The Raptors’ rebuild is well underway. Some would argue that it even started last season when the Kawhi trade was made, or in February when we acquired Marc Gasol, but those were just set-ups. The rebuild only started when the Klaw left us with a gaping hole in our hearts, leaving us wondering who our next braided small forward might be? The answer came shortly after, and it was none other than Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Earlier, I wrote about how the RHJ signing brings an identity to the Raptors, as it seemed to establish a personality for the team having come after the Stanley Johnson signing. I never had the opportunity to dig into his past, his potential, or his personal life though.
“Unfortunately many NBA fans may only know him as one of the Nets lead dancers”, says Brooklyn Nets fan, Doug Bearak, in reference to this clip. It’s unfortunate because RHJ is an uber-talented player. He’s one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, he’s tremendously improved his finishing ability since being drafted in 2015, and like any young and raw athletic player who can defend and finish, he has the potential to be special.
As a kid, Rondae spent most of his time with his mother, Rylanda, who worked two jobs to support her two sons while Rondae’s father was in and out of jail for most of the boys’ childhood. From a young age, Rondae and his older brother Rahlir loved to play basketball, but Rondae only got serious about his hoop dreams at the age of 12, when he realized that his defensive abilities along with his size gave him the tools to compete with anyone.
At 14, Rondae enrolled at Chester High School in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he would become the first player ever to be named Delaware County Player of the Year in multiple seasons. In his final three years of high school, he led the Chester High Clippers to a 91-5 overall record, including two state championships, and a finals loss to Lower Merion High School in his senior year.
Coming out of high school, Rondae was a 5-star recruit, and had honours to his name including McDonald’s All-American, as well as the aforementioned awards. He ultimately took his talents to Arizona to play with fellow high school standout, Aaron Gordon.
In his freshman year as a Wildcat, he functioned mainly as a 6th man, and became known for his defense – especially his shot blocking ability, having averaged 1.1 swats per contest. He would go on to make the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team in 2014, but felt as though he was not in a good position to declare for the 2014 NBA Draft which featured a deep pool of talent, so he went back to play another year at Arizona under head coach, Sean Miller.
In his sophomore season, he started in 25 of 38 games, and averaged 11.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.2 steals, and 0.8 blocks, all improvements from his freshman season aside from the rim protection department. This scored him enough votes to be named to the First-Team All Pac-12 and the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team. He would consecutively lead his team to the Elite-Eight of the NCAA Tournament, then eventually lose to the Wisconsin Badgers.
On April 7th, 2015, Rondae declared for the 2015 NBA Draft along with his Wildcat teammate at the time and current Toronto Raptor, Stanley Johnson. Rondae was ranked the 5th best small forward in the class of 2015, and was ultimately drafted 23rd overall by the Portland Trail Blazers, before having his rights traded to the Brooklyn Nets on draft night.
“I don’t know if I’ve enjoyed coaching a player more than I’ve enjoyed coaching Rondae”, Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. Brooklyn fans would seem to agree; “Rondae was a great locker room guy… I remember going into the second year of his NBA career, he was a huge part in getting that whole Nets team to buy in, which was huge considering they were mostly a bunch of misfits”, says longtime Nets fan, Nick Harmon.
Thus far, Rondae’s had an up-and-down NBA career. Just after he recorded his first double-double in his rookie season on November 20th, 2015, he was diagnosed with a non-displaced fracture in his right ankle. He would only appear in 29 games as a rookie.
In his sophomore season, he came back right where he left off, and was one of the best young players on an otherwise shoddy Nets roster. He started in 50 of the 78 games he played, and averaged 8.7 points along with 5.8 boards and 2.0 assists. In his third year, he began to show some promise; his finishing ability vastly improved, which led to him shooting a career-high 48.1% from the field, and 78.7% from the free throw line. He looked like he could be a big part of the Nets’ future next to their newly acquired point guard, D’Angelo Russell.
Unfortunately, that idea was derailed when Caris Levert and D’Angelo Russell both had breakout seasons, taking Rondae’s minutes, and his shots. It didn’t help that he was hit with the injury bug again either, being held out of 23 contests last year. Through it all, he remained positive, saying “Sometimes you get faced with adversity, and it’s just God seeing how well you can bounce back, and how well you can overcome it before he throws the great things at you.”
“Still, he had a constant, never-ending energy. He was always the first man down the court on the fast break, [and is] one hell of a hustler” says Lucas Innamorato, a young Nets fan. Possibly the only thing aside from his health holding Rondae back from taking the next step is his jumper, which he appears to be working hard on. As a career 22.3% shooter from beyond the arc, playing on a team that already has some spacing issues, he will need to start knocking down some of his open shots. If he is even able to make 40% of his open looks from the corners (something like Pascal Siakam was able to do this past year), he could be an instrumental part of the Raptors’ success, and could play himself into a starting role.
In the words of Doug Bearak, “His uplifting persona was pivotal to [creating Brooklyn’s] culture. Seeing him interact with the fans, players, and coaches was always heartwarming.” In a bit of a bitter sweet time right now for Raptors fans, it’s important for us to adopt the mindset of RHJ.
Like I said before, any young, raw, and athletic player with a strong work ethic has the potential to be special. Undoubtedly, Rondae fits the mold. “Toronto found themselves a diamond in the rough”, says Lucas Innamorato. Hopefully this is the year that God begins to throw great things at you, Rondae.