The lack of a reliable perimeter shot acutely confronted Rondae Hollis-Jefferson during a game at Oregon State last season. In fact, it was the only thing confronting him at all. The Arizona forward received a pass on the wing, sized up the space in front of him that should have been inhabited by a defender...and saw no one there. The player assigned to guard him had sagged off nearly into the lane.
“It was so bad,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “They were literally playing our big man while I had the ball.”
The first step to correcting a problem is admitting the problem exists, and in this case the comically dismissive defensive scheme was jamming the problem right in the star freshman's face. By the time the season ended, the 6-foot-7 Hollis-Jefferson resolved to fill his summer with drill upon drill aimed at improving his ineffective jumper. That mission became imperative when talented teammates Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson exited school early for the NBA draft. Hollis-Jefferson showed enough promise in his first season, averaging 9.1 points per game, that he participated in a news conference to announce that he was staying in school. He knows that in order for Arizona to be at the forefront of the national championship hunt in 2014-15, he must become a well-rounded force. And to accomplish that, Hollis-Jefferson knows he must have an outside shot to make him a scoring threat everywhere.
In his postseason meeting with Wildcats head coach Sean Miller, Hollis-Jefferson voiced a desire to be a nationally elite performer. Improving his stroke, he told Miller, was the priority. But he'd already let his actions speak loud and clear. “When we got back to campus from Anaheim after losing to Wisconsin (in the Elite Eight), he was in the gym that day,” said Arizona assistant Book Richardson. “He said to himself, 'If I'm going to be any good, I'm going to have to be able to shoot the ball.' Guys have to respect him being able to make shots. If not, he turns into a power forward.”
Hollis-Jefferson shot 49 percent from the floor as a freshman but attempted just 10 three-pointers (making two). He was very good in close proximity to the rim, though, shooting 59.2 percent on 159 "around the basket" shot attempts (excluding post-ups, off which he shot 42.9 percent), according to Synergy Sports Data. But he attempted only 48 jumpers among his 247 field goal attempts and made just 10. That's 20.9 percent efficiency, and he was even worse off the dribble, hitting 18.5 percent (5-of-27). His jump shot produced a total of 22 points all year.
That performance inspired his summer study of mechanics.
Hollis-Jefferson and Arizona's coaches have labored since the end of last season to refine his form. His huge hands – measured at 10 inches from the tip of his thumb across the palm to the tip of his pinky finger – that were a blessing in some ways were a detriment to his shot. He often released the ball almost off his palm instead of his fingertips, which required correcting. His shooting base was inconsistent too; as a lefthander, Hollis-Jefferson should take off from and pivot on his right foot while shooting. Instead, he would sometimes plant on the left foot – an awkward and unnatural proposition, as anyone who has picked up a basketball can attest. He also had a hitch in his shot, which meant he'd hear a three-syllable command from Arizona coaches enough to have it ring in his sleep: Up and off!, they'd bark at him. Catch the ball, get it up and let it go.
Once all that had been diagnosed and initially fixed, "we were able to say, we can work on your shot,” Richardson said. “That great looking house? Why is it a great looking house? Well, it's got a great foundation.”
To build upon his new foundation, Hollis-Jefferson crafted a summer routine that revolves around muscle memory and little wasted motion. He generally begins with form shooting. He starts at short range, just in front of the rim. He focuses on keeping his guide hand straight – not too far in the front, not too far in the back, just comfortably on the side. He concentrates on keeping his fingertips spread. He zeroes in on correct hand position, so he can flick his wrist for an easy, one-motion shot. He shoots five times, then steps back, then shoots another five times. And so on, until he's retreated all the way to the NBA three-point line. It is a low-impact but somewhat painstaking series of shots, a process to which Hollis-Jefferson didn't truly dedicate himself until this summer.
“That's just before I work out, to get the feel for it,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “To start that flow.”
