After a disappointing third season that saw Jrue Holiday regress in most statistical categories, the 76ers starting point guard has taken a substantial step forward after signing a 4 year, $41+ million dollar deal on opening night.
Through 6 games this season, Holiday has averaged 18.2 points and 9.5 assists per game, while shooting 44.8% from the field and 43.5% from the three point line, all of which would be career highs.
Using advanced stats, his Player Efficiency Rating has increased to 18.4 (from 14.7 last year), while generating 0.114 Win Shares Per 48 minutes (up from 0.092). His assist percentage has skyrocketed from 21.6% to 45.8%, and he has been incredibly more efficient, with a huge jump in true shooting percentage (55.6%, from 49.6%).
Three questions jump out as 76ers fans look to the future: what has caused his great rise in productivity, is it sustainable, and how will it change once Bynum returns?
Reasons for increased productivity
There are many explanations for Jrue's increased level of play, and all of them probably have some validity. When a young player takes the next step, it's rarely because of one reason, but usually because of a combination of factors at play.
Departure of Andre Iguodala
The first reason many people will point to is the departure of Andre Iguodala, which represents the biggest personnel change from last years team.
Supporters of this theory will cite their belief that Andre Iguodala dominated the ball and Holiday deferred to him.
Whenever somebody who handles the ball leaves, that will certainly change the role of the remaining players. The departure of Louis Williams and Andre Iguodala certainly leaves Jrue Holiday with more responsibility to create, both for himself and for his teammates.
That being said, Iguodala hardly dominated the basketball, especially during his final year here. Iguodala's usage rate had gone down 4 consecutive seasons, and at 17.7% was actually below league average. Nearly 1/4th of his shots made and assists came in transition, he averaged only 10.2 field goal attempts per game and Doug Collins rarely used him in isolation sets towards the ends of quarters, halves, or games.
Last year, Jrue Holiday played in 3 games that Iguodala missed. While not a large sample size, Holiday averaged only 11.7 points per and 4.7 assists per game in those contests while shooting 42.9% from the field, hardly using the increased opportunities he had to dominate the game to the level he is this season.
Iguodala handled the ball, but he hardly dominated it, and it was hardly enough to hold back Jrue Holiday had Holiday been ready, both mentally and from a skills perspective, to assert himself.
Departure of Louis Williams
The departure of Louis Williams has likely had a much larger impact on Jrue Holiday's increased role than Iguodala's departure did. Louis Williams usage rate had skyrocketed under Doug Collins, to 27.4% during his final year in Philadelphia. Despite playing nearly 15 less minutes per game than Iguodala, Williams had more field goal attempts than Iguodala did, and nearly 90% of his offense came in the half-court, largely on pick and rolls and isolation situations where Williams dominated the ball.
Williams, not Iguodala, was the one Collins preferred to lean on when he needed a bucket, as his "clutch" (last 5 minutes of a game, neither team ahead by more than 5 points) usage statistics can attest. Despite only shooting 35.3% in clutch situations, Williams attempted 24.0 field goal attempts per 48 minutes in these situations, whereas Iguodala (10.2 attempts per 48 minutes) and Holiday (12.8 attempts/48 minutes) were used much less frequently.
Williams was used by Collins to generate offense for the 76ers last year to a great extent, and his departure has forced Holiday into the role of having to create offense, both for himself and his teammates.
There's also the simple fact that Holiday and Louis Williams played the same position, and at times competed for minutes, whereas Iguodala and Holiday did not. Holiday's minutes are up so far this season by 5 minutes per game, a substantial amount which has allowed Holiday to both increase his per-game averages and have more impact in controlling the tempo and pace of the game.
Besides getting more opportunities, Holiday is simply taking shots.
Jrue Holiday did two things incredibly poorly last year: he settled for long range two point jump shots and he almost never got to the free throw line.
Over 25% of Holiday's field goal attempts last year came from between 16' and 23', an area that is generally the least efficient shot in basketball: not an area where you draw many fouls and just before the added value of a three point shot.
When you combine that with the fact that Jrue Holiday got to the line only 1.8 times per game, this created an inefficient scorer, despite the fact that his percentages of 43.2% overall and 38.0% from three were respectable.
In short, due to shot selection, Holiday did not make the most of his opportunities.
This year that has been an entirely different story. Holiday's free throw attempts per game have over doubled, from 1.8 to 4.2. He is getting fouled on roughly 9% of his possessions, up from 5.9% the previous season.
When you look at his shot distribution, over 63% of his field goal attempts have been coming from either at the rim or from the three point line, the areas that are historically the most efficient shots in basketball. Last year, that figure was only 46%. This has led both to an increase in Holiday's field goal percentage and the rate at which he draws fouls, helping lead to a rise in his true shooting percentage from 49.6% to 55.6%.
Increase in shooters around him
The additions of Dorell Wright, Nick Young, and Jason Richardson have given Holiday a group of shooters that have opened up driving lanes for Holiday that weren't there last year, which can partly explain Holiday's ability to consistently get high quality looks at the basket.
Last year roughly 46% of Holiday's possessions came out of pick and rolls or isolation situations. This year, that has accounted for over 70% of his possessions, and Holiday has thus far been as efficient as anyone in the league when isolating.
Iguodala was an underrated catch and shoot player, and throughout his career was in the top quarter of the league in terms of efficiency in catch and shoot opportunities. It was off the dribble where Igudoala's jump shot broke down.
