Arizona sophomore forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson declared for the 2015 NBA Draft, the school announced on Tuesday night.
“To start off, I just want to say thank you to the city of Tucson and our great fans for everything over the last two years,” Hollis-Jefferson said in a statement. “It’s not every day that a kid from where I grew up gets blessed with an opportunity like this.
“I’ve decided to move on to the next chapter of my life and enter my name in the 2015 NBA Draft. After talking with my family and Coach (Sean) Miller to weigh the pros and cons, I fully believe this is the right choice. I’m excited for the challenges that lie ahead, and with the knowledge that God rewards hard work, I plan to attack them.”
Hollis-Jefferson averaged 11.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game, as arguably the best defender in the Pac-12 Conference.
Arizona junior forward Brandon Ashley will enter the 2015 NBA Draft, according to Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports.
The 6-foot-9 Ashley played in 38 games during the 2014-15 season and averaged 12.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per contest for the Wildcats. Ashley also shot 51 percent from the field, 70 percent from the free-throw line and 33 percent from 3-point range.
Draft Express currently doesn’t have Ashley in their latest 2015 NBA mock draft and ranks him as the No. 96 overall prospect in their top 100.
Although losing Ashley means a starting forward isn’t returning for Arizona, the team does have a contingency plan already in place with Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson. The 6-foot-9 Anderson sat out this season due to NCAA transfer rules, but he’ll be an experienced senior who can step into the lineup next season.
Brandon Ashley’s versatility once again a key factor for No. 3 Arizona
TUCSON — It’s been said on multiple occasions that the 2013-14 season for the Arizona Wildcats hit a significant bump in the road on the night of February 1, when starting forward Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury in the team’s loss at California. With Ashley the Wildcats hadn’t lost a game, his diverse skill set giving head coach Sean Miller a player capable of causing mismatches on most night.
Without him the Wildcats no longer had that luxury, and as one would expect their offense sputtered as a result. A season that very well could have ended in Arlington, Texas, on the first Monday night in April came to a painful end at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim in the Elite 8.
With No. 9 Gonzaga in town Saturday afternoon Ashley and his fellow front court contributors were faced with a difficult matchup, as the Bulldogs were able to counter with starters Przemek Karnowski and Kyle Wiltjer and freshman reserve Domantas Sabonis. Karnowski played well on both ends of the floor for Gonzaga, accounting for 10 points and 11 rebounds, and Wiltjer led the way offensively for the Bulldogs with 15 points while also grabbing seven rebounds.
But Arizona managed to erase a six-point deficit over the final 4:05 of regulation, going on to win 66-63 in overtime thanks to some exceptional defense and big plays made down the stretch by senior point guard T.J. McConnell.
It also must be said, however, that without Ashley’s contributions, Arizona would not have been able to get the game into overtime, much less come away with the win.
Ashley, who struggled offensively in each of Arizona’s two games prior to the win over Gonzaga, tallied 14 points, five rebounds and two assists on Saturday. All six of his points in the second half were critical, as they were the final six points Arizona scored in regulation. Ashley’s ability to step out onto the perimeter and make sound decisions, whether its with his jump shot or as a facilitator, is one of the keys for Arizona offensively and that was the case down the stretch against Gonzaga.
Interestingly enough, Ashley did the majority of his scoring in the final three minutes of the first two halves, as he scored five points in the final three minutes of the first half and six in the final three minutes of the second. It was during those stretches when the trouble that comes with defending a player like Ashley was most evident.
“We had been sagging and plugging in the middle, and we knew that his best shot was the 17-foot face-up,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said of Ashley following the game. “We wanted our guys to get in the gaps and help and then close out to him, but we just played him a little too soft.”
One of the benefits of having a big man capable of scoring on the perimeter is that they can force opposing centers into situations they aren’t used to defending.
“They were stressing our defense because they were posting up Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson, so we had to come with help,” Few continued. “And anytime you come with help you’re exposed somewhere, rotating out, and we just didn’t rotate far enough. And it’s a big rotating; usually it’s your guards rotating out, so it was just a little different.”
As mentioned above Ashley entered the game having scored a total of 13 points in wins over No. 18 San Diego State and Gardner-Webb, shooting 6-for-14 from the field. While that percentage (42.9%) isn’t bad it’s well below Ashley’s field goal percentage for the season (52.9%), and there’s also the matter of him averaging seven field goal attempts in those two wins. Ashley attempted 11 shots on Saturday, and his overall performance was a difference-maker for the Wildcats.
