A Body of Truth

Illustration by Russell Cobb

Jrue Holiday is smooth.

It’s the kind of statement that means everything and nothing all at once. It’s a statement that encapsulates his calm demeanor on and off the court, his equalizing poise with the ball in his hands, and the elegant glides to the rim or the effortless release of his constantly improving jump shot.

But it doesn’t elaborate. It can’t explain how Holiday seamlessly switches roles within the game to accommodate the coaching staff and his teammates. How at any given point in the game, he could be setting up a teammate on the weakside, a de-facto shooter on a team devoid of marksmen, or taking the challenge of defending the opponent’s best perimeter player.

It doesn’t fully explain that feeling of right in Holiday’s game — something Bethlehem Shoals alludes to in a playoff chat with David Roth for GQ:

What’s so great about Paul is that, regardless of what numbers he puts up, or even whether the Hornets win, he changes the ecology of the game. It’s not only that the Hornets play a certain style because of him—you really are watching a different vision of the sport when he’s got the ball in his hands. Steve Nash makes us droolers for the same reason, but with Paul, the lack of help makes it all the more glaring. He is the puppet master. Or the cosmos. I get a similar tingle from Jrue Holiday, albeit in nascent form.

Bethlehem Shoals, The Friday NBA Playoff Kibitz, Vol. 1 | GQ.com

Holiday — who has charmed us in this understandably futile run against the Miami Heat — is not Chris Paul, clearly the most imposing player thus far in a spectacular first round. That isn’t the point. Control is the point. Holiday’s poise is more than just an act like you’ve been here before facade. It’s something that — especially given his age — can develop into a team-defining gift.

As it stands now, Holiday’s control over his game is seen mostly through balancing his different roles on the Sixers. The team is still reeling from the false premise of an Andre Iguodala/Elton Brand core, which not only obscures the future, but forces the young players into diversifying their games to best fill the holes in the roster. With a competent playmaker like Iguodala on the team, Holiday’s fluidity in this year’s playoffs hasn’t necessarily been seen through his assist totals, but in his easy transition to being the team’s resident shooter.

Holiday has been the most consistent 3-point threat in this series on either team. He’s attempted exactly five 3-point field goals in all four games played thus far, shooting 55% from range for the series. Holiday has provided a much needed lift in the Sixers’ most glaring offensive deficiency, and has significantly improved his efficiency. According to Synergy Sports Technology, 11 of Holiday’s 20 3-point attempts were in spot-up situations. He’s made 45.5% of his spot-up 3-pointers in this first round series, which is a major improvement from the 33.9% he shot in the regular season.  Four games may be a small sample size, but Holiday is attempting nearly twice as many 3-pointers a game than he did on average in the season. His confidence and efficiency as a shooter has never been greater, and it couldn’t have been more timely.

But perhaps the most encouraging sign of Holiday’s future came at the 1:27 mark of the 4th quarter in Game 4. Holiday catches a pass from Lou Williams on the right baseline. He dives into the paint, drawing four different Heat defenders before making a jump pass to a wide open Evan Turner. With all of the attention Holiday commanded, Mario Chalmers loses sight of his man (Turner), and Bosh is slightly late on the recovery. Turner sinks the floater, and so began the Sixers’ late game push.

Hopefully this type of play isn’t an isolated occurrence. Holiday has the combination of size, strength, and agility to find his way into the paint at will. Mastering the different angles and alleyways from within the paint will be the next step in his accelerated development. Filling in for absent players is a solid gesture, but Holiday will soon have to assert his own strengths for the team’s continued growth. Because the Sixers are still trudging through unstable grounds, and the sooner the team can fall back on a poised young leader, the better.

So yes, Jrue Holiday is smooth. He’s calm, collected, controlled. And if he inexplicably reminds you of someone, he should.  Perception is a powerful tool, and it’s hard not to see shades of players past and present who’ve held a similar clout over their teams. For Holiday, it’s not fully realized, but the flashes are there. More than anything though, Holiday passes the eye and gut test. And really, has that ever led us astray?

Seth Carstens