If there's one positive to come out of the Toronto Raptors losing Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby to injuries on this current five-game Western Conference road trip, it's that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson appears to have finally found his place on this team.
Hollis-Jefferson wasn't a part of the rotation prior to this road trip. He played a total of four minutes in the first eight games of the season, all of which came in garbage time of Toronto's blowout win over the lowly Chicago Bulls. Some of that could have been because he was recovering from a groin injury that limited him in the preseason, but Nick Nurse's comments about Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson - the team's other notable acquisition in the offseason - before the season didn't exactly inspire a ton of confidence.
"Those guys have not understood A) how hard we play, B) our schemes, that defence is a priority for them, etc.," Nurse told TSN's Josh Lewenberg. "We've got some work to do with that crew. I tell them there's a couple spots, come Tuesday night there's a couple spots there open if somebody wants them. And I keep telling [them] show me you're going to play defence, show me you're going to play hard, show me you understand our coverages."
Which brings us to Sunday, when the loss of Lowry and Ibaka opened up an opportunity for Hollis-Jefferson to play his first real minutes of the season.
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Hollis-Jefferson made the most of the opportunity he was given against the Los Angeles Lakers, providing a spark off the bench with 10 points, three rebounds and two assists in 15 minutes of play. He was at his best in the fourth quarter, when he helped the Raptors outscore the hottest team in the league by nearly double figures to complete the comeback.
Hollis-Jefferson followed that performance up by playing a season-high 28 minutes in Toronto's loss to the LA Clippers. Two days later, he recorded his first double-double of the season in a big win over the Portland Trail Blazers, finishing with 16 points and 11 rebounds, eight of which came on the offensive glass.
But what has been more impressive than those raw numbers is what Hollis-Jefferson has done defensively. Beyond the 7.7 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 0.7 blocks he's averaged over the last three games, the bulk of his minutes have been spent guarding some of the best players in the league. His primary matchup against the Lakers was LeBron James, who had his lowest-scoring game of the season against the Raptors. He then took on the responsibility of guarding Kawhi Leonard when Anunoby left the Clippers game with an eye injury and spent time on both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on Wednesday.
Not only that, Hollis-Jefferson has success against each of them. According to NBA.com, the four of them combined to score seven points on 2-for-11 shooting from the field with the 24-year-old serving as their primary defender. Those are remarkable numbers considering three of them - James, Leonard and Lillard - are MVP candidates this season.
It obviously takes far more than one player to slow down them down, but there's no denying that Hollis-Jefferson played a big role in their struggles. He's a big body at 6-foot-6 and 217 pounds, and he uses his 7-foot-1 wingspan well to shut down passing lanes and contest shots around the rim, even though he's not much of a shot-blocker.
Hollis-Jefferson also has a high motor, which shows on hustle plays like this:
Based on how well he defended James, Leonard, Lillard and McCollum, it should come as no surprise that the Raptors have been a completely different team with Hollis-Jefferson on the floor lately. Whereas the Lakers, Clippers and Blazers scored at a rate of 105.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench, they allowed only 96.6 with him on the court. That represents the second-largest differential on the team over the last three games, trailing only Pascal Siakam.
This isn't necessarily new territory for Hollis-Jefferson. As I wrote back when the Raptors signed him, the biggest draw with him is that he's capable of guarding guards, forwards and even some centres at a high level. A number of advanced metrics have made him out to be one of the league's best defenders at his position to this point of his career, with him peaking as high as fourth on ESPN's Defensive Real-Plus minus among small forwards.
It's why it was such a surprise to hear Nurse call out Hollis-Jefferson for his defence prior to the season. That has always been his calling card.
It may have taken eight games of him being glued to the bench for him to figure it out, but Hollis-Jefferson has finally arrived.
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