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Welcome to McKale: Freshmen stand out in Arizona’s Red-Blue Game

Aaron Gordon finishes his first attempt in the Red-Blue dunk contest. Photo by Arizona Athletics, via Twitter

Aaron Gordon finishes his first attempt in the Red-Blue dunk contest. Photo by Arizona Athletics, via Twitter

One freshman won the dunk contest with a pair of slams that could have prevailed on an NBA court. Another freshman might have stolen the show during the scrimmage.

Much of the Top 10 fuss about the Arizona Wildcats this season comes from the addition of one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, and Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson left strong first impressions in their McKale Center debuts Saturday afternoon.

Gordon, a freakishly athletic 6-8 forward, won the Red-Blue Game dunk contest. And it was no contest.

On his first attempt, he went along the baseline, brought the ball behind his back and finished emphatically after crossing under the hoop. His second attempt was a between-the-legs 360, ending in another rim-rattler (see the embedded video below).

Gordon is perhaps the most anticipated freshman ever at Arizona — which is a crazy huge statement — but coach Sean Miller says he has “no prima donna in him,” a rare and treasured personality treatment among star recruits.

After the flash of the dunk contest, Gordon was perfectly fine staying within the confines of the scrimmage. He had 13 points and 12 rebounds, working hard for putbacks on the offensive glass.

“By far, the best rebounder I’ve ever played with and of the most athletic guys I have ever seen,” point guard T.J. McConnell said recently.

One of Gordon’s best moves came when he dribbled the ball up court, crossed over to get past Brandon Ashley and into the lane, where he dished to Kaleb Tarczewski for a dunk.

“The word unique is at the forefront when you describe him as a player,” Miller said of Gordon.

“You saw how he can pass. For someone with his size and athleticism, it might be one of the best things he does. He’s only going to get better.”

Hollis-Jefferson, a long-armed 6-7 wing, was crafty in the lane and, like Gordon, wasn’t looking to make the highlight play or to do things beyond his comfort zone. He finished with 18 points on 8 of 12 shooting.

“Rondae played very well today, almost played better than he’s been practicing,” Miller said.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with Rondae in that he really listens; he’s a willing learner. Not that I didn’t think he wouldn’t be, but he comes to practice very eager and determined and he works hard every day.

“We talked about it after the game, that I really believe one of the reasons he played well today is because how he conducts himself and how hard he works every day in practice.”

Miller said Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson were two of the best players in the Red-Blue Game, and the coach also praised freshman shooting guard Elliott Pitts, who has been considered a potential redshirt candidate. Miller might be reconsidering; at the least, Miller is going to let the process play out a little longer.

“What he’s missing is some strength and size, which will come,” Miller said.

“But in early practices, to me, he’s been one of the highlights of our team. He really knows how to play. He’s much better on defense than your normal freshman and he can shoot the basketball, and I think that’s a quality his team can really use.”

That’s true.

Arizona will have a nasty defense. The Cats should control the boards. They can run with the best of them.

Outside shooting is what could ultimately derail this team in March.

It’s no surprise, but for as tantalizingly good as Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson are — offensively and defensively — there was no sign Saturday of them being 3-point aces.

“Our shooting is something that we have to really work on,” Miller said.

“We have to take good ones. We are going to be a team sometimes that has to pound the ball inside and get out in transition. That is when you’re going to see us at our best. And that will open more really good opportunities from 3.”

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