Arizona’s increased depth is the latest reminder that playing time is earned, not given. Many factors are taken into consideration when a coaching staff decides on the five players that will start each game.
There has been a lot of talk surrounding the Arizona Wildcats and their starting lineup. In a pre-season press conference in early October, Sean Miller stated that he does not have his starting five finalized. However, it is safe to assume that T.J. McConnell, Stanley Johnson, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski will file into place in the starting rotation.
That means that the only remaining argument is about whether Miller should insert junior sharpshooter Gabe York into the starting lineup, or if returning defensive standout Rondae Hollis-Jefferson should slide into the starting small forward role, shifting Johnson to the two-guard.
After watching last year’s Wildcats come one shot away from a Final Four appearance, it was clear that this core group of guys were special. Ashley’s season ending foot injury forced Miller to go deeper into his bench, Elliott Pitts was seeing the floor more often, and Hollis-Jefferson was a key piece to the Elite Eight puzzle.
York also found his stride on the offensive end, connecting from range and providing much needed space for Miller’s offense.
When you take a look at York and Hollis-Jefferson, you get two players that have a lot to contribute. On one hand you have a true shooting guard that is arguably the team's best shooter, and on the other hand you have a 6-7, 220 pound forward that can guard multiple positions and provides the dirty work that most cannot and are not willing to do.
Offensively, Hollis-Jefferson is truly the more complete player. With Hollis-Jefferson in his second year, Miller has much more size and there are potential matchup problems on the perimeter. Think about it like this: Johnson stands a 6-7 and weighs about 240 pounds whereas Hollis-Jefferson is 6-7 with a 7-foot wingspan. How do opposing defenses account for that size?
There are not many perimeter defenders in the Pac-12, or the nation that can handle the strength of Johnson, and in most cases, a coach cannot switch his shooting guard to defend Hollis-Jefferson.
York’s niche is shooting the basketball, and to the average fan it comes across as if he is doing his job. He is, to an extent, but his one-dimensional game tends to hurt his chances at playing in big moments.
York's three-point clip was impressive, but if the junior guard took a step inside the arc, he shot an abysmal 14.6 percent from midrange.
Hollis-Jefferson took more shots from the midrange area than York did, but even with his broken form and season long shooting woes, he was able to shoot 29 percent from that spot on the floor.
Despite his lack of perimeter shooting, Hollis-Jefferson provides more to the Wildcats’ on both ends of the floor.
Coming off the bench, Hollis-Jefferson gave an all around effort for the team. His offense came in transition plays, and he excelled as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. It was not the bulk of his offense, but in the limited pick-and-roll situations, he scored 0.886 points per possession.
In actuality, opposing defenses have a more difficult time defending the young forward. In York’s case, he is a spot up shooter and is effective in transition, but after that his offense takes a significant hit. He is not reliable in pick-and-roll situations and he cannot be used much in isolation play types.
Hollis-Jefferson and York have ben great for Arizona, but each player definitely has his role. The former Pac-12 Freshman team nominee has more of a complete game and is projected to be a lottery pick or mid-first round selection. There doesn’t seem to be much logic in bringing him off the bench.
If one moves away from the offensive side of the ball and takes a look at the defensive end, it is evident that Hollis-Jefferson is the superior player.
York has improved defensively and deserves credit for that improvement, but defense is Hollis-Jefferson’s calling.
The 2013-2014 season saw Hollis-Jefferson put his defensive prowess on display for the world to see. He particularly excelled when defending isolation plays (allowed 0.661 points per possession), and opponents shot a horrid 36 percent against him.
His 7-foot reach and elite athleticism allows him to stay in front of quicker players while his strength gives him the ability to body bigger post players.
There were many instances last year where Miller had to remove York from games on key defensive possessions. In spot up situations, York gave up an alarming 1.127 points per possession, and his pick-and-roll defense was no better (gave up 0.872 points per possession).
Nothing is guaranteed in college basketball, and if the talk from media day is accurate, everyone on the team made great strides in improving their game.
Still, Hollis-Jefferson is too talented to come off the bench and the size he would add to the lineup makes Arizona one of the most physically imposing teams in the country.
We know that there is not a huge debate on which of the two is a better player, but when Miller says that the starting lineup has yet to be decided, the reality of the situation is that choosing a starting five may be the easiest part of his job.