Typically, 10 made free throws follow. Then it's on to the shooting drills. He'll go to five-to-seven different spots for two-point shots, various locations from corner to corner, from 15 to 17 feet out. Then he'll move back beyond the three-point line for the same rotation. Sometimes he'll then graduate to one- and two-dribble pull-ups. All the while, there's an assistant like Richardson providing the unwavering soundtrack.
One-two, up and off. Quick steps and an uncompromised release. Over and over and over.
“It's cult-like,” Richardson said. “That's our mantra. You're not going to hear us say anything else. This is advanced calculus.”
From there, Hollis-Jefferson has an assortment of shooting drills from which to choose. There's the Celtics drill, in which he has to make two in a row to get to the next spot. There's the Cavaliers drill, which requires three in a row before he can move on. Then there's one that has become a personal favorite: Plus-3, Minus-1. For every made shot, Hollis-Jefferson gets three points. For every miss, he loses one. And has to get to 24 total points before his work is done.
He used to hit the gym, hit six or seven of 10 attempts from a random spot and consider it progress. But he never considered the mechanics. Even though these summer drills involve keeping score to some degree, that isn't a distraction to the important work. “I know what I have to make, and it's already set for me to do it,” he says. “Stand low, catch the ball and be ready to shoot – that's the type of thing I'm focused on. If you don't focus on those, you won't even make the shot. You have to be focused on mechanics, first. Everything else will follow.”
Hollis-Jefferson works out everyday, occasionally multiple times. He has woken up on a Saturday, called Richardson and headed with him to the gym to shoot. They'd break to watch a game or some film, at which point Hollis-Jefferson would say he wanted to work on something else. Then another break. Before either of them realized it, it was 6 p.m. and Richardson was calling it a day. Hollis-Jefferson used that has his cue to make one more solo return trip to the court.
The long hours in the gym are distributed intelligently; when Hollis-Jefferson attended the LeBron James Skill Academy in Las Vegas this summer, one particular morsel of counsel from the four-time NBA MVP resonated with the aspiring pro. I get to the gym, I know what I have to do and I do it, James told the campers. It reinforced the rhythm Hollis-Jefferson already had established. Every workout was at game speed for a game-like sweat. Maybe 30 or 45 minutes, and Hollis-Jefferson was done.
“Don't waste a rep,” Richardson said. “It's part of him growing up, it's part of his maturation. It's part of his understanding of what's needed of him to excel to get to where he wants to get to. The only way he realizes he can get there unscathed is by us winning. If we win, every individual goal is met with team success.”
Of course, Arizona's staff keeps track of the makes and misses, a data trove to help determine if Hollis-Jefferson is progressing as he must in order to become a top performer for what should be one of the nation's top teams. So what is Richardson's assessment of that progress?
“Astronomical,” the assistant coach said.
Per the program's numbers, Hollis-Jefferson is hitting roughly 62 to 63 percent of his shots during workouts.
And his percentage before this summer?
Richardson won't divulge that figure. His extended laughter at the question is perhaps an even more accurate measure.
“It wouldn't have been that high,” he said, still chuckling.
It is telling that Arizona's coaches now say they can see Hollis-Jefferson fire from the perimeter and feel little apprehension about it, because it is a good shot and one that actually has a chance to go in.
Last spring, Hollis-Jefferson told Miller he wanted to be great. To be great, he had to shoot more. Miller's response: We have the staff, we have the managers, you just tell us what you need and we'll help you get it done.
As he described all his toiling one day this summer, Hollis-Jefferson hadn't worked out yet. He planned to start with form shooting and free throws, then his two-pointers and three-pointers from preordained spots. He thought he'd do the Celtics drill, probably the Cavaliers drill. Maybe some shooting off screens and pull-ups. Maybe he'd add some different stuff.
In a couple hours, Hollis-Jefferson would arrive at the gym. He'd know what he had to do, and he'd do it.
“I made a big, big leap towards where I want to be,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “I'm still leaping. I'm not all the way there. And I'm going to keep working.”