Is it an exaggeration to call Jrue Holiday a member of the elite point guard class in the NBA?
Not entirely. Jacob Eisenberg explains…
Sure, it was only last November that Holiday was coming off a disappointing third season in which his reclining numbers and lower efficiency ratings had many analysts wondering whether he had reached his ceiling as nothing more than a competent point guard.
This season, however, Holiday has indisputably become a worthy All-Star selection and has earned a rightful place on the short list of top point guards. The truth? “The Jruth” is still largely underrated by most NBA observers, even though he is one of just three All-Stars born in the 1990s.
In fact, Holiday’s ascent to elite status has gotten lost in the shuffle, obscured by the Andrew Bynum saga and Philadelphia’s sudden and disappointing regression from upstart underdogs last season to rebuilding bottom dwellers this season. However, Holiday continues to excel and is giving close followers several reasons to believe he may justify comparisons to the likes of Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Kyrie Irving in the coming years.
Consider this: While Damian Lillard is the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year, you might be surprised to learn that Holiday is just one month older.
Am I being too optimistic? Was Holiday’s All-Star selection a fluke? The numbers don’t seem to say so. Holiday ranks fifth among point guards in scoring, fourth in assists, third in rebounds and eighth in steals.
To further convey how promising Holiday’s numbers look, compare his season with fellow UCLA alumnus Westbrook’s 2010-2011 campaign:
Skeptics will undoubtedly argue that Westbrook is less of a conventional point than Holiday, making the comparison unfair. However, Westbrook was undeniably at his best as a true point guard in 2010-2011. To this day, his strongest passing, 3-point shooting and defensive efficiency numbers came in that season.
Moreover, closer analysis shows Westbrook’s usage – an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he is on the floor, according to basketball-reference.com – in 2010-2011 at30.8 percent. This means Westbrook was featured in a larger percentage of Oklahoma City’s plays in 2010-2011 than Kevin Durant. Westbrook’s usage percentage that season ranked third, trailing only Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant.
This season, Holiday averages more assists and shoots better than Westbrook did while accounting for only 26.2 percent of his team’s plays. Holiday’s numbers are even more impressive when you consider he is featured in a lower percentage of his team’s plays while on the court than reserves Will Bynum of Detroit (26.4) and Ben Gordon of Charlotte (26.3).
So, what has Holiday changed in his game to transform himself from merely serviceable to undeniably scintillating?
“I think the polish on his game, especially at the point guard position, has been much improved,” 76ers center Spencer Hawes said recently. “He has always been extremely talented but his understanding of the game is more evident now.”
Sixers forward Thaddeus Young agreed. “He’s doing a great job in filling all of our needs at the point guard position. He has put us on his shoulders a little bit. He’s distributing the ball and doing a good job getting everyone involved.”
This maturation – a better understanding of how to facilitate the game – has been evident in Holiday. While his assists are at a career high and nearly double the 4.5 he averaged last season, Holiday also is taking four more shots per game with no discernible dropoff in efficiency.
“His game is just extremely well-rounded,” Hawes said. “He has reined his talent in, he is able to do pretty much whatever he wants with his midrange shot, and it’s hard for opponents to take one thing away from him.”
Holiday’s development may have come in part through physical maturation. It has been speculated that the 6-4 Holiday has grown at least an inch since joining the league. More likely, however, his ascension has come from Doug Collins giving him more freedom to run the offense without deferring to ballhandling teammates.
During his tenure in Philadelphia, Holiday has had to accommodate high-scoring – and high-touch – such as Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams and even Allen Iverson. They have all departed, leaving Holiday as the primary handle.
Having free rein to orchestrate and control the ball has given Holiday unprecedented confidence. As teammate Lavoy Allen noted, “Jrue’s been more aggressive this year in looking for his shot. Last year, we saw glimpses of his aggressiveness, but he was deferring to other guys on the team like Andre and Lou. This year, he came out more aggressive from the start and it has worked for him.”
With the loss of nearly 40 points per game with the departures of Iguodala, Williams and Elton Brand, Holiday’s usage rate has increased from 20.8 percent last season to 26.2 percent this season – the biggest measured increase in responsibility for any point guard.
The knock on Holiday’s play is his carelessness with the ball. His 3.8 turnovers per game ranks him atop the league leaders in the category. However, Young was quick to defend his point guard.
“Jrue’s making better decisions with the ball this year,” he said. “Although his turnovers are up, that comes naturally with his greater obligations on offense and the high risks he has to take on many plays to help us score.”
The numbers validate Young’s claim. Holiday actually averages fewer turnovers per 100 plays (12.4) than stars such as Rondo (13.7), John Wall (13.3) and even Steve Nash (12.7). Moreover, Holiday’s assist-to-turnover ratio (2.27) ranks him ahead of Lillard (2.22), Westbrook (2.21), and Stephen Curry (2.13).
For many, Holiday’s ascension to All-Star is no surprise. He was the top prep point guard in a recruiting class that featured Brandon Jennings, Tyreke Evans and Kemba Walker. (He slipped to 17th in the 2009 draft Holiday because he was not UCLA’s primary ball handler in his lone college season, sharing duties with Darren Collison.) In a draft with plenty of accomplished point men, Holiday was selected 11 spots after Jonny Flynn.
“I remember back when I was with Sacramento, we were talking pretty seriously about taking him at 4,” Hawes said. “The organization over there really liked him. So for him to fall all the way to 17 is pretty nice for me now.”
With the Sixers out of the playoff race and facing the distinct possibility of never playing a game with their supposed cornerstone in Bynum, the fans in Philadelphia are grumbling again. One thing they can take comfort in is knowing that the Sixers have an ever-improving All-Star locked up for four more seasons at a very reasonable $44 million.
“Jrue listens,” teammate and point guard Royal Ivey said. “He’s a good student. He just wants to get better and he takes in any sort of input you give him. He has a calm presence about him and a lot of humility.”
However, Ivey sees an area where Holiday can lift his game even higher.
“He’s still so young and still works so hard,” he said. “Once he becomes a little more vocal, that’s when he’ll reach his height.”
Originally published on Sheridanhoops.com on March 26th, 2013