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Hollis-Jefferson a ‘joy’ on and off the court for top-ranked Arizona

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson defends against UCLA's Bryce Alford at Pauley Pavilion. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson defends against UCLA’s Bryce Alford at Pauley Pavilion. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s face barely shows a flicker of recognition.

He’s heard the name. But that’s about it. Never saw him play. Some have mentioned the name to him because they see the comparison.

Hollis-Jefferson … Stacey Augmon.

“No idea,” Hollis-Jefferson.

As far as Hollis-Jefferson is concerned, Augmon might as well have been playing with peach baskets, even though his 15-year NBA career ended not too long ago, in 2006. Hollis-Jefferson was 11. And, of course, he wasn’t even born when Augmon’s talented UNLV teams had a few epic battles with Lute Olson’s Arizona Wildcats in the late 1980s.

So, UA fans of a certain age get it, understand the comparison.

Augmon was one of the greatest defenders of his day, known as Plastic Man for his seeming superhuman ability to stretch and disrupt.

Hollis-Jefferson, a 6-foot-7 freshman forward with a long, lanky build, is all spidery-arms, too, combining his length with energy and a willingness to defend that is uncommon for a freshman.

“Ever since I can remember, I wasn’t really good on offense,” Hollis-Jefferson said.

“My coach used to just put me in for defense, but then I was the biggest kid, so I had to score. I would say since I was about 7, I always played defense. That was the first thing on my mind — let me get a steal, let me get a stop. I took pride in it.”

Hollis-Jefferson’s defense is one of the many pieces that have contributed to top-ranked Arizona’s 18-0 start. The Wildcats go for win No. 19 tonight at home against Colorado (7 p.m., ESPN2).

As one of the two primary players off the bench for coach Sean Miller, Hollis-Jefferson is averaging 7.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in nearly 23 minutes per game. He understands his role on offense, usually taking good shots (or driving to the hoop for the dunk of the season).

But when it comes to defense, it’s Rondae all day.

“A lot of kids think if they score 20 or 30, that they’re the best player out there,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “I would say, you need to play defense. Coaches want guys that play defense, guys who are going to win them some games. I think I have a pretty good winning record.”

Uh, yeah.

Hollis-Jefferson went 91-5 in his final three years at Chester (Pa.) High School, including two Class AAAA state titles and an undefeated season. Add that record to this season’s mark, and he has won 109 of his last 114 games.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has been good around the rim on offense. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has been good around the rim on offense. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

“Rondae is very confident,” Miller said.

“He’s very sure of himself on the court. He does not back down from a challenge. The bigger the moment, the bigger the game, the higher the stakes, he settles in. His personality really allows him to be in a competitive mindset.

“He’s not filled with anxiety or nervousness. He doesn’t forget what he’s learned in that moment. If anything, I believe, those moments have brought out the best in him.”

Hollis-Jefferson is a microcosm of the entire Arizona team. Defense-first. Confident without being big-headed. Cool under pressure.

And then there’s that infectious smile.

“He’s goofy,” said sophomore guard Gabe York.

Just another vital ingredient in the powerful potion Miller concocted for the 2013-14 season.

“He’s a fun-spirited guy,” York added about Hollis-Jefferson.

“He’s always trying to joke around. He tries to make the best of every situation. If he’s not having fun, his game isn’t going to show. I think that’s what this team was sort of missing last year. We all got a little too serious once Pac-12 came around.”

Hollis-Jefferson can help keep the mood light through the grind of practices, which Miller can appreciate, especially as the pressure continues to intensify and March approaches.

“He’s a joy to be around,” Miller said.

“Some guys you watch walk into a gym and they sap the living life out of you. There are other guys you see and you can’t wait to coach them. … Rondae is certainly in that second category.”

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