That being said, Iguodala had a rather slow and deliberate release, and as such was not the catch and shoot threat that caused defenders to fear leaving him. The replacement of Williams and Iguodala with spot-up shooting threats like Wright, Young, and Richardson has given the team a better complement of skill sets to build an offense around Jrue Holiday.
It's not only the driving lanes that this opens up for Holiday, but also the passing lanes for big men diving to the hoop, as well as the easier assists to spot-up shooters.
Perhaps the factor that is most often overlooked, simple maturation in Holiday's skills and approach to the game cannot be emphasized enough.
Holiday came into the league at an extremely young age, the youngest in the league his rookie season, and he played well beyond what anybody could have reasonably expected during his rookie season. He then took a substantial jump during his second season, showing a quick maturation for a young player.
While Holiday took a step back during his third season, he was still only 22 years of age to start this year, far from a finished product as a basketball player. Holiday has been much more decisive so far during this season, most notably in his passing. Holiday is recognizing and reacting to situations much more quickly and instinctively, seeing openings as a passer he hasn't seen in years past.
Can Holiday maintain this level of play?
All of this needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as we're only talking about a 6 game sample size. That brings up the question, can Holiday sustain this level of play?
Some of his efficiency is bound to drop. Holiday is currently shooting 70% on field goal attempts at the rim, well above the 53.6% he shot last year. While some improvement is possible, the odds of Holiday having transformed from well below league average finishing at the rim (league average is around 64%) to one of the best in the league is small.
If Holiday drops from finishing 70% at the rim to 60%, while shooting the same number of field goal at the rim, his per-game scoring average would drop about half of a point per game.
Similarly, it is probably unrealistic that Holiday continues to shoot 43.5% from three, well above his career average of 37.9%. Again, while some improvement is definitely possible in a player still developing, expecting Holiday to have transformed into what, at 3.8 attempts per game connecting at a 43.5% clip, would be one of the best shooters in the league is a tad bit unrealistic. Still, if he connected at 40% rather than 43.5%, his scoring would be down less than half of a point per game.
It's his play making, not his scoring that will be the most interesting to watch.
On the one hand, Holiday is setting up his teammates at such a prolific rate that it would be hard to expect Holiday to leap into elite-level territory. Only 2 players averaged more than 9.5 assist per game last year, and only 3 had an assist percentage greater than the 45.8% Holiday currently has.
That being said, especially with the addition of Bynum, Holiday is going to have a lot more passing lanes and finishers than he has ever had, and a significant uptick in his assists is likely.
Just as likely as his assists regressing ever so slightly are his turnovers coming back down to earth. Turnovers have been the one blemish on Holiday's otherwise superb start to the season, averaging an astoundingly bad 5.7 turnovers per game and a 25.8% turnover percentage, Holiday is turning the ball over at an unprecedented rate: never has anybody in the history of the league averaged more than 5 turnovers per game.
That being said, some of this has been bad luck, with players mishandling otherwise catchable passes. Holiday will also get more comfortable at being the focal point of the perimeter attack, and he will be tasked with creating less of his teammates offense when Bynum comes back, something that should help him limit his risk taking.
Fit with Andrew Bynum
The big question other than sustainability is how well he can fit in with new centerpiece Andrew Bynum when the big man returns.
One thing that I have often felt was underrated in Jrue Holiday's game was his ability to hit the big man diving to the hoop. With passing lanes opening up and the ball in Holiday's hands more this year, Holiday has responded by posting incredible assist numbers, not only to spot-up jump shooters but also to big men diving to the hoop.
So far this year, Jrue Holiday is averaging 3.4 assists per game to baskets taken at the rim. This is up considerably from the 1.4 he averaged last season and ranks as one of the 10 highest marks in the league. All of this while passing to Spencer Hawes, Kwame Brown, and Lavoy Allen.
Once Andrew Bynum comes back, that number could skyrocket. While Bynum didn't play a whole lot of pick and roll with the Lakers (as the Lakers didn't play much pick and roll in general), Bynum plays almost exclusively around the hoop, getting over 85% of his field goal attempts within 10 feet of the basket last year. And finally having a good pick and roll point guard and the three point shooters he lacked in Los Angeles, Bynum and Holiday could form a dynamic pick and dive partnership, something which could not only give Holiday a steady target to pass to but also open up those spot-up shooters for even more great looks for Holiday to kick out to.
From a scoring perspective, the attention Bynum receives due to his proficiency at finishing around the basket and his ability to gobble up offensive rebounds could make help defenders less likely to leave Bynum, opening up driving lanes even more for Holiday. Bynum's post-up game will also force defenders to double him, giving Holiday open catch and shoot opportunities, something he has not currently benefited from much this season as he has been forced to generate most of the looks in the half-court offense, and presenting Holiday with some easy high-efficiency looks at the basket.
Jrue Holiday's improvement so far this season cannot simply be explained by any one factor. With the ball in his hands more, Jrue Holiday has not only been given more opportunities to make plays but he has been surrounded by talent that is a better fit for his style of play. Perhaps more importantly, Jrue Holiday has developed his recognition enough that he is able to take advantage of his opportunities at a much higher success rate than he has in years past.
When the 76ers acquired Andrew Bynum, most acknowledged that for the 76ers to become true contenders they needed a Robin to develop. They needed somebody to create offense from the perimeter to form a two-man game with Bynum. With Holiday's success, and how he is going about that, 76ers fans can only salivate at the thought of how Jrue Holiday and Andrew Bynum can work off of each other.