Two point guards born in the 1990’s will be making their All-Star Game debuts this weekend. Stardom was all but guaranteed for Kyrie Irving since the minute he stepped on the floor at Duke. For Jrue Holiday, the road to Houston has been much rockier. He is still relatively anonymous on the national stage, but he has the talent to be right there with Irving in the discussion for the best young point guard in the NBA.
At 6’4, 200 with a 6’7 wingspan, Holiday has the size of a shooting guard and the speed of a point guard. That combination presents tremendous problems for opponents on both sides of the ball. It’s almost impossible for defenders to stay in front of him and his size allows him to survey the court and find the open man from any spot on the floor. On defense, he can match up with either backcourt position, giving the 76ers a lot of lineup options.
Holiday is the rare young PG with no holes in his game. A gifted scorer and dynamic ball-handler who can stop on a dime, he averages 19 points a game on 45 percent shooting. If you play off him to cut off his driving lanes, he can punish you from distance, with a career three-point shooting percentage of 37 percent. And if you send help, he can distribute the ball and find the open man, averaging 8.9 assists on 4.0 turnovers a game. His athleticism allows him to impact the game as a rebounder (4.2) and defensive player (1.5 steals) as well.
A lack of opportunity, not talent, is what held him back before. In his one season at UCLA, Holiday was forced to play out of position next to Darren Collison in Ben Howland’s methodical offense. As a result, he slipped all the way to the No. 19 pick in the 2009 draft. The players taken ahead of him, from Stephen Curry to Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings, had the freedom to dominate the ball on lottery teams. Holiday was at the bottom of a deep pecking order in Philadelphia.
In his first season with the 76ers, he was seventh on the team in field goal attempts, behind Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams, Sam Dalembert and Willie Green. The next summer, Philadelphia created even more of a logjam when they selected Evan Turner with the No. 2 overall pick. Rather than addressing their glaring need for a big man, the 76ers suddenly had a roster full of perimeter players -- Holiday, Iguodala, Williams and Turner -- who needed the ball in their hands to be successful.
By Holiday’s third season, they had enough talent to make the playoffs. The addition of a veteran coach in Doug Collins, as well as an untimely injury to Derrick Rose, created an opening to make an unexpectedly deep run. They took the Celtics to seven games in a tough (both to watch and play) second-round series, but their unbalanced roster had clearly reached its ceiling. So they rolled the dice this off-season, moving Iguodala for Andrew Bynum as a part of a complicated four-way deal that rocked the NBA.
Unfortunately, Bynum hasn’t been healthy and has yet to even see the floor. And with Iguodala traded, Brand amnestied and Williams leaving in free agency, the 76ers roster became one of the thinnest in the NBA. They’ve managed to stay afloat this season almost entirely due to the efforts of Holiday and Thaddeus Young. Only four Philadelphia players have a net positive rating in their floor time this season; Young and Holiday are the only two above +1.2.
With Young currently sidelined with a hamstring injury, Holiday has as much offensive responsibility as anyone in the NBA. His usage rating has skyrocketed from 21.8 to 27.3. Jason Richardson, who came with Bynum, is out for the season. Turner, who should be coming into his own, has a PER of 12.7. None of the 76ers healthy frontcourt players can create their own shot; they depend on Holiday creating open shots for them.
Right now, Philadelphia has a 22-29 record, four games behind Milwaukee for the No. 8 seed. A healthy Bynum would upset the balance of power out East, but the 76ers can hardly count on that happening at this point. Going forward, they only have $46 million in salaries committed for next season. They just signed Holiday to a team friendly $44 million extension while Young and Arnett Moultrie, their promising rookie power forward from Mississippi State, are their only other commitments past 2015.
The uncertainty surrounding Turner and Bynum makes it difficult to figure a long-term plan, but Holiday’s presence is reason for optimism. As he gets more comfortable as the primary option, his high turnover numbers (4 a game) should start to decline. There’s certainly no reason he should average only 3.2 free throws attempts. The easiest way to increase that is to play more with his back-to-the-basket: he’s posted up on only 2.2 percent of his offensive possessions this season. With his size and shooting ability, he can be completely indefensible in the mid-post for smaller guards.
Normally, you would expect a guard in his fourth season in the NBA to be near his ceiling. However, Holiday’s career path has been anything but normal. He’s always been very young for his age. He was 17 when he graduated from high school. At 19, he was a starting point guard in the NBA. He’s in his fourth season in the NBA and still only 22, one month older than rookie sensation Damian Lillard. While his peers were in college, Holiday was learning on the job.
Holiday has been “playing up” his entire life. Justin Holiday, his older brother, was a fringe NBA prospect, a 6’6 shooting guard who was invited to an NBA training camp. Like many basketball-playing younger brothers, Jrue benefitted from having a target to reach for his entire life. Despite being significantly younger than his competition, he was the No. 2 overall player in the class of 2008. Instead of being held back and coasting, he was pushed forward and forced to sink or swim as the youngest player on the floor.
Now, for the first time since he was in high school, that dynamic will start to switch. At 22, he’s still younger and less experienced than almost everyone he faces on a nightly basis. When he’s 26, he’ll be one of the oldest and most experienced point guards in the NBA. He’s a five-tool 6’4 200 PG with elite athleticism; he can be as good as he wants to be. With the No. 1 PG from the class of 2007 (Derrick Rose), 2009 (John Wall) and 2010 (Kyrie Irving) all in the Eastern Conference, competition for All-Star spots will be fierce over the next few years, but don’t count out Holiday, the No. 1 PG from the class of 2008.