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How do you Jrue?: the versatility and fit of Jrue Holiday

Jrue Holiday is doing everything he’s asked, and just a little bit more.

Boston Celtics v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Great philosophers contribute much to our society. They are thought leaders and consensus challengers. But they are perhaps best known for those memes where one of their quotes is slapped onto their picture and reposted by people on Facebook who have definitely never heard of them before.

When thinking about basketball team construction and chemistry building, I often think of one such philosopher: LeBron James. LeBron is celebrated for many things, like reading the entirety of The Godfather‘s first page, but I’ve always been a fan of his erudite wisdom. LeBron has many legendary quotes, like when he said this:

“All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today.”

Incredible stuff. Perhaps one of his more underrated quotes, though, involved Kevin Love. Lebron tweeted, without tagging Kevin Love I would add, the following:

Just his thoughts, Kevin. No need to be offended.

Well, Jrue Holiday is doing his best to live by these sage words. From nominal second option in Milwaukee due to Middleton’s prolonged absences, to some combination of 4th or 5th option in Boston. It’s a transition plenty of players have struggled to navigate. Jrue Holiday is not one of those players.

While Jrue is averaging a healthy 13.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 5.3 assists on average efficiency (54.8 TS% and 52.3 EFG%, both right around league average), it’s his usage stats that tell the most interesting story. Holiday’s 18% usage rate is the lowest of his career, tied with his rookie year, and is way down from 24.4% from last season (that mark would be 3rd on the Celtics). His time of possession and dribbles per touch have dropped from 6.1 and 4.55 last year to 4.2 and 3.93 respectively, and his touches per game have fallen to 60.0 this year, down from 73.1 last. Those numbers are the indicators of a player that went from high usage, on-ball creator to more of a jack-of-all-trades type.

There are many ways to fit into the context of a team. Take Sam Hauser, who weaponizes his narrow skillset by taking a high volume of open threes, spacing the floor, and defending well enough within the scheme. Meanwhile, Jrue’s malleability allows him to do just about anything the Celtics ask of him. The best part is, he’s good at just about everything on both sides of the court. We will take up each one in kind.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The offensive pantry

There are few things better than a freshly stocked pantry. Full of all the favorite cereals, chips, protein bars, and oohhhh, is that creamy peanut butter? You better believe it is. Jrue Holiday’s offensive game is akin to a pantry right after the groceries are put away. What do you need? Some tortilla chips for that salsa? Got it. A few crackers to set off the cheese board? Done. A catch and shoot three spaced out to the corner? Sounds delicious.

Whatever the Celtics need from Jrue — and it is a wider variety than Doritos flavors (there’s a lot of those right?) — he’s got it in the cupboard. Probably the biggest change for Bucks-Jrue to Celtics-Jrue is the amount he’s now playing off ball. To quote Professor Farnsworth, “good news, everyone!” Jrue has been excellent at it.

Here’s primarily operated as a spot up guy when he’s not handling the ball, and he can hurt a defense in a variety of ways while spotting. The most obvious way is catch and shoot threes. While he’s shooting a ho-hum 31.6% on catch and shoot threes so far, much of that is small sample size. He’s been a high-level catch and shoot guy for years now, and most importantly, he’s being defended like it. Either cover him tightly and refuse to help off, which is basically impossible against a team that employs Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingis, Derrick White, and the world’s greatest shooter Sam Hauser; or you help off of him, and when the ball is swung to Jrue spotting up, you close out hard.

Either is a poor decision, but teams have opted to help off of him given the other talent on the Celtics. It hasn’t been working. Jrue is a lead ballhandler by trade, and he uses that skillset to absolutely punish teams that close out on him by finishing or picking out open shooters.

While he’s deployed as a spot up threat often, he’s a high-level pick-androll player, able to attack 1-on-1 when necessary.

Just a beautiful left to right overhand cross leaves Royce O’Neale defending ghosts after he switches onto Jrue.

Holiday’s career long run as a primary playmaker is probably most obvious when he’s running the high pick-and-roll, regularly finding open shooters or the big man.

While the high pick-and-roll plays to Jrue’s strengths as a playmaker, his combination of handle and vision means he’s picking out passes from all over the court, forcing rotations and making the right read regularly like this dime to JB after he splits a trap a halfcourt.

This pass comes off an offensive rebound where Holiday doesn’t even touch the ground before finding Tatum on the cut.

Or here, after pushing in semi-transition, he finds White on a meandering cut after the Nets lose track of him.

On this play he’s operating as the roll man for Derrick. After White can’t fit a pass through, Holiday floats to the strongside corner, White finds him and it’s an immediate, gorgeous one-handed catch and pass in one motion to a wide open KP.

