Sixers' Jrue Holiday poised to join elite point guards

Sixers point guard Jrue Holiday, battling against the Celtics, has been given the added responsibility by coach Doug Collins of initiating the offense. RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
Sixers point guard Jrue Holiday, battling against the Celtics, has been given the added responsibility by coach Doug Collins of initiating the offense. RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
Posted: October 27, 2012

As the names are rattled off - first Deron Williams of the Brooklyn Nets and then the Boston Celtics' Rajon Rondo - Doug Collins, standing just outside the 76ers' locker room in the brand new Barclays Center, the home of the Brooklyn Nets, nods in agreement, knowing full well where the line of questioning is headed.

"Yeah, point guard," the Sixers coach says, "that is sort of the 'it' position in the NBA right now. The Atlantic Division is loaded there. The really good teams have premier point guards."

Entering his fourth season in the league after being selected with the 17th pick in the 2009 draft, no one is ready to list Jrue Holiday alongside players like Williams, Rondo, the Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul, or Oklahoma City's hybrid point guard Russell Westbrook, players widely recognized among the very best in the NBA.

But after a summer in which Holiday helped prepare Team USA to win a gold medal as a member of the U.S. Select Team and watched the Sixers reshape their roster by acquiring Andrew Bynum, their first legitimate offensive threat in the post since the days of Moses Malone, the 6-foot-4, 22-year-old Holiday - one of just five returning players from a team that came within one win of the Eastern Conference finals - welcomes the added responsibility placed upon him.

"It's going to be a challenge," Holiday said, "but it's going to be fun. I have more responsibilities this year than I have ever had since I came to the NBA."

Collins said early in training camp that while the Sixers have multiple ball handlers, he wants Holiday to be the primary ball handler initiating the offense. A point guard during his eight-year NBA career, Collins believes that this is the first time Holiday will be allowed to play point guard without having to share those responsibilities with anyone dating all the way back to 2008, when he was the top-rated high school point guard prospect.

As a freshman at UCLA, Holiday was forced to play out of position because the Bruins already had Darren Collison, now a member of the Dallas Mavericks, playing point guard. And in the three seasons he has been a Sixer he's had to share the ball with players such as Allen Iverson; Andre Iguodala; Lou Williams; and, at times, Evan Turner.

"He's really just learning how to play the point guard position, and that's the toughest spot to play," Collins said. "This year, I want him to push the ball and let guys learn to play off him and be our primary guy. And I think that's the way you find out if a guy can be a topflight quarterback in this league is to give him that kind of responsibility.

"I don't think you can ever really know who a guy can be until you give him that responsibility," continued Collins.

Holiday, who will earn $2.6 million this season, can receive a contract extension before the season begins. If he does not, he will become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

"It's not really in my hands; I've just got to go out there and play. Whatever God's plan is for me, if he wants me to get it done now or wait until the end of the season, we'll see what happens," said Holiday, who recently became engaged. "I'm trying to win no matter what."

Knowing that the Sixers would be more reliant on Holiday this season, Collins reached out to him often via text. Collins' son, Chris, the associate head coach at Duke, also worked with Holiday while he played with the Select Team. That, Holiday said, also helped him prepare for the forthcoming season.

"We had a lot of communication this summer, and that was very helpful," Holiday said. "It was like getting additional coaching. It helped to strengthen the bond between us."

Holiday's statistics leveled off in his third season after an impressive second season that saw him average career highs in points (14.5), assists (6.5) and field-goal percentage (44.6).

The most noticeable dip was in his assists, which last year fell to 4.5. This season, however, the Sixers expect Bynum to draw consistent double teams that will often result in new shooters such as Jason Richardson, Nick Young, and Dorell Wright getting better looks at the basket.

"I think Jrue can be among the top five in assists this season," Collins said.

"I've never played with a big man this talented before, and I'm looking forward to the things that he's going to open up - he can be dominant," Holiday said. "We've also got so many shooters now. It's going to make the game a lot easier for me to do more things - a lot more things - than I've been able to do in the past. It's going to create more opportunities for me."

Brooklyn Nets coach Avery Johnson, an NBA point guard for 15 seasons, played with great big men such as Tim Duncan, David Robinson, and Hakeem Olajuwon.

"It will help Jrue remarkably," Johnson said. "He's a very good player already. The game will become easier for Jrue."


Contact John N. Mitchell at jmitchell@philly.com, or follow on Twitter @JmitchInquirer.

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