horace Walker.

    But the reality of this step in Hollis-Jefferson's maturation didn't arrive without a cold-morning slap.

    "It's a lot different than just waking up, going to school and playing basketball for Chester," said Hollis-Jefferson, possibly the Wildcats' best defender. "In the beginning of the season, I was lost. But it's not about who's starting, it's about who finishes. It stuck with me for about a month or so, playing behind people. I went along with it and kept playing. I need to make people respect my shot. I know I can shoot it. I have to stay in attack mode."

    At Chester, no one worked harder than Hollis-Jefferson. He had been honing his game in that fabled gym since he was 12, running around after his older brother Rahlir.

    This is something different. He has no glide time. Cruise control doesn't exist in this intense crucible.

    "The things you were able to get away with as a high school All-American, and the things I was able to sometimes get away with at Chester, you can't get away with here at a college like this," he said. "I would say it's been a big adjustment for me. It's tough waking up every day, and sometimes I might not want to practice when I was at Chester. That's not the case here. You can't go halfway in anything you do. I've learned to honor the process every day."

    Arizona has the nation's sixth-best scoring defense, giving up 58.7 points a game. You may not find a better pair of shutdown perimeter defenders in the country than Nick Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson. Rondae locked up one of Arizona State's top scorers, Jermaine Marshall, for 12 minutes in the Wildcats' 69-66 double-overtime loss on Feb. 14. Marshall couldn't shake him. He needed help to zap the Wildcats with a pair of late clutch treys.

    The points, the rebounds and Hollis-Jefferson's NBA-ready defense don't matter as long as the Wildcats continue to win. That's all Hollis-Jefferson cares about. Winning is all he's ever cared about. He pouted for two days after Chester lost the state title game last year to Lower Merion. Entering the Pac-12 Tournament, Arizona was 28-3. In his last three years at Chester, all Hollis-Jefferson did was win. The Clippers were 91-5, including the school's first repeat state championships and finest three-year run in Chester history while playing a national-caliber schedule.

    So over the last four years, his teams have amassed an amazing 119-8 record between Chester and Arizona. That's not happenstance. Hollis-Jefferson may have had more than a little to do with that.

    "The kid's a winner, there's no question about that," Miller said. "Rondae came off the bench early for us, but he's really been a valuable player from the outset, playing 24 minutes a game. There have been many instances when he's come in and changed the game in our favor. He's a very aggressive player and a terrific offensive rebounder. He's someone who has a bright future, especially as a defender, as he continues to practice. Everything that he's done he'll hopefully build on."

    One area of growth is Hollis-Jefferson's offense. It's evolving. Since arriving at Arizona, he's become a better free throw shooter, Miller said. He's refining his wooden release. He's also building a consistent 15-foot baseline jumper.

    "Rondae is very instinctive with the ball; he drives it and draws a lot of fouls and in terms of being an offensive rebounder, I would put him at the elite level," said Miller, the former Pitt standout guard. "The big picture is Rondae has to become more skilled as a shooter farther away from the basket - and shoot a higher percentage across the board.

    "He needs to learn the game more. Sometimes his aggressive style can lead to a great pass, because he's very unselfish. The thing is, he doesn't always see it. His game is so developed you forget he's still a true freshman who's only played in 30-some college games. In transition, he's dynamic. And as a defensive player, Rondae is good right now, but I think he can be great. I really do."

     

    Halfway across the world, Rondae's older brother, Rahlir, yells at a computer screen. Across the country, his mom, Rylanda Hollis, yells at her flatscreen TV in Chester. They don't watch Arizona as much as they center on No. 23, what he's doing, where he is on the court. Their eyes absorb his every move.

    They were concerned if Rondae would acclimate to Arizona. He's admittedly a "mama's boy," tethered to Rylanda since he was able to walk. And Rondae is always going to be "mommy's baby," as Rylanda says. Many thought Rondae would join his brother and possibly choose to play at Temple. But getting away from home was a necessity.

    He still talks to his mom every day. He communicates with Rahlir, who has his degree from Temple in social work and is playing for AB Contern in the Luxembourg Diekirch League, through Skype.

    That safe cocoon has caved.

    "The distance was the toughest thing for me," Rondae said. "I've had a great support system around me. I've learned a lot here. I've learned things aren't always going to be as easy as you want them to be, so I've learned to understand that makes life that much harder. I miss my mom and my brother. But I have great support at Arizona. I had to grow up.

    "This is the time in life when a boy becomes a man. And I always wanted to get away from home. I had to separate. A month went by and it wasn't that bad, but another month went by and I began to really miss my family. Once basketball began, it started to change. I have a new addition to my family, the Arizona basketball team."

    Rondae is also branching out and exploring another passion - acting. He's taking theater at Arizona and doing quite well, studying the "Glass Menagerie." He has the kind of illuminating personality that lights up a stage. More so, he's always been comfortable in his own skin. Rylanda jokes that Rondae has been acting since he uttered his first word.

    He's playing Doc Porter in a 3-minute portrayal from "Crimes of the Heart." But he knows March will pose the grandest stage as the NCAA Tournament begins. He knows a city is watching. Go to a Chester game and in the stands you'll hear Clippers fans referring to Rondae and Arizona, "We're playing Oregon tonight, we have USC next."

    "I still have some unfinished business ahead," Rondae said. "Remember, I lost the last high school game I ever played in and that still stings. It felt like my world came to an end. I cried for two days. I don't want to feel like that again.

    "That means working much harder for us to win. That will never change. Just like how I feel about Chester. Chester is still my heart. I have to make sure that's always there. I know I'm playing for my family, but I'm also playing for Chester. When we lost last year, I felt like I let Chester down. I couldn't finish high school with a state championship, so maybe I can begin my college career with a national championship. Winning means the most to me."

    JOSEPH SANTOLIQUITO For the Daily News
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