When the Raptors signed Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in the off-season the general reaction was muted. The Raps had lost two very good wings in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and the pair coming in — two so-called “second draft” players, RHJ and Stanley Johnson — seemed underwhelming. The best cast scenario for Toronto with Hollis-Jefferson was a season in which he rehabilitated his value enough to be able to attract a bigger contract elsewhere, making it impossible for the Raps to bring him back even if they wanted to. (We’ll call that the Biyombo Rule.)
Still, the Raptors knew this going in. Hollis-Jefferson had already established a track record of some success as an under-sized, defensively versatile big. He was also only a year away from his mini-breakout of sorts when he averaged 13.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists a game for Brooklyn in 2017-18.
So then, how did things work out over the past year for Rondae as a Raptor?
It didn’t look good early as Hollis-Jefferson struggled to find the court during the pre-season, and coach Nick Nurse made veiled comments about him, Johnson, and most of the new Raptors, saying they weren’t playing hard enough on defense. That, and a slight injury to start the season meant the former Net didn’t see the floor for the first eight games of the regular season — save a four-minute garbage-time run versus Chicago.
Toronto’s injury bug did Hollis-Jefferson a favour though, as in mid-November Serge Ibaka was shelved, pushing RHJ into back-up frontcourt minutes. Jefferson responded with a series of high-energy games that got him into Nurse’s good graces.
Overall, Hollis-Jefferson put up numbers that compared favourably to 2017-18. The per-game averages — 7.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists — don’t scream “breakout”, but on a per-possession basis, Hollis-Jefferson was every bit as effective for Toronto.
Still, despite all that, the Raptors were almost four points better with Hollis-Jefferson off the floor than on it. Let’s take a deeper look why, and see if that means the team should have any interest in bringing him back.
Hollis-Jefferson’s 2019-20 season in Toronto was a study in doing what you can, and eliminating what you can’t. A career 21.3 percent three-point shooter, Rondae almost completely excised the shot from his game — taking less than half a three per contest.
Heck, Hollis-Jefferson basically excised any type of jump-shot whatsoever. According to Cleaning The Glass, 76 percent of his shots came at the rim, and a total of 91 percent came from within 14 feet of the basket. It only helped so much though, as Hollis-Jefferson still put up an ugly 46 percent effective field-goal percentage, putting him in the bottom 6-percentile of big men. (Which is how Cleaning the Glass categorizes him, and which should be taken with a bit of grain of salt as one wouldn’t expect RHJ to finish quite as efficiently in close as a true “big.”)
Hollis-Jefferson did have one ace up his scoring sleeve though: a bullying driving game that saw him draw fouls on over 18 percent of shot attempts. That put him in the 86th percentile, and while his free throw shooting dipped from his career high mark of 79 percent in that 2018 season, RHJ still hit a respectable 73 percent of his freebies.
Hollis-Jefferson continued to be a plus playmaker as well — he was in the 86th percentile of assist-percentage for a big, though he did combine that with an above average turnover percentage. Add that to his elite impact on a team’s offensive rebounding — 99th percentile! — and it’s clear how Hollis-Jefferson could post a career-best offensive rating during the year, despite being unable to shoot.
Hollis-Jefferson also had, in many ways, a career defensive year for the Raptors, putting up his best ever defensive rating. His steal and block rates remain, if not elite, then very strong. (There is a bit of noise here on the block stats as RHJ’s ability to get blocks has remained consistent, but Cleaning the Glass penalizes him for now being considered a big.) In all, Hollis-Jefferson does show a lot of activity on the defensive end, if nothing else.
Digging in deeper though shows the Raptors’ opponents scored more easily when Rondae was on the floor. That’s despite the Raptors allowing fewer shots at the rim when RHJ was out there. Instead they rained threes. Now, some of that may be chalked up to rivals shooting an unusually high percentage on above the break threes (as well as long-twos), but it’s also possible that RHJ blew coverages as he gambled for steals.
There were other risks to Rondae’s game. While Hollis-Jefferson successfully hunted for offensive rebounds, playing as a (very) small-ball five meant the Raps had a harder time ending possessions with him out there. Although, to be fair, for most of his career Hollis-Jefferson’s teams have done pretty well on the defensive boards. This could either be an aberration or more of a team-wise deficiency. (It’s been a long-time Raptors issue: Toronto again finished in the bottom third of the league in getting defensive rebounds.)
The final issue was fouling, after a couple of years of being one of the least foul-prone players in the NBA, Hollis-Jefferson slipped back to where he was earlier in his career — basically average. To be fair that’s in-line with where the Raptors as a team were, as coach Nurse seemed willing to allow some fouling in service of executing his aggressive defensive coverages.
Hollis-Jefferson went out there for Toronto and was about as good as he could be and the results were... fine? There’s no major shame in a deeper bench player having a weaker on-off split — when you replace excellent players you’re going to cause a drop-off.
If you squint hard enough you can see a bit of the Draymond Green role for Rondae on offense. Set screens for a dangerous shooter, get 4-3 opportunities, have the vision to spray the ball around the court, or the willingness and athleticism to attack the rim.
The fact you need to really squint though shows just how special a player like Green is — and where Hollis-Jefferson lacks. While Draymond has been an even worse overall shooter than Hollis-Jefferson the last couple of years, he’s a genius playmaker and a better defender. He’s also helped by having two all-world shooters by his side — as good as Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are, they’re not so dangerous that they can carry a non-scoring threat like Hollis-Jefferson for long minutes.
Maybe there’s a world where if neither Serge Ibaka nor Marc Gasol come back, the Raps will retain Hollis-Jefferson for continuity sake. If Matt Thomas gets more minutes, he could be an interesting pick and roll partner with RHJ. In this scenario, Thomas’ gravity could create additional space for RHJ to make the clever passes he has shown he has in his pocket.
Ultimately though, it feels like Toronto will be willing to go in another direction. For a team with continued title expectations, Hollis-Jefferson just has too many holes in his game to secure a bigger role. At the same time, RHJ is too good a player to settle for a bit role yet again.
Maybe he makes sense in, say, Portland, who could use a bigger wing defender, a little extra off the bounce, and — in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — might have the shooting to both use RHJ’s playmaking and the ability to survive his lack of scoring. In any case, it seems like a safe bet that Rondae’s days in Toronto may already be numbered.