Toronto Raptors: The importance of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

For the most part, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s first season with the Toronto Raptors has been a success. As the season progresses and rotations shorten, how important will he be going forward?

The skies weren’t always so sunny for Hollis-Jefferson in Toronto. This past offseason, the Toronto Raptors signed the free agent after the Brooklyn Nets let him go to create space for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to sign. Although it seemed like an okay signing at the time, there wasn’t much intrigue in the deal, and most of that could be chalked up to timing.

Hollis-Jefferson was announced not much long after Kawhi Leonard‘s decision became official, and some Raptors fans were awaiting a dream signing to fill some of the voids Kawhi left, no matter how unrealistic that notion was.

This team was full of question marks heading into the season. Nobody outside of Canada gave the Raptors much of a chance, and even people around the team remained cautiously optimistic when it came to the new season, very aware that the expectations would have to be much lower this time around.

That same tempered expectation was extended to Hollis-Jefferson, like the feeling before the year was that the best-case scenario for Rondae was to provide a few minutes off of the bench and fit into a role. Early on in the season, however, this didn’t seem to be in the forecast.

In the first eight games of the season, he only touched the court once: A four-minute garbage-time appearance at the end of a blowout in Chicago. To make matters worse, this was off of the heels of a preseason where Nick Nurse criticized him and fellow newcomer, Stanley Johnson, over their lack of defensive work ethic in practice. At this point in the season, it wasn’t even a guarantee that Hollis-Jefferson would find himself on the active list towards the end of the season let alone be an important piece. That all changed however on November 10th.

A common phrase in sports is the ‘next man up’ mantra, and that directly applied to Hollis-Jefferson. Serge Ibaka was injured in an early November game against the New Orleans Pelicans and would go on to miss a significant amount of time. In that span, RHJ would find his comfort zone, contributing to valuable energy and size off of the bench, proving his worth to a team with a weakness in rebounding.

His impact was so strong that even once Ibaka returned and the lineup went back to normal, coach Nick Nurse had no choice but to keep him in the rotation, and even then, his production remained important to the team.

From that November 10 night in Los Angeles on, Hollis-Jefferson featured in every game, even collecting a few starts, until he was forced to leave against San Antonio with a right angle injury on January 26th. As disappointing as this injury is for Rondae, his consistent play over the prior months has guaranteed that he will still have a role when he returns from injury.

That brings us to now, and the question of what to expect from him down the stretch of the season. Admittedly, a lot of Hollis-Jefferson’s opportunities have come due to injury. For most of the season the Raptors have been missing either Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam or Serge Ibaka, and that has allowed for him to come in and increase his workload.

During the short stretch where the Toronto Raptors were at full strength, his minutes dipped, but he was still averaging upwards of 18 minutes per-game and getting touches on the offensive end despite his lack of an outside game.

When determining Hollis-Jefferson’s value, there are three main things to consider: The aforementioned overall health of the team, how Nick Nurse chooses to shorten his bench, and the decisions that the Toronto Raptors have made at the trade deadline.

As previously mentioned, injuries have plagued this team, and the hope going forward is that they will be able to get healthy and be able to consistently run lineups heading into the postseason. As good as the Raptors have been playing, consistency will be crucial when it comes to everyone knowing their roles, and so staying healthy will be a large key for the second half of the season.

If that doesn’t happen, however, and players continue to miss games, Hollis-Jefferson will continue to see an increase in minutes and will play a significant role in securing home-court advantage for the Toronto Raptors in the next few months.

Injuries aside, how Nick Nurse chooses to manage his bench will have a big impact on Rondae’s value. Last season, Nurse often ran with five or six players off of the bench in March and April, and come playoff time, the rotation was shortened to three or four. Last year’s playoffs saw Ibaka, Norman Powell, and Fred VanVleet occupy almost all of the bench minutes, and Rondae will be looking to get himself into that sort of position.

This year’s bench (if healthy), is a bit deeper than last year, as there are currently 12 players on the roster averaging over 10 minutes-per-game. Hollis-Jefferson will continue to get a lot of opportunities down the stretch of the season assuming his play remains at the level it was before his injury, and although his minutes may decrease a bit in the postseason, it seems as if he’ll get his fair share of opportunities there as well.

He currently finds himself in a grouping with Terence Davis, Patrick McCaw, and Chris Boucher, as they all look for valuable minutes off of the bench. Although he’s safely in that group, how Hollis-Jefferson is used is important. He thrives in certain lineups but has struggled consistently when paired with Patrick McCaw or Chris Boucher.

When in the right situations, Hollis-Jefferson’s contributions will be through his rebounding and defensive energy, and those performances will directly determine his playoff usage, as Nurse has shown the desire to stick with players when he trusts them. Luckily for Hollis-Jefferson, his relationship with Nurse seems to get better as the season grows older.

A final thing to consider when determining his role down the stretch points to the Raptors decision making at the deadline. As many predicted, the Toronto Raptors stood pat and trusted the group they have, and as of right now, that seems like the correct decision. In turn, this means that there won’t be any new faces present to take minutes away from him, assuring him of a vital bench spot that will translate into important minutes for the rest of the season and the playoffs.

Assuming that Hollis-Jefferson can maintain his play from before his ankle setback, there is little reason to believe that his role won’t continue as is, and his confidence won’t continue to increase.

The Raptors seem to be an ideal fit for Rondae right now, as their once questionable relationship continues to blossom, in which both Hollis-Jefferson and the Toronto Raptors as a whole look to continue to prove the doubters wrong.

Next: How the Heat's Iguodala trade affects the Raptors

The skies weren’t always so sunny for Hollis-Jefferson in Toronto. But even amid a frigid Canadian winter, he looks to close the season amongst clear skies, in a player-team relationship that has gone better than most expected.