“In Maui, I didn’t think he was as good of a player as he really is and that’s to be expected; we know that,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller noted. “I’m trying to tell him that, but it’s not always easy on his end to accept that, ‘wow, I’m starting my season and I’ve waited a long time to get back, and I want to play better than I’m playing.'”
“There’s a process with everything. [Saturday] you saw what he’s really capable of, his big field goals made in the second half and just his overall play,” Miller continued. “No turnovers and [five] rebounds, he was one of our team’s best players and a big reason we won the game. I think he’ll continue to grow and hit his stride as the season unfolds.”
Arizona certainly doesn’t lack for talent, as evidenced by the fact that three players (Ashley, Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson) on the early season lists for both the Naismith and Wooden awards, and players such as McConnell and Kaleb Tarczewski can’t be ignored either. But if there’s one player whose skill set demands that opponents adjust the things they do defensively it’s Brandon Ashley.
The scary thing?
He still hasn’t reached the point where he was prior to suffering the injury that led to his sophomore season ending prematurely.
It’s been said many times that junior forward Brandon Ashley was the missing piece for Arizona last season, with the versatile forward suffering a foot injury in early February that resulted in a premature end to his sophomore campaign. Friday night Ashley played in his first regular season game since the injury, and he put together a very good performance in leading the second-ranked Wildcats to a 78-55 win over Mount St. Mary’s.
Ashley scored a game-high 21 points, shooting 9-for-10 from the field, while also grabbing six rebounds to lead the way for Sean Miller’s squad. Ashley was one of three Wildcats to score in double figures, with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scoring 15 off the bench and junior center Kaleb Tarczewski adding ten points to go along with ten rebounds.
Ashley scored 12 of his 21 points in the first half, making all six of his field goal attempts as the Mountaineers struggled to find an answer for him despite starting 6-foot-11 forward Kristijan Kranija and 7-foot center Taylor Danaher in an attempt to counter the Wildcats’ front court size.
As a team Arizona made 66.7% of its two-point attempts in the first half, and their ability to find looks around the basket carried over into the second stanza as well (76.5% 2PT).
If there’s anything to take note of from an improvement standpoint it would be Arizona’s shooting from the perimeter and the foul, as the Wildcats made just four of their sixteen three-point attempts and shot 12-for-25 from the foul line. Those areas were both issues Arizona had to deal with last season, and they’re areas that will have to be addressed this season as well.
Also of note is the fact that six players played between 21 (Hollis-Jefferson) and 28 (Ashley, Tarczewski, T.J. McConnell and Gabe York) minutes, with Elliott Pitts playing 17 and Parker Jackson-Cartwright 11. Miller discussed his team’s depth last week, stating that the Wildcats aren’t as deep as many forecasted them being before practices began.
How Miller manages the rotation will be something to watch as Arizona gets deeper into the season, with the Maui Invitational less than two weeks away. The most important takeaway from Friday’s win is that Ashley looked ready to go, not missing a beat as he scored a career-high 21 points.
After winning 27 games and reaching the Sweet 16 in 2012-13, big things were expected of the Arizona Wildcats in 2013-14 and Sean Miller’s team delivered. Despite having to replace three of their top four scorers the Wildcats won 33 games and a regular season Pac-12 title, reaching the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament as well. Arizona didn’t have the deepest rotation, especially after forward Brandon Ashley was lost for the season in early February with a foot injury, but they had talent, athleticism and a stingy half-court defense that was among the best in the country.
Even more is expected of the Wildcats in 2014-15, with Ashley back to full strength as he joins point guard T.J. McConnell and center Kaleb Tarczewski as the team’s returning starters. Add in the likes of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Gabe York, who were reserves a season ago, and one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, led by small forward Stanley Johnson, and on paper the depth issue that Arizona had to manage in 2013-14 isn’t expected to be an issue this season.
However, even with that being the case, and Arizona being considered to be one of the favorites to cut down the nets in Indianapolis, there are still questions to be answered. The biggest? How will Arizona account for the loss of starters Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, with their intangibles being just as — if not more — important as the numbers they provided.
“One of the strengths of last year’s team was our team chemistry,” Miller said at the team’s media day last month. “We had a group of high-character players that were on a mission to have a successful season as a team. Obviously a year ago every one of them wanted to do well individually, but everybody understood that first and foremost we were going to do it as a team.
“And with that team success the individual accolades would follow, which is exactly what happened.”
