Q&A: Raptors’ Hollis-Jefferson talks first half of season with new team

Toronto Raptors forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (4) tries to keep a ball in play as Portland Trail Blazers guard Kent Bazemore (24) looks on during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Tuesday, January 7, 2020. (Nathan Denette/CP)

After being selected 23rd overall in 2015 – and then traded, on draft night, from Portland to Brooklyn – Rondae Hollis-Jefferson spent the first four years of his NBA career with the Nets, starting in over 62 per cent of his appearances.

But last summer, as a free agent, the versatile forward left the borough and signed a one-year deal with the Toronto Raptors.

Things didn’t start off the way Hollis-Jefferson might’ve envisioned with Toronto as he was inactive for the first two games of his Raptors tenure and then played less than four minutes in his third game.

Following that, he had a run of five straight “DNP-CDs” but then found opportunity in extenuating circumstances when the Raptors got gashed by injuries, finally opening the door for him to find a rhythm.

In 31 games played with his new team, Hollis-Jefferson is averaging 8.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, primarily as a bench energy guy and has grown more comfortable as the season’s worn on.

And as Toronto approaches the official halfway point of its season, Sportsnet had a chance to sit down with the Chester, Pa., native about his first few months north of the border and as one of the new faces on the reigning champions’ roster.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

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Sportsnet: We haven’t seen this team – other than a handful of games – at its full capacity yet. How much do you guys look forward to being at this midway point where it looks like everybody is back at it and ready to show what you’ve really got for the second half of the season?

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson: It feels good to know that the majority of everyone is back, working those kinks out. I feel like when we’re all back and healthy, the sky’s the limit. You guys have seen how well we play together and how things flourish. Pascal [Siakam] being back, Marc [Gasol] being a great facilitator. Everything will take off I feel.

SN: You never want to see a teammate go down, but when you’re the new guy on the team does something like that help you – more minutes, more burn – to be able to acclimate yourself a little bit quicker to a new squad?

RHJ: At the end of the day it’s just opportunity. It comes your way in different variations. Whether it’s from a team losing and wanting to see something different, or injuries, you must take advantage of the opportunity given. It just so happened that some guys got injured and we had that mentality – next man up – and coach believed in us and the rest is history.

We played our way into earning a little bit of equity into coach’s heart; trusting us. I feel like we’ve got to do a better job of keeping that. We’re not off the hook because we played ten games well or whatever the case may be. We have to grind it out every game, every moment we’re on the court.

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SN: When you think back to training camp to where we are now, give me some pros and cons – of either the team or yourself – in terms of where you’ve grown from that camp back in Quebec to where it is now.

RHJ: I would say just learning each other. Learning where people thrive at and learning how the new guys fit into the team system. I feel like there are a lot of pros in that.

Our veteran point guards, Kyle [Lowry], [Fred VanVleet] putting us in great position to help the team. And they’re talking to us as well, showing us and teaching us. I feel like that’s a big thing that people look over in terms of leadership – the teaching aspect of it.

The cons for us younger guys and the people that are new here? At the end of the day, coach has been here with these guys so he’s familiar with them and they built up that trust. I feel like we have to do a better job of, when we’re out there for 18 minutes or 20 minutes, we’ve got to stay locked in for that whole time.

Once we do a better job at that, things will really start to keep going up for us.

SN: Based on what you just said there, I remember Raptors coach Nick Nurse saying in camp – when he talked about the new guys – “we won a championship last year, guys have got to realize we’ve established a certain way to play.”

Was that clear from the get-go in terms of when you came in? This is the way the Raptors do things, and you’ve got to figure your way and find your way?

RHJ: Yeah, how they played, their identity. They knew who they were. We’re new. We’re coming into something that was obviously established. It definitely, definitely was transparent with that. I feel like everybody knew what they were coming into.

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SN: What has it been like for you this first half of the season? Has it been everything you thought it would be when you made the decision to sign with Toronto?

RHJ: At the end of the day, they told me it would be a grind. [That I’d] have to work for opportunities, playing time, et cetera. So it wasn’t anything I didn’t expect. I don’t put anything past anyone. I’m very open. So I just come in and work hard and do everything that I can do.

SN: When you think back to the off-season, was that a tough decision for you at any point? Where you’re an established guy playing a lot of minutes in Brooklyn, but then you’re going to a situation where it might be better, even if there may be less minutes.

RHJ: It’s definitely something that’s tough to adjust to. But at the end of the day, I’m a competitor and I want to win. So that’s what the decision came down to. I was always told, “With team success comes individual accolades.” So whatever it takes for the team to win, I’m willing to do.

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