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Explaining Jrue Holiday’s Struggles: Don’t Give Up on Him Yet

USA TODAY Sports/Dan Hamilton

No other New Orleans Pelicans player has been as polarizing, confusing, and downright frustrating as Jrue Holiday this season.

Only 14 games have been completed so far for New Orleans, each of which have been wildly different, as the Pelicans continue to stay true to their identity of incessant inconsistency. But one thing has stayed consistent: fans being disappointed with Jrue Holiday’s performance so far.

I’m not here to say that it’s wrong to be concerned, because I’ve also certainly been a little frustrated with his play so far. Holiday has had games where he isn’t aggressive at all, and he’s had others where he’s too aggressive, turning the ball over way too much and missing way too many shots as a result of forcing shots on offense.

In his article exploring the Pelicans’ turnover problem on Monday, Jake noted that a large portion of the turnovers for the Pelicans this season have come from Jrue Holiday. His piece showed how most of Jrue’s turnovers have come as a result of him being too passive on offense, trying to do too much with the ball, and focusing too much on trying to get everyone else involved instead of focusing on just, ya know, putting the ball in the hoop. Anyone who has watched the Pelicans this season knows that Holiday is struggling this season, but sometimes the context of why it’s happening can get lost.

Jrue Holiday is under a lot of pressure. He’s the 16th-highest paid player in the NBA this season and highest on New Orleans after he signed his lucrative 5-year, $126 million contract over the offseason. So far, that’s meant that he’s been under more criticism from both Pelicans fans and national media alike, and that even players who have been far worse overall are not getting as much criticism. I’m looking at you, Dante Cunningham, with your field goal percentage of 35% (that’s bad) and your 6.5 Player Efficiency Rating (15 is supposed to be “average,” so that’s also bad).

(Sorry, Dante. I’m still rooting for you).

But the pressure isn’t just because of the money. Pressure has also been added after expectations greatly rose with the formation of the “Big Birds.” Ever since the Pelicans traded for superstar DeMarcus Cousins in February of this year to pair with superstar Anthony Davis, Holiday has seemed a little starstruck. Probably the biggest tangible number to change is the glaring turnover numbers he’s racked up since the trade. His average through 14 games this season is 3.4 turnovers per game, which is his highest average in his five years as a member of the Pelicans, and the inability to take care of the ball has almost unanimously been considered the biggest problem for New Orleans this season.

While Jrue is still a good player, it’s been clear ever since last season’s trade that he seems a little lost at times with his new role on the team, either not knowing what his role really is or just not knowing how to run an offense with two superstar big men, and fans and media have begun to take notice. Any recent Facebook comment, Tweet, blog article, or conversation about Holiday has probably been filled with confusion and anger, wondering why the star point guard has had such trouble running the offense, especially after being paid so much money to do so. I’m not here necessarily to make excuses for him, but here’s why:

Jrue Holiday is not a point guard 

It came as somewhat of a shock to me as well. On the night of the 2013 NBA draft, the Pelicans traded their No. 6 pick (Nerlens Noel) for Holiday in one of the biggest trades of the night. All that most fans knew about Holiday at the time, myself included, was that he was coming off of a season in which he made the All-Star team in the East while playing point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers.

But that note about the 2013 All-Star selection is a little misleading. It’s important to understand the context, which was that while Holiday had a good season, it was also a year in which,  1) the previous year’s East All-Star starter in Derrick Rose was out for the season after tearing his ACL in the 2012 playoffs, and 2) John Wall, who ended the season with better numbers than Holiday, also missed most of the season with a knee injury, only being able to start playing in January of that year. Somewhat related, Holiday also put up those numbers on a team whose best players were Evan Turner, Thad Young, Spencer Hawes, Elderly Jason Richardson, and Knees-destroyed-by-bowling Andrew Bynum.

All that said, he still received the All-Star nod and therefore was thought of to be the point guard of the future to go along with the rising star in Anthony Davis.

But he’s not a point guard

This has been slightly masked by the fact that before this season, he was probably the best overall player to suit up at the 1 spot for New Orleans since Chris Paul. Even with the additions of Jameer Nelson and Rajon Rondo for this season, that statement still probably holds true. But that’s like saying Anthony Davis is the best center the team has ever had, simply because he has played many minutes at the center position (he was even voted to the  First Team All-NBA last season as a center last year).

But there’s a reason why Dell Demps went out and tried to get big, bruising centers to play next to Davis, from Robin Lopez to Kendrick Perkins to Omer Asik to DeMarcus Cousins. And it’s the same reason why Jrue Holiday logged many minutes next to Tim Frazier last season, played best with Tyreke Evans in seasons past, and will share the floor with either Rondo or Nelson for at least the remainder of this season. Holiday’s size and skillset (he’s 6’4″ and about 200 lbs) are best suited for him to be a shooting guard, or at the very least, a combo guard while playing more off the ball instead of running the offense, and Anthony Davis’s size and skillset are better suited for playing power forward rather than center (at least, that’s how he wants to play).

In his days with the Pelicans, Holiday has always played best with another ball-handler on the court with him. In the 2016-17 season, Tim Frazier often played this role. Even in the days when Tyreke Evans was bully-balling his way to stat sheet-stuffing performances, it was Evans who often ran the Pelicans offense, leading to less hassle for Jrue.

