The defending champions have added another. A Crown League champion.
All right, let’s walk that back a bit. That might be too inside-Canadian basketball a reference.
The Toronto Raptors are signing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, though financial terms have yet to be announced.
Better? It feels like that’s better.
And no, Hollis-Jefferson has at no point been an NBA champion. He was, however, a champion at last summer’s Crown League, one of Toronto’s mostly annual summer basketball tournaments that are ripe with NBA cameos. Right around this time last year, Hollis-Jefferson teamed up with Brady Heslip and Olivier Hanlan to take the title, just the latest in a career of burgeoning Canadiana for Hollis-Jefferson, a Pennsylvania native. Before Crown League, it was Drake’s OVO Fest adjacent (and also only mostly annual) tournament OVO Bounce, where Hollis-Jefferson played with Anthony Bennett, Melvin Ejim and Sim Bhullar. In between, Hollis-Jefferson has watched NBA Finals games in Montreal as part of NBA Canada events and generally worked his way toward honorary Canadian basketball citizenship. (Hollis-Jefferson is represented by agent Mike George, who has a large handful of Canadian players inside and on the fringes of the NBA on his roster.)
Now, Hollis-Jefferson has joined the Raptors, confirming the Charania report with a patriotic tweet Sunday.
The Raptors are adding Hollis-Jefferson for more than just his pseudo-Canadian roots, of course. In fact, when we looked at potential post-Kawhi Leonard free-agent targets last week, Hollis-Jefferson came in at the top of the wish list. Similar to the logic behind the Raptors adding Stanley Johnson — who once scored 86 (!) points in an OVO Bounce game himself — the bet on Hollis-Jefferson is a bet on a young player with obvious tools who hasn’t quite found a consistent footing in the NBA. And while Johnson was a higher pick and boasts an intriguing-yet-limited profile, Hollis-Jefferson is already a useful NBA player, one who mitigates a lot of his shortcomings with motor and savvy.
The similarities extend beyond the logic and occasional Canadian summer tournament appearances. Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson, you might remember, were college teammates on a tremendous Arizona team that included Kadeem Allen and T.J. McConnell. (The Wildcats were one of the best top-10 defensive teams of the past five years in the NCAA, by KenPom’s adjusted defensive rating. I vividly remember them shutting down freshman wunderkind D’Angelo Russell in the round of 32 en route to an Elite Eight berth.) It makes sense, narratively, that their paths have been similar and they’ve landed in a similar spot, developmentally and geographically.
Hollis-Jefferson is a defence-first flier, a 6-foot-7, 217-pound positionless weapon with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He’s also a complete non-shooter, somehow even worse than Johnson, who shot just under 30 percent on more than 800 career 3-point attempts and was hardly better while wide open. Hollis-Jefferson has a funky jump shot you don’t really expect to drop and has hit just 22.3 percent of his 3-point attempts during his four years in the NBA. He’s been working hard to improve from the corners, but it will take a larger sample of improvement before opposing defences pay much attention to him, especially given his unwillingness at times to shoot.
So in Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson, the Raptors have a pair of former first-round picks who were allowed to become unrestricted free agents because of development that’s perceived to have plateaued. Both are strong defenders by reputation with the obvious tools to succeed on that end and major questions about whether they can shoot enough to be functional rotation players on quality teams. They’ve also both been signed to deals with less upside for the Raptors than maybe was expected with these roster spots in a post-Leonard world. Johnson holds a player option for the second year that he’ll only exercise if his performance doesn’t take a leap, and Hollis-Jefferson will reenter free agency in a year regardless, without the Raptors holding even Early Bird rights on him.
Hollis-Jefferson is the more well-rounded of the two, though. Jacob Goldstein’s Player Impact Plus-Minus graded him as even more of an impact defender at the team level, and where Johnson graded worst of any NBA player on offence by that metric, Hollis-Jefferson was slightly better. That’s because Hollis-Jefferson has a broader skill set on that end. To help account for his lack of gravity spotting up, he’s become a smart cutter, sliding along the baseline from the weak corner for dunks or darting toward the paint, has a bit of a post-up game against smaller guards and, perhaps most notably, is strong at setting screens. He can also help keep the ball moving with quick reads and a decent feel for passing despite a handle that isn’t anything special breaking down a defence from the perimeter.
Synergy Sports and other advanced metrics didn’t care for him much in any particular play-type last season, and he took a sizeable step back as a finisher inside the arc, but he’s shown those skills in prior years. His 2017-18 season is likely what the Raptors are hoping to rediscover here. That season, Hollis-Jefferson looked to be taking a step forward as an all-around piece. Even with a tough 2018-19 under his belt, PIPM projects him to be worth 3.1 wins above replacement this year, which, if it holds, would far outstrip the value of his one-year deal.
Hollis-Jefferson is still just 24. As we warned with Johnson, age is not always the best indicator of upside remaining in the face of four years of NBA development time. Hollis-Jefferson hasn’t had a defined role and has dealt with injuries during his brief NBA career, factors that the Raptors might feel have slowed his growth. By all accounts, he seems like he’ll be a culture fit, a hard worker with a positive, spirited approach. (I once saw him warm up for a game by skipping rope and yelling out Muhammad Ali quotes. He’s going to love OVO Athletic Centre’s workout room.)
So Hollis-Jefferson’s profile is familiar. And while I’d apologize for consecutive player breakdowns that feel and read similarly, I think there’s an important conclusion to draw from that: The Raptors are beginning to have an identity for 2020-21. In broad terms, the transition year necessitated the Raptors’ search for potentially undervalued players with upside, the type of in-development pieces that can contribute to winning and might help down the line, as well. With specifics now in place for at least a few roster spots, it’s clear the Raptors are targeting a certain archetype, not only in terms of what’s left to develop but also what the team will look like on the court.
To wit, while they’ve lost high-end defenders in Leonard and Danny Green, the Raptors have quickly restocked (as best they could in their tier of the market). Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson join Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby as young forwards with real defensive chops and positional versatility. Norman Powell and Malcolm Miller, to some extent, fit that description as well, and potential camp invites Sagaba Konate and Dewan Hernandez offer more promise on the defensive end than the offensive end. (Even Terence Davis, reportedly signed Sunday, defends much better than his size might suggest.) All of the wings on the Raptors’ roster right now spent ample time defending multiple positions with strong Defensive PIPM marks a season ago, per data from Goldstein and Krishna Narsu.
(Time each player spent guarding each position, courtesy Narsu based on NBA.com matchup data. The lower the versatility rating, the more versatile the player was, with 0.5 being extremely versatile relative to the league. D-PIPM comes courtesy Goldstein and measures impact in points per-100 defensive possessions.)
If Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka gets traded, the Raptors are loaded with size across the forward positions to allow for Siakam or maybe Chris Boucher to eat some centre minutes. If not, maybe they can play large across the three wing positions, leaning on their defence to grind out games. Things profile somewhat tenuously on offence with all of these additions — Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet better be ready for higher-usage 3-point volume — and the team will likely prioritize shooting with its final additions. Points are points whether scored or prevented, and Toronto will enter 2019-20 armed heavily with big, active, switchy defenders. With Leonard departed, the Raptors weren’t going to out-talent teams on paper, and fortifying a defensive identity between now and October while working to develop the offensive floor of their prospects appears to be the offseason edict.
The one-year contract limits the overall long-term upside of the flier the Raptors are taking here, but Hollis-Jefferson was about the most attractive young piece left on the market and should fit right in with the team’s direction this season.