Philadelphia 76ers: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson could add defensive versatility

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /

If the Philadelphia 76ers are in the market for a wing defender, they should consider trading the 26th overall pick for Chester native Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Though the Philadelphia 76ers struggled to knock down three-point shots in their five-game series against the Celtics, arguably the main reason the team didn’t advance to the Eastern Conference Finals to face off against the Cleveland Cavaliers was their inability to defend Boston’s deceptively athletic frontcourt.

Lead by role players Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Smart, the Celtics’ young trio of guards averaged an impressive 44.2 points a game and did so almost unguarded over the first three games of the series. Granted, Brett Brown eventually made adjustments and inserted T.J. McConnell into the starting lineup in game four, in a move that did steal a win at the Wells Fargo Center, but the prospect of winning four straight games to close out the series ultimately proved too daunting of a task for the Sixers to overcome and they, unfortunately, bowed out to an early summer vacation.

This stretch of games, more so than any other, really highlighted a weakness in the team’s towering starting lineup and gave the NBA a template for how to beat the Sixers moving forward: Go small.

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Don’t get me wrong, starting a 6-foot-10 point guard does have its advantages, as the team was  essentially able to bully any opponent that tried to take them on pound-for-pound, but between J.J. Redick‘s -2.11 defensive Real Plus-Minus, Ben Simmons‘ lack of versatility on the offensive end, and the almost constant need for either Robert Covington or Dario Saric to face off against a player one position down, if the Sixers are going to take the next step in the development as a team in 2018 and have a shot at making an even deeper run into the 2019 NBA playoffs they’ll need to find a way to field a small ball lineup that’s just as potent as their big ball lineup.

They need to find a lockdown frontcourt defender.

Sure, the team does have Justin Anderson under contract for one more season and could very well draft everyone’s favorite former Villanova Wildcat Mikal Bridges with the 10th overall pick, but if Bryan Colangelo and company want to add a proven NBA vet with the size, speed, and smarts to cover scorers 1-4, they should consider placing a call to the Brooklyn Nets about third-year forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Hollis-Jefferson, a native of Chester, Pennsylvania, spent his two seasons of college basketball at the University of Arizona, playing alongside T.J. McConnell for then-head coach Sean Miller. Though he didn’t bring much to the table on the offensive end of the court, the 6-foot-7, 220 pound forward established himself as one of the best defenders in all of college basketball, and a major reason why the team made it to the NCAA tournament in 2014 and 2015. Though the Wildcats predominantly played him out of position as a small-ball power forward, Jefferson still averaged 10.2 points and 6.3 rebounds over his two-year college career and was named to the first team All-Pac-12 in 2015.

While Hollis-Jefferson could have returned to college for his two final years of eligibility to increase his draft stock, he decided to enter his name into consideration for the 2015 NBA Draft after receiving a mid-first round grade by most talent evaluators.

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Often paired with Justin Anderson in the pre-draft process, the duo routinely duked it out on shared team visits to prove who the best wing defender in the draft was, with Anderson ultimately winning the competition by being selected 21st overall by the Dallas Mavericks, two picks before Hollis-Jefferson went 23rd to the Portland Trail Blazers, and was subsequently traded to the Nets alongside Steve Blake for Mason Plumlee and Pat Connaughton.

Joining one of the worst teams in the NBA, just starting to feel the negative effects of their ill-fated 2014 trade with the Celtics, Hollis-Jefferson played in 29 games as a rookie before receiving a bump in playing time going into his sophomore campaign. Though he would eventually be pressed into action as the team’s starting power forward once more in 2017, Hollis-Jefferson had a career year, recording 13.9 points and 6.8 rebounds in 59 starts. Though he still struggled with shooting from 3-point range, only hitting 13 of his 54 attempts for a super sub-par 24.1 percent, his very impressive 1.78 defensive Real Plus-Minus helped the Nets win eight more games than the previous season.

But even though Brooklyn made leaps and bounds thanks to the improved play of Hollis-Jefferson and Spencer Dinwiddie, it appears as though neither player may be in the Nets’ long-term future moving forward, as they were both allegedly available for a late first round pick at the 2018 trade deadline.

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After picking up his fourth-year option in October, Brooklyn will have to make a decision in regards to their starting forward before he enters restricted free agency in 2019. While Brooklyn could easily opt to re-sign him to a new deal, as they currently have one of the lowest payrolls in the entire NBA, they may have to overpay to keep their defensive-minded forward in the Big Apple long-term, as most teams could use an athletic defender, even if he doesn’t have the polished offensive game to make him a full-time starting player.

One of those teams could surely be the Sixers.

Though he obviously doesn’t possess the accuracy from deep that the team typically covets in free agent acquisitions, Hollis-Jefferson could give the Sixers another lockdown defender to pair with Simmons and Covington moving forward; one who could actually blanket out opposing guards one-on-one.

At 6-foot-7, 220 pounds, Hollis-Jefferson has the loose hips and smooth movements of an NFL cornerback, and can effortlessly mirror opposing defenders in press coverage one-on-one. Standing a solid four inches taller than the average NBA guard, Hollis-Jefferson could effectively blanket either guard position, without the fear of him getting exposed on pick and roll drives to the basket.

And the best part? The Sixers likely wouldn’t have to break the bank to bring him in.

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For the low, low price of a late first-round pick, like, say, the 26th overall pick, Hollis-Jefferson could very well be in play for a team looking for a lockdown defender who’s barely old enough to drink. According to, only 10 percent of the players who are selected 26th overall develop into NBA stars, with almost 50 percent either finishing out their careers as either complete busts or deep bench players. Even though Hollis-Jefferson may never develop into a true star, if the first 175 games of his NBA career are of any indication,n he’s far from a bust, and could ultimately prove to be a safer bet at 26 than the team’s usual sign-and-stash late first round European projects.

While much has been written about the 76ers potentially acquiring a top flight superstar like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, or Paul George in free agency, very few players can will a team to a championship alone, with most needing a strong core of players to even make it to the playoffs. Though the Celtics did ultimately lose Game 7 to James and the Cavs, Brad Stevens‘ squad was somehow able to overcome losing their two best players before the playoffs even started and were not only able to survive but thrive because of their incredibly well-designed scheme. Players like Hollis-Jefferson are essential cogs in championship-caliber teams.

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Though he may never develop into a starting caliber forward, at only 23, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is one of the best young defenders in the NBA and has the potential to lock down an opposing team’s best player one-on-one for the next decade-plus. While he doesn’t possess Covington’s ability to knock down corner threes, Hollis-Jefferson’s size, speed, and athleticism could allow him to be a nice complement to RoCo as a defensive sixth-man and ensure that Brett Brown’s squad always has at least one lockdown defender on the field at any given time.