And sometimes, you just need your guys to go out and get a bucket. It’s a testament to the ridiculous talent that Brad Stevens has collected that their 4th or 5th option is able to do just that. Isolations aren’t ideal offense, but they are a necessary evil at times. Jrue ranks in the 64th percentile of isolation efficiency, well above average at one of the NBA’s least efficient possession type. You’d be hard pressed to find another player in Jrue’s role with similar efficiency on isos.

As he’s aged, he’s no longer dynamically getting all the way to the rim. Akin to a late career Payton Manning who can see all the throws, but maybe can’t make them all anymore. Instead, he favors a methodical approach executed at his own pace, often turning drives into post-ups or makeable mid-range jumpers. It’s unique and it’s effective.

Look, Jrue isn’t perfect offensively. He’s a little turnover prone (1.9 per game), and he’s a little too in love with the step-back or pull-up three, often taking them at inexplicable moments. Sort of like why my pantry currently has 6 kinds of crackers and we never eat crackers. Just why?

On balance though, Jrue is clearly a big positive on the offensive end for the Celtics. His varied skillset allows him to switch between off-guard or lead guard, ball handler or screen setter, cutter or spot up. No matter what the Celtics are hungry for, Jrue has it in the pantry.

The defensive elite-ness

There are very few guards that could replace what Marcus Smart gave the Celtics on the defensive end during his long tenure. Jrue is one of the few (this also sort of rhymes, which seems important). The magic of guards like Smart and Jrue is how effective they are at nearly everything on the defensive end. A guard that can viably cover 1-5 is a rare thing indeed, and the Celtics have just so happened to find another one.

First, let’s attack the point of attack, where Holiday is one of the very best to ever do it. He’s lost a step as he’s aged, but he’s still elite at the POA. He flashed it often against the Raptors. How he slips by screens at his size and build, like some sort of chunky eel, is beyond me, but here he is navigating two while funneling Schroder right to Porzingis. Dennis has to force up a difficult floater that ends as a brick.

Jrue doesn’t even look like he’s defending all that hard, acting more as a shepherd herding cattle (Sheep? Probably sheep, right?) right to KP helping at the rim. It’s exactly what the Celtics’ scheme is designed around.

That doesn’t mean he can’t dial up the on-ball intensity though. Here he is again on Schroder, presumably right before Dennis is forced to give Jrue his lunch money.

Or on this possession late in the Raptors game where he flashes the switch-ability and hounds Siakam after he and JB switch the Schroder-Siakam pick-and-roll.

While we are at it, why don’t we highlight his defense on Scottie Barnes, too. We already covered him covering a guard and a big, might as well throw a wing into the mix.

While his ability to guard at the point of attack and one on one is impressive, it’s not even the most impressive thing he’s been asked to do by Joe Mazzulla. Much was made of the Horford-Timelord defensive pairing, and for good reason. Al was tasked with bodying up the opponent’s center, while Robert Williams hides on the weakest offensive link and prowls like a wolf just after dusk.

Well, Jrue Holiday, a 6’5” guard, is playing Al Horford’s role when he shares the court with Porzingis. Regularly he’s being asked to body up centers and free KP to roam the backline and protect the rim. It’s difficult work, and Holiday has been up to the task no matter how large.

That’s Joel Embiid in two of those clips, the reigning MVP, and Joe’s trusting his guard to hold his ground. Jrue does it with a combination of an incredibly strong build and staying low. It makes him as immovable as a tree stump. He fights relentlessly, look at him here battling Poeltl.

It also allows him to deploy one of his most definitive defensive traits: his ridiculously fast hands. Even if he gets beat, Jrue can manage to bail himself out with a poke from behind, like this one on Embiid.

Yes, there are times where the giants of the NBA can shoot right over him, but everything defensively is a give and a take. Clearly, this plan is working as the Celtics hold opponents to the 4th lowest FG% around the rim and allow the 4th fewest attempts. Jrue doing the dirty work allows KP to do what he does best, focus on protecting the paint. Oh, and he even boxes out like a center, too.

He’s also a dynamite help defender, again using those quick hands and his elite instincts to get into passing lanes and cause havoc.

Jrue’s help instincts are so good, that Mazzulla has openly commented how he’s allowing Holiday to effectively run the defense. At times just letting him play free safety and do whatever he thinks best.

It’s the highest compliment a coach can give a player, an acknowledgment that you are so good at something, you don’t need to be coached.

All told, Jrue Holiday’s fit on the Celtics is just about perfect. But how could it not be? The versatility he brings on either side of the ball means he can fit in any team context, and more importantly, he’s willing to leverage that versatility in whatever manner the team needs. Shots are not important, winning is, and that’s a fit so good even LeBron couldn’t find a way to complain about it.

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