Pelicans’ Holiday driven by improvement

Pelicans Jrue Holiday driven by improvement

July 17, 2013

The 2009-10 Philadelphia 76ers instituted a rule that practice couldn’t end until one of the team’s rookies made a left-handed layup. Seemingly ambidextrous on a basketball court, the task came so easily for Jrue Holiday that 76ers coaches quickly changed the requirement, forcing Holiday to instead sink a left-handed free throw. That, too, was mastered rapidly by the natural righty. Eventually Philadelphia’s practices concluded once Holiday drained a left-handed NBA three-pointer, but it didn’t take long for the 19-year-old to start swishing those with regularity as well.

“Jrue always had that attitude of ‘Give me a challenge. I’ll conquer it,’ ” remembered New Orleans Pelicans center/forward Jason Smith, a teammate of Holiday’s on those ’09-10 Sixers. “It was that type of mentality that allowed Jrue to gain the respect of the players and the coaching staff.”

Now 23, the new starting point guard for the New Orleans Pelicans has emerged as one of the NBA’s rising stars, in no small part due to his relentless work ethic. Last season, his fourth as a pro, the 6-foot-4 floor general was chosen to make his first NBA All-Star appearance. At season’s end, Holiday finished fifth in the league’s Most Improved Player voting. In a rarity that illustrates the UCLA product’s dedication to getting better, he also ranked in the top 10 of the MIP vote in 2010-11.

“He’s just a hard worker,” Smith said. “No matter how much success he’s had, he’s remained that hard worker and that same humble guy.”

During Holiday’s first NBA year, 76ers veterans required the youngster to handle the usual assortment of rookie responsibilities, such as carrying bags and bringing donuts to practice. Smith was immediately impressed by Holiday’s willingness to accept advice from the team’s experienced players. Some rookies enter the NBA believing that they already have all of the answers. That wasn’t the case with the Los Angeles-area native.

“Jrue was always the opposite of that,” Smith remembered. “Anything we asked him to do for rookie duty, he would do it with no hesitation. One time we told him he had to wear a Dora the Explorer backpack. He was like, ‘Alright, let’s do it.’ ”

Smith has long been a major supporter of Holiday. In fact, prior to New Orleans’ 2010-11 season, Smith listed Holiday as the NBA’s most underrated player in a team questionnaire. Smith’s description of Holiday back then: “He’s so explosive athletically. He takes his time and is great with either hand. He has lots and lots of potential. If he continues to work hard, he’s going to be an amazing player in the future of the NBA.”

In I-told-you-so fashion, the 7-footer now crows about his prediction from three years ago.

“I said to you that he’d be an All-Star one of these years,” Smith good-naturedly reminded. “Last year he was an All-Star. He’s shown that if you work hard at something, anything is attainable.”

Philadelphia snapped a nine-year drought in 2012 by winning a playoff series against top-seeded Chicago. Holiday led the 76ers in scoring against the Bulls, averaging 18.2 points over six games. The long-awaited team success made Holiday even more popular in Philadelphia, a city not known for quickly embracing its sports figures.

“(Philadelphia fans) are definitely passionate about their sports,” Smith said. “They love it when you win. But they hold you accountable if you don’t make the playoffs or don’t have a good season. Philly really loved Jrue Holiday because he competed every night and got that team back to the playoffs. There were a lot of other good players there, but Jrue Holiday was a big part of that team.”

Given Holiday’s status as a fan favorite in Southeast Pennsylvania, Smith was taken aback by the news that the 76ers were trading him, but the draft-night transaction appeared to be the dawn of a new direction for both franchises.

“Having the type of success he had, people just loved him,” Smith said. “With Philly he was giving back to the community constantly. He was happy to do any and every appearance they asked of him. He’s such a personable guy on the court, as well as off the court. That’s why I was very surprised to see Philadelphia let him go, but I’m very, very happy to see him come to New Orleans. It’s going to be exciting to see him as a Pelican next year.”

Smith also views Holiday as a player who will quickly embrace the approach of fourth-year head coach Monty Williams. During stops in Portland and New Orleans, Williams has been instrumental in the development of numerous young players. With Holiday, the Pelicans have a player who has repeatedly demonstrated an eagerness to improve.

Smith: “I know the type of player Jrue is and the type of personality he has. He’s such a great person on and off the court. It’s going to be a great match not only for our team, but I think Coach Williams is going to love him as well. Jrue’s attitude is, ‘Give me more. I can handle it.’ I know Coach Monty will continue to challenge him. It’s just going to continue to make him an even better player.”

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