A faceless man takes his time dribbling up a court in a crowded basketball stadium that another team calls home. He assumes that the jeers and the voracious racket pouring out onto the hardwood from the frenzied audience above are intended to distract him, but he has other things to worry about.
Cautiously he approaches the half court line that both symbolically and literally represent no going back. His heart thumps against his rib cage as he braces himself for what he knows waits.
Blinded by loyalty to his cause he edges closer to his goal, surveying the offensive zone while keeping one eye on a hungering face that stalks him as he moves. This is the scene in Jurassic Park where the velociraptor wins. This is a fool’s errand.
The doomed ball carrier continues, ignorant to the futility of his endeavor. With a lunge he pounds the rock harder into the court, the punishing gaze of his opponent’s characteristic dark stare upon him as he hones in on the three-point arc. With the intention of luring his adversaries into a trap he reluctantly forges ahead, his foreboding destiny salivating in preparation.
The man with the ball jabs his feet in an attempt to advance but is met by his lengthy, loping predator. With the milliseconds he wastes contemplating ways of protecting the prize, his adversary gains the upper-hand. Like a launched rocket, the sinewy defender’s outstretched left arm punches forward at the vulnerable contents before him, jarring the cargo loose to everyone’s surprise.
Quizzically the faceless man panics, fumbling for his basketball he’s lost but it’s too late. With soft hands Jrue Holiday has already blown around his opponent, collected his loot and spiked the ball through the basket on the other side of the floor. The crowd at the Wells Fargo Center erupts and the cycle repeats.
To say that Holiday is an explosive defender would be an understatement. He is every bit as explosive in a transition offense, half-court offense or even contested key as he is on the other side of the ball. His ability to speed past guards while deftly navigating through taller opponents, spinning through gaps and finishing in control is what makes him a threat wherever he finds himself on the basketball court.
Though qualities like “constant threat” and “explosive” won’t help him cross airport security they certainly come in handy on the basketball court where he was most recently seen leading an over-matched, borderline-forgotten basketball franchise matched up in a postseason series they had no business even being in in the first place.
And that’s why the Philadelphia 76ers, and Holiday specifically, are fascinating.
Just last season Holiday was the youngest player in the NBA, the first ever born in the 1990s to play in the league. His youth, however – though hard to ignore when put in context alongside 2010 second overall pick, and 1988 baby, Evan Turner – is a virtual non-factor when he’s on the floor.
After a pedestrian rookie campaign in which he averaged 8.0 points per game and 3.8 assists in just over 24 minutes, Holiday started playing like the confident, strong, instinctive anomaly people pegged him to be since his days of playing high school ball in North Hollywood.
At 6’4″, it’s hard to argue he’s not the perfect size for the player he is; a competent point guard, capable of using his considerable length at the position to create for himself while slicing through the paint in transition or simply setting himself for a jump shot. Never mind the fact that his reach torments anyone within the geographic limits of the 215 area code, Holiday is more than prepared to win any battle he faces against his counterparts at the position, physically at least.
Of the 30 starting point guards (or “point guards”) in the NBA at the end of the 2010-11 season, just five measure up at 6’4″ or higher. Rodney Stuckey – the tallest at 6’5″ – followed by Kirk Hinrich, Jason Kidd, Holiday and John Wall. Of the five, it’s Kidd who stands out the most, not for similarities in their game, but rather for one man that connects them both: Gary Payton.
We all know Gary Payton; perennial All-Star turned studio analyst; Bay Area inspiration to young Kidd and his ridiculous hair; 50 percent of the best NBA Jam pairing Super Nintendo developers would ever live to code, the list goes on.
Perhaps though, what stands out most about his acclaimed career is something more generic. At 6’4″ and 180 pounds – identical dimensions to Holiday, by the way – Payton became infamous for his tenacity on the defensive end and the overwhelming manner in which he occupied and dominated his opponents’ personal space like an optometrist on E.
He wasn’t exactly terrible on offense either.
Though their alignment on the offense-defense scale may differ, their physical frames and skill sets are identical to the point where you could throw a pair of parachute pants on Holiday and cast him to play the role of young Payton coming up through the ranks of the Oakland basketball scene in a 1980s-set feature film.
In 2011, though, Holiday is no Payton.
In 2011 Holiday is the product of a generation in which players, regardless of height, stature or position, are expected to do it all. For the Philadelphia 76ers, that’s exactly what he does.
Alongside the aforementioned Evan Turner, Sixers forward Thaddeus Young and reserve guard Lou Williams, Holiday is simply the farthest developed. Though he’ll and they’ll continue to develop for years to come, there’s no mistaking the added pressure that comes with an innately high ceiling.
In Year 2 as a professional, Holiday averaged 14 points per game along with 6.5 assists. He saw his minutes rise considerably, his free throw attempts double and best of all, his first winning season.
With a humble playoff run and early exit now under their belt, the suddenly deep roster has broken the seal of expectations. Now exposed to the decaying forces of success, the Sixers will be charged with the task of replicating this year’s accomplishments and more as early as next season for fear of falling stagnant.
They may not have struck fear in the Miami Heat or their fans in the first round this time out, but the fact that the Sixers even contended for a playoff spot just one year removed from slipping so far into obscurity in 2009-10 speaks to the potential of the franchise and the studs that make up their particularly bright backcourt.
Though it remains to be seen who will inherit the torch when it’s passed down from Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala, both Holiday and Turner stand poised to accept it when they do.
Although Turner may have the advantage on paper as a second overall pick, if we’ve learned anything from Holiday over the course of his past two years – from his natural ability to overwhelm average-sized guards with sheer length, his throwing unexpected wrenches into Miami Heat sweeps and stalking ball carriers like genetically-restored dinosaurs hellbent on creating turnovers – it’s that he doesn’t like to make things easy.