Holiday ready to take charge of Sixers

Posted: October 31, 2012

AS HE READIED himself for his first game in the NBA, then-19-year-old Jrue Holiday had the look of a scared and excited teenager attempting to get his driver's license, or going on his first date. He had arrived at the Amway Center in Orlando early on Oct. 28, 2009 and was one of the first players on the court. He worked out hard with assistant coach Aaron McKie, a full 3 hours before tipoff, concentrating on his shooting and ballhandling.

But when the team took the floor for the first game under head coach Eddie Jordan, Holiday lagged behind, dressed in street clothes, with an oversized suit jacket borrowed from teammate Primoz Brezec hanging off his thin shoulders. Holiday, the 17th overall pick in the draft after one season at UCLA, was unable to hide his disappointment at being deactivated.

How times have changed. When his, yes, his, 76ers take the floor Wednesday night for the season opener against the visiting Denver Nuggets, Holiday will be planted into his starting point-guard spot. His coach anticipates he will become one of the elites at the position this season and, along with the players, named Holiday one of the team's captains.

The Southern California native has grown up quickly, on and off the court. He has graduated from a starry-eyed kid 3 years ago into a player who has learned to control the game with guile and craftiness, with speed, quickness and ever-growing strength. He also is engaged, having proposed this offseason to Lauren Cheney, whom he met at UCLA and who was member of this summer's gold-medal U.S. women's soccer team.

At 22, Holiday seemingly has the world in the palm of his hands, and it could get even more lucrative. He will earn $2.7 million this season and the team could pick up its option for next season, which would pay him $3.8 million, though he would then become a restricted free agent. Holiday and the team would like to get an extension done, which could land him in the $10 million-a-year range.

Holiday will defer to his agent, Tony Dutt, and the organization to take care of those numbers. For now he is focused on getting this rebuilt group to play to the standards that many have set very high.

"It is a business and it is about what's best for them," Holiday said. "Obviously saving money is a big part. I think everybody in this world wants to save money. It's a process, it's a business. It's not like I'm taking offense to it or anything. It doesn't matter because I'm going to get paid this year, no matter. If it were going to bother me, it would start to bug me after the season was over. It's not really something I'm worrying about right now. The bigger thing is trying to move forward this year, trying to get [injured center Andrew Bynum] back."

Holiday's game seems to have grown this preseason almost as much as his body has since his rookie season. A summer of working out with weights and a stringent diet have made the 6-4 Holiday a solid 205 pounds. He has established that rare ability to play the game at different speeds, seeing the action move much more slowly than it has for him in the past.

"I love where Jrue's at right now," coach Doug Collins said. "He's playing great, he's got a great bounce to him. I think what helped Jrue was he came in before we started camp and Maalik Wayns was really playing well and he pushed Jrue, and now we have Royal Ivey in practice every day and he pushes Jrue.

"Jrue is getting that ball wherever he wants to get it on the floor and I think he knows now he's got a lot of options out there, especially the drive-and-kick game where guys are looking to shoot the ball. I think he could be a top-five assist guy. He's getting that ball in the paint, he's got a good feel of when to score. We're going to need him to score, he's going to have to be able to do both. I just love the way he's distributing the ball right now."

Said teammate Evan Turner: "He's gotten better at his position and he's growing, he's taking the right steps and strides that he should be. It's a freelance form and it's his ball, his team. It's set up great for him whether to score or distribute. He should thrive in every situation."

The weight of the franchise is now on his shoulders, far different from when Brezec's jacket was draped over them.

"I think one thing [about his improvement] is getting stronger," Holiday said. "During the offseason, that's one of the things that I worked on. You see some of the bigger guards, like Deron Williams and even Baron Davis back in the day. They would bump you with their shoulder and you were going to fall back. For me that was a big part of the offseason. Eating healthy, I tried to this summer. In the offseason I can go off on honey buns. I love honey buns. In-N-Out [Burger], I could eat it all the time.

"Focusing on getting bigger, not super blowup, but where I can still move and be more explosive. I think I've done it. I do feel stronger. I know coming in at 19 you feel like a little kid. Now when I'm in there, I feel a lot more comfortable with my body if I go in there with a 'big' or something, I know I can withstand hits."

He'll withstand them much better than he did the news of being deactivated for his first game, that's for sure.


Contact Bob Cooney at cooneyb@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @BobCooney76. For more Sixers coverage, read his blog at philly.com/Sixerville.

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