On Jan. 28th of this year, Anthony Davis informed the New Orleans Pelicans that he wanted to be traded. At the time of the demand, the team was sitting at 22-28, the third-worst record in the conference, five and a half games out of a playoff spot.
The very next day, Jrue Holiday spoke about league-altering trade request in an interview with NOLA.com. He maintained professionalism and emphasized his focus on the season at hand, but did add a headline-grabbing remark by saying “he was like 90 percent of the reason I stayed” — a reference to the five-year deal that he signed in 2017.
While he wouldn’t admit it publicly, you couldn’t fault Holiday for feeling a tinge of discomposure. The 10-year veteran knew that trading away a generational talent like Davis would change the team’s outlook from win-now to rebuilding. Predictably, trade rumors swirled for Holiday in light of the Davis news as teams in need of a point guard were highly interested in the former All-Star.
Neither Holiday nor Davis was traded at the deadline and, three months later, the Pelicans saw their luck turn when they won the draft lottery from the seventh position, the prize being a potential superstar in Zion Williamson.
About a month after the lottery, newly-hired general manager David Griffin secured a deal with the Los Angeles Lakers for Davis, receiving a haul of players and draft picks in return. Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram were sent to New Orleans, along with three first-round picks which included the No. 4 overall selection in 2019. Griffin flipped that pick to Atlanta for Nos. 8, 17, and 35 in June’s draft, plus and a heavily-protected first-rounder in 2020.
When the dust settled, the Pelicans came away with Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Williamson in the first round, now arguably boasting the most exciting, spry rosters in the league. Holiday was given a new reason to stay: To lead this young, talented group both on and off the court.
Griffin was asked about the topic in an interview with SiriusXM radio and he didn’t mince words. “And now Jrue knows it’s his job, and he’s ready to do that,” he said referencing the role of the leader being passed to Holiday from Davis. Holiday responded to Griffin’s comments in an interview with Scott Kushner of NOLA.com, saying “It’s awesome. It definitely feels good but it’s also motivation to prove people right and prove Griff right.”
Holiday has done and said the right things since being thrust into the leadership role. He has even embraced the recruiting aspect of the job, helping the team add fellow veterans like JJ Redick and Derrick Favors in free agency.
Of course, the attention will soon turn to what Holiday accomplishes on the court. A stout defender, head coach Alvin Gentry is surely hoping that the intelligence and tenacity the guard possesses will rub off on the younger players. Specifically, however, new addition Lonzo Ball, who has shown flashes of being a strong perimeter defender in his first two seasons.
New Orleans had a defensive rating that was six points better with Jrue Holiday on the court compared to when he was off the court, per cleaningtheglass.com. He will take on the challenge of guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player on most nights, even when giving up a height advantage to most forwards. His most notable defensive achievement came in the 2018 playoffs when he pestered Damian Lillard for four straight games resulting in a sweep for the Pelicans.
Watch Holiday here as he defends Lillard perfectly in back-to-back possessions from the 2018 playoffs.
In the first possession, he thwarts a pick and roll by getting over the screen and into position, then finishes the play by knocking the ball out of Lillard’s hands for the steal. During the ensuing transition opportunity, Holiday moves his feet beautifully to force Lillard into a tough fadeaway.
Notice also the defense Mirotic plays against the pick and roll: He jumps out hard and hedges on Lillard while Holiday gets over the screen. Then, as Holiday recovers back to Lillard, Mirotic retreats to guard the roll man before a pass can be made. If the Pelicans elect to deploy this strategy next season they have a perfect prototype in Williamson, whose size and agility fits well with this brand of manic pick and roll defense.
Holiday will be tasked with mentoring the precocious power forward on the nuances of this defensive strategy. If Williamson picks it up quickly, the two could be a destructive duo on the defensive end. Elite NBA guards like Lillard, who used that 2018 series as motivation, are becoming adept at splitting defenders when they hedge, as Mirotic does in that clip. Williamson and Holiday will need to have their timing perfectly in sync or risk a defensive breakdown.
The reward of this strategy is a high rate of forced turnovers, which will be valuable for this a Pelicans team that’ll relish transition opportunities. Perfecting the hedge and recover will take practice and patience, likely with bumps along the way. The LeBron James-era Miami HEAT come to mind as a team that weaponized this strategy and they were led by three Hall of Famers and a roster of veterans.
Patience will not only be required on the defensive side as the offense will look to integrate the multitude of new faces in one offseason. But the team will look to Holiday on this end too, where he will be calling the shots as the team’s go-to option.
Holiday usually acts as the pick and roll ball handler while on the court, developing a craftiness with both his dribbling and his finishing that allows him to wiggle his way around defenders for floaters, layups and short jumpers.
Brandon Ingram could benefit from some sessions with Jrue Holiday. Ingram, entering his fourth NBA season, showed some promise running the offense in Los Angeles, but his shot selection left some to be desired. For the youngster, 45 percent of his shot attempts came in the mid-range, which was 94th percentile of the league for his position, per cleaningtheglass.com. Ingram routinely stopped his dribble short to take the first available jumper, like in this clip below.
Ingram will learn to manipulate defenses as he gains more experience and playing alongside a veteran like Holiday could accelerate that growth.
While he will be the No. 1 option, Holiday will also need to pick his spots to take a backseat this season. The addition of Redick will ease some of the spacing concerns, but the team will still likely test the viability of a Ball-Holiday backcourt pairing. In this lineup, Ball will likely operate as the true point guard, with Holiday slotting to the off-ball position. Holiday has only shot 34 percent from three-point range over the last two seasons, but his 35 percent mark on catch-and-shoot attempts from last season could use an uptick to give Ball and Williamson more space to operate.
Holiday is still unlikely to be left wide open, so his expert cutting could be unleashed when Williamson is asked to create in the mid-post. Via the talented backcourt passing, along with the leaping ability of the Duke product, could lead to some incredible highlights in transition as well.
There will be growing pains as the roster meshes and, notably, inexperienced teams tend to have issues finishing close games down the stretch. Frustrations may arise and tempers may flare, but that is the burden of leading a new, green team. Holiday will need to be there to right the ship and turn mental mistakes into teaching moments.
Fortunately for his team, Holiday is a consummate teammate and fiery competitor. As of now, he’s more than up to the task at hand and the Pelicans will begin the journey with this new roster with a worthy captain at the helm.
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