There may have been no player who better fits into those words than Johnson, who averaged 16.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. The numbers were good but Johnson’s leadership was even better, ultimately resulting in his being named Pac-12 Player of the Year and a finalist for the Naismith national Player of the Year award. Johnson’s leadership impacted the program both on and off the court, with the camaraderie factoring into the team being able to go as far as it did without Ashley.
And in regard to Gordon, who accounted for 12.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game last season, the label of being a “one and done” prospect didn’t have an impact on the way he played the game. Gordon simply did the things he did best, seamlessly fitting into the Arizona attack.
“I think that one credit I give Aaron is he always was true to himself,” Miller said at Pac-12 media day last month. “We gave him a role and he did it to the best of his ability. We’re at that point now where, as we start to define roles, it’s important that guys stay within the framework of that role, embrace it, do the very best they can.”
“In Nick and Aaron’s case, part of what made them so good, they really didn’t try to be a whole lot of what they weren’t. They tried to bring their array of skills that they were already good at to the table, not just in games but every day.”
Both players were key defensively for a team that finished the season ranked first nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (per kenpom.com), and they were also ranked in the top ten nationally in both field goal percentage (fourth) and scoring (sixth) defense. Athleticism, which Arizona didn’t lack last season and certainly won’t in 2014-15, helps but factors such as chemistry and execution are just as important. Building a similar level of chemistry is what this current Arizona team is working to do, and the process won’t be an easy one even with the amount of individual talent on the roster.
In addition to the starters, players such as junior Gabe York, sophomore Elliott Pitts and freshman Craig Victor will look to earn opportunities as well. With Ashley out of the lineup York made 12 starts, reaching double figures in five of those games and finishing the season with an average of 6.7 points per game. Perimeter shooting, a sore spot for the Wildcats last season, remains an issue that needs to be addressed with the hope being that players such as York can step forward.
Talent is a required attribute of any team looking to put together an exemplary season. But even for the most talented of teams it’s the intangibles like leadership and chemistry that separate a good season and a special one. As is the case for any team, Arizona will need time to establish roles and camaraderie as they look to take that next step, with the ultimate goal being to duplicate the feat accomplished by the 1997 team (they won the national title in Indianapolis, cite of this year’s Final Four). And therein lies the greatest challenge facing Arizona this season.
“It’s up to guys like Brandon now, myself, to rekindle that [chemistry of last season’s team],” Miller noted last month. “We find ourselves as we try to do it, it doesn’t happen in 12 days. It certainly doesn’t happen when you’re welcoming such a big group of new players into a cast that has a big group of guys that have been there before.
“I think part of it is the quest of bringing everyone together, a big challenge for us at this point.”
Kentucky, which has been named the top team in many preseason polls, isn’t the only team entering the 2014-15 season amidst high expectations. Arizona, which won 33 games and reached the Elite Eight last season, is another team mentioned quite often in discussions regarding favorites to win the national title next spring. Three starters from that team return, point guard T.J. McConnell, a now-healthy Brandon Ashley and center Kaleb Tarczewski, as do Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Gabe York.
Add in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes led by Stanley Johnson, and the Wildcats have a host of players capable of earning minutes. However the Wildcats do have some personnel issues to address, the greatest of which being accounting for the departures of Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson and lottery pick Aaron Gordon.
“We have kind of an identity crisis right now on defense,” Miller said. “With Nick Johnson’s ability on defense and his leadership — it’s like we’re missing three players losing him. You feel it every day.
“And Aaron Gordon, he’s just such an excellent rebounder and defensive player and energy guy that those two guys no matter what team they left, you’re going to feel their void, and boy, we really feel it right now.”
For some, the head coach’s words may be summed up as his move to keep the team humble in advance of the start of the season. But as Pascoe also noted in the story Miller, who stated during the press conference that “our depth isn’t there right now,” is a straight shooter when it comes to assessing his team. Another issue pointed out by Miller Thursday was the team’s lack of communication, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
“You don’t have to be a rah-rah type guy or slap the floor. You have to be who you really are. Some of our guys have different types of personalities. But there are some guys who come behind a microphone and, man, they can’t wait to talk, but you watch them practice and you hardly know they’re there.”
All teams are a work in progress in the month of November, which in all honesty should be the case as no one gets a trophy for being a finished product in November. But that doesn’t mean coaches will let things slide with the idea that they’ll get it all worked out in March. For Arizona that means becoming more consistent as defenders and having leaders step forward, and based upon his quotes Miller’s still waiting for his team to meet his expectations.