ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The big industries have long left Chester, Pa., and taken thousands of jobs with them, but there’s still a lot of truth to the saying Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan likes to quote from the water tower of his hometown:
“What Chester makes, makes Chester.”
The town of roughly 35,000 in Eastern Pennsylvania is still successfully producing ball players. Ryan said that basketball has been the thing for kids in Chester since the 1920s, and the competition on the court is so tough that even the managers had tryouts in high school.
“There is a sense of pride there that the whole city rallies around,” Ryan said. “But in order to be a player there, you’ve got to be a player. You’ve got to beat out a lot of people.”
Arizona 6-foot-7 forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is the latest in a line of players that recently included Jameer Nelson and Tyreke Evans to serve as the next potential great out of Chester. Hollis-Jefferson will be on display when the Wildcats face Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament West Region final for a berth in the Final Four.
Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon said if there was a national Sixth Man of the Year award, it should go to Hollis-Jefferson.
“He’s come off the bench all year long for us and given us huge minutes, huge plays, energy,” Gordon said. “... He’s a huge asset to this team, he’s our sixth starter.”
He’s slowly become an invaluable component of the Wildcats, especially after starter Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury on Feb. 1. Arizona coach Sean Miller said that was the moment Hollis-Jefferson began to mature. He was more detailed in scouting reports and worked harder in practice because he knew the team would need him more.
“He started to recognize the difference between college and high school, and the process of being ready for that doesn’t start on game day, it’s every day, and everything you do contributes to that,” Miller said.
Arizona probably would not have escaped a poor shooting outing by Nick Johnson and foul trouble from center Kaleb Tarczewski against San Diego State without Hollis-Jefferson’s 15 points and five rebounds.
After Thursday’s win Johnson said Hollis-Jefferson was “playing like the best freshman in the country” along with Gordon.
“I feel like if it’s any time you want to prove to somebody who you really are, it’s tournament time,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “Just to be able to step up and contribute as big as I’m doing, my will is kicking in. I want to win so bad, I just want to prove to people I can win.”
Gordon’s name has long been associated with the elite of the freshman class this season, especially when the Wildcats played Duke and he faced off with freshman forward Jabari Parker. Hollis-Jefferson was rated No. 21 overall in the 2014 recruiting class, but compared to the attention Gordon has earned, he's more like the Wildcats' “other” freshman.
Hollis-Jefferson has started only six games, and his 9.1 points and 5.7 rebound average don’t leap off a stat sheet. But he didn't attend Arizona to put up the big numbers he could have accumulated at a place where he would have been a star with less supporting talent.
“Being a McDonald’s All-American and coming in and saying hey you’re our sixth man, that’s a blow to an ego right there,” Johnson said. “But he’s handled it so well, he embraces that role. He really is our X-factor.”
Hollis-Jefferson is more concerned with being effective than being noticed. And he’s achieved that quite well. In 22 games with Ashley in the lineup, Hollis-Jefferson averaged just 7.9 points. In the 15 games since Ashley’s injury, he has averaged 10.8 points per game. Both of his double-doubles this season in scoring and rebounding have come over that span as well.
“I guess people can say I’m the underdog, people look past me, but I know deep down inside that I’ve done a lot for the team,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “I’m helping the team tremendously on defense and offense and I know what I’m doing and I know people notice that.”
It’s hard not to notice what Hollis-Jefferson is doing in the tournament. He scored a career-high 18 points and had five assists in the third-round win over Gonzaga. He and Gordon were stuck guarding the Aztecs’ big men when Tarczewski got into foul trouble. Though he was at a size disadvantage, Hollis-Jefferson held his own.
In scouting Arizona, Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky paid Hollis-Jefferson the highest compliment.
“As coach would say, he’s a Chester guy,” Kaminsky said. “Obviously he’s going to be a tough kid, he’s going to be a tough matchup.”
Competition aside, Hollis-Jefferson took time to pose with Ryan when both teams arrived at the Honda Center in Anaheim on Wednesday. Hollis-Jefferson posted the picture on his Facebook page, but added one request when anyone references the pair as Chester natives:
“Make sure you say, he’s from my hometown.”