BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Jrue Holiday knows he’s a leader. He’s just not sure what kind.
He’s always positive with his teammates, even when offering criticism. He uses every experience as a teaching moment. He only speaks when necessary. His play commands respect, and he dishes it out equally.
As his peers tell it, Holiday’s lead-by-example approach has been vital to the Pelicans saving their season. After a tortuous 2-10 start without Holiday, who missed the beginning of the season tending a family health scare, New Orleans is 21-21 since his return. That critical stretch gave the Pelicans a chance to catapult their way into the playoffs with DeMarcus Cousins now in town.
Holiday’s play speaks volumes louder than his voice, but he doesn’t go unheard.
“When he does speak, everybody listens,” Pelicans forward Solomon Hill told SB Nation. “That’s one thing about not being so vocal. But when he does say something, it’s a point that he’s trying to prove. It’s a point that the team needs at that (moment).”
The menacing four-five punch of Cousins and Anthony Davis will obviously determine the Pelicans’ playoff hopes, but Holiday is the essential third prong. He must act as the stability beam of a Pelicans team determined to recapture its playoff promise after falling short last season. His leadership will be the driving factor in ensuring the Pelicans’ superstar big man partnership works.
“He’s not one of the real vocal leaders, but I think he kind of leads by example,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry told reporters during a January shoot-around in Brooklyn. “When he wasn’t with us, we didn’t have that on the floor — forget about all the leadership, he’s a talent, and you’ve gotta have talent in this league to win.
“So we missed the talent as much as anything, and then when you add in the leadership, and those other characteristics, it’s an integral part of this team that you’re missing.”
To better understand a player’s impact on his team, there’s no better interview than an opposing coach.
For Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, Holiday’s impact begins with his labor-intensive work on the other side of the ball.
“His size, to me, one of the best pick-and-roll defenders in the league,” Atkinson said. “Heck of a competitor. He’s an underrated player to me. He’s been an All-Star once, but when he’s healthy and he’s playing consistently, he’s a heck of a point guard.”
Holiday’s will to get a defensive stop stems in part from physical one-on-one games with his older brother, Justin — a two-way swingman for the New York Knicks. Growing up in Los Angeles, the two endured grueling battles with one another. They sometimes fought over a made basket.
“Nothing was easy,” Justin Holiday told SB Nation. “That’s why we ended up fighting at times, because we wanted to win, we wanted to stop the other person. It’s cool to try to outscore somebody, but we really do not like being scored on at all.
“My dad always said you can’t win a game just being a one-sided player. You give yourself the best chance to be the best player you can’t be by playing on both ends. So, if you’re a winner, if you’re a real winner, you’re gonna play defense, as well as offense.”
Jrue Holiday’s defensive edge is tangible, and the numbers this season reflect it. The Pelicans essentially break even with Holiday on the floor, uniformly scoring and allowing buckets, according to NBA.com stats.
But remove the All-Star floor general from the equation and things quickly spiral out of control. The Pelicans score fewer and allow more points with Holiday on the bench. Their net rating of minus-4.9 points per 100 possessions without Holiday in the game trails that of just John Wall (minus-5.7), Chris Paul (minus-6.1), Kemba Walker (minus-6.8), and Russell Westbrook (minus-12.7) among the league’s 30 starting point guards, according to NBA.com’s stats page.
Holiday also ranks as one of the league’s best defenders guarding the pick-and-roll. Opposing ball-handlers shoot just 39.4 percent in pick-and-roll scenarios when guarded by the Pelicans’ point guard.
“He’s a physical defender, creates a lot of steals by being in the guards,” Pelicans forward Terrence Jones told SB Nation. “He definitely reacts to all my calls, when it comes to my communicating on the pick-and-rolls, correct almost every time. It makes it real easy when a guy is pressuring the ball like he does.”
“Offensively, to me, he’s their quarterback”
Those words from Atkinson ring true. Rarely does Holiday fish for his own bucket. Instead, he looks to make his teammates’ lives easier on a nightly basis.
New Orleans could easily fall into the trap of dumping the ball down to Davis (and now Cousins) each possession. But Holiday doesn’t play just a two-man game with his All-Star big man. He sees the entire court and all his teammates.
“It’s just how I play,” Holiday said. “As a guard, you’ve gotta get everybody involved, but at the same time, I think being aggressive helps you get everybody else involved.”
Still, the 2013 All-Star reserve is averaging 16.3 points and 7.5 assists per game on career-best percentages from both the field (.469) and three-point range (39.3).
Much of Holiday’s offense come within the flow of the game. New Orleans doesn’t need its floor general to create shots for himself — they have Davis, and now Cousins for that. But in being a game manager, the Pelicans’ point guard not only settles himself down, but his teammates, as well.
“The reason we’ve been successful is because we’ve playing at a great pace,” Terrence Jones told SB Nation. “That’s a big responsibility on him.”
Holiday isn’t lauded across the NBA as a dynamic, flashy point guard like Russell Westbrook. Nor is he the scoring machine of an Isaiah Thomas or a Kyle Lowry. The 6’3 guard feels the game out, using his size to create problems to the advantage of both he and his teammates.
Atkinson still referred to Holiday as an All-Star guard, though his lone appearance came four years ago. It’s Holiday’s I.Q., Atkinson said, that sets him apart.
“I guess (my I.Q. comes from) just playing,” Holiday said. “I probably had some good coaches. Being able to read situations, being able to read players, defensively and offensively just being able to play the game. I guess I was taught well.”
A silver cross cascaded from Holiday’s neck as he prepared to leave the Barclays Center after a win over Brooklyn.
“Basketball comes before anything else besides family,” he said before a brief pause, “and God.”
During his introductory press conference, Cousins told reporters he was frustrated in Sacramento, praying for some help to win basketball games. The trade, he said, answered his prayers.
The difference between Cousins’ temperament and Holiday’s is night and day. There’s a reason Boogie has picked up 17 technical fouls on the season while Holiday has just one. The Pelicans must hope that Holiday can help channel Cousins’ passion the right way.
“He’ll pull guy to the side and talk to him, but he’s not a guy that’s gonna blurt out things in front of the whole team,” Gentry said. “That’s just his personality.”
The Pelicans still have work to do. They’re 11 games below .500 and must catch an impressive Nuggets team that added Mason Plumlee to its young, run-and-gun group.
That means Holiday’s job became much more interesting over the All-Star break. Cousins and Davis will get all the attention, but it’s Holiday’s leadership that will make or break New Orleans’ playoff odds in the second half of the season.
“I mean, he was an All-Star,” Pelicans forward Solomon Hill told SB Nation. “He’s been through it, he’s been to the playoffs, he’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve played with. He just brings that competitive nature.
“And that’s what you need with a team that’s trying to find its way.”