The Pelicans front office must have realized this, which is evident from their plan in the offseason. Going back to July after Rondo was signed, Pelicans writer Jim Eichenhofer posted an article on the team’s site which tried to explain the Pelicans’ mindset going into the offseason of trying to find a perfect backcourt partner for Holiday. Even back in July, Head Coach Alvin Gentry’s plan was clear that Jrue was going to be playing a lot off-ball while Rondo ran the offense, hoping that this would allow Holiday to take his game even further.

While he would still be the main ball-handler at times, the plan was for the main workload off running the offense to be mostly gone so that he could focus on scoring and defending. And moving off the ball isn’t just about working to get open for threes, but also cuts to the basket and working to free up other players. These are things that Holiday has excelled at, so focusing on them should be good for the offense, especially if it means taking away from the pressure of the double- and triple-teams that Davis and Cousins draw on seemingly every play.

So why, then, has Holiday struggled so far? Shouldn’t he be playing better if this were the plan?

He should be playing better, but the Pelicans’ entire offseason plan fell apart when Rondo went down with an injury. 

I really hate that for the umpteenth season in a row, injuries are playing a huge factor in the outcome of an NBA season in New Orleans, but once again, it can’t be ignored. Solomon Hill’s injury was significant because he was the starter at the small forward spot and probably would have seen a lot of minutes at power forward as well. But even the Hill injury on a team with already thin wing depth didn’t mean as much as the Rondo injury. Not only did it mean that there were no more true point guards on the roster, but it meant that Jrue Holiday’s plans to focus on being the team’s starting SG and resident lockdown defender were gone, as he once again was forced to run the offense due to the lack of ball-handling guards on the team.

Something else I thought about: this is the third straight offseason/start of the season that was thrown into disarray for Jrue due to injury.

  • In 2015, he was coming off of surgery and placed on a minutes restriction for a good part of the beginning of the season.
  • In 2016, he missed training camp and the start of the season due to his family’s medical emergency
  • This year, he went into training camp working as the 2-guard and… had to pivot right before the season started to learn to run the offense again

Ever since coach Gentry’s arrival in 2015, Holiday has never really had a full training camp to work with Gentry’s offense. In the case of Gentry’s first two seasons, the Pelicans started in a deep hole in the standings, with Holiday almost having to play the role of mid-season savior. Once again, pressure.

The addition of Rondo was supposed to help alleviate some of this by letting Holiday mostly work off the ball to focus on scoring. But Jrue has had to take the reigns of the offense once again, which we’ve learned is really not his most comfortable role, which has led to increased turnovers, down scoring numbers because of the hesitation and confusion on offense, and falling defensive numbers because the turnovers create so many opportunities for opponents.

Insert Jameer Nelson.

The “calm and steady” veteran floor general has been more than just a poised presence on the court in terms of leading the offense and sparking runs. In the absence of Rondo, he’s the ball-handling playmaker the Pelicans have needed to pair with Jrue Holiday to get back to at least some of the offseason plan of Jrue being an aggressively scoring, lockdown defending shooting guard.

In our group question of the week two weeks ago, I advocated for Nelson to be inserted into the starting lineup simply because of how it’d allow Holiday to start the game more comfortably, potentially causing the offense to start games in a better rhythm. Since then, while Nelson did not make his way to the starting lineup, we’ve seen the Nelson-Holiday pairing work wonderfully together, as seen in the Nov. 9 Raptors road game. Many of Holiday’s season-high 34 points came as a result of Nelson’s setting up of plays, but also it was clear that Holiday appeared more focused and aggressive while knowing that he wasn’t responsible for running the entire offense. When he was more focused on scoring and not worried about making passes, the lack of his usual indecisiveness showed that he can score at will if he wants to. Even his assists seemed to come more easily with the hesitation gone.

Let’s just… watch this highlight video, shall we? It’s beautiful. This is how Jrue can and should play.

 

The good news: I don’t think this game was a fluke. It just shows what Jrue Holiday can do when playing his more natural position.

Rajon Rondo made his Pelicans regular season debut in Monday night’s win against the Hawks. And while he had a comically low minutes restriction of six minutes, Rondo’s return last night means that he will be up to playing starters minutes soon enough. That’s the biggest addition from the Jameer Nelson signing—eventually it’ll get to the point where there is always a floor general type, veteran point guard playing next to Jrue Holiday, whether it be Rondo or Nelson. If the Raptors game is any indication, this should spell good things for the Pelicans.

So don’t give up on Jrue Holiday just yet. I know, it’s been frustrating so far, and I’m frustrated too. But I’m sure he’s also frustrated having to play a position that he really shouldn’t be playing. As Rajon Rondo comes back from injury and Holiday spends more time playing with him and Nelson, don’t be surprised if Holiday’s output and efficiency increases on offense as well as defense, improving the team as a whole.

Want to vent your Jrue frustrations?  Think I’m just making excuses or maybe you agree? Please comment below! 

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A Broadcasting graduate from the University of Louisiana, Jason Quigley returns to his home of New Orleans and his love of the NBA after working in the Ragin' Cajuns Sports Information department for over three years.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Chris Trew

    November 15, 2017 at 10:22 am

    Nice work Jason, keep it up!

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