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A Healthy Jrue Holiday Gives Pelicans Another Dimension

Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire

The New Orleans Pelicans’ injury problems keep getting worse. Just as Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca were getting ready to return, Tyreke Evans had to have surgery on his right knee and could miss up to eight weeks. As if Anthony Davis wasn’t carrying a huge burden on offense already, the team’s best perimeter creator has gone down. The start of the season could be rough.

Fortunately there’s one silver lining to an otherwise terrible offseason, health wise. Jrue Holiday’s injury seems behind him and he’s ready to reclaim his place among the league’s best young lead guards.

It’s understandable to be weary of the prospects of someone with seemingly chronic issues in his right leg. Stress injuries have kept Holiday out for 90 combined games over the past two season. At this point, not a lot of people remember how good he actually is. These days his name might come up more often in discussions about the 76ers’ rebuilding plan than in actual conversations about basketball. To many the former All-Star is an afterthought.

That wasn’t always the case. The Pelicans traded two first-round picks for Holiday in the hope of surrounding Anthony Davis with one of the league’s most promising young talents at his position, a lead guard who could score and defend and was coming along as a pick-and-roll playmaker. Alas, the injuries piled up and he never panned out for general manager Dell Demps. New Orleans is hoping this time things will be different.

To prevent any more setbacks, the team and Holiday’s personal trainer have come up with a new training regime and a cap on his minutes early in the season. Holiday will start off getting just 15 minutes and go from there, according to coach Alvin Gentry. So far the team has adhered to that plan, as he played just 13 minutes a game in preseason, putting together an impressive stat line of eight points, three rebounds and two assists per game. Even after all these injuries, there’s clearly still a lot of untapped potential left in Holiday.

Before being traded to New Orleans Holiday averaged 17 points, four rebounds and eight assists. When he’s been able to suit up for the Pelicans he’s put very similar numbers, with his scoring seeing a dip but his efficiency climbing. It’s hard to imagine Holiday making another All-Star team now that he’s in the West, but his 15 points and seven assists per game in 2014-15 prove that he can be in the conversation now that he’s on a winning team. He’s also, amazingly, just 24 years old.

For such a young player there are simply not a lot of weaknesses to his game. He can both hit three-pointers (career 37 percent shooter) and finish inside thanks to his speed and body control. He’s also finally cut down on his mid-range attempts in favor of more three-pointers:

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As a passer he’s not in the John Wall/Chris Paul level, but Holiday can make good reads and he’s patient looking for the dive man:

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Guards who can score and run an offense are in a surplus right now. What sets Holiday apart is that he’s a true two-way player. He doesn’t just collect steals but stays with his man, which is rare at his position:

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That potentially great version of Holiday clearly still exists. There were flashes in preseason and every time he’s been on the court these past few years. The player the Pelicans traded for could resurface with some luck. And they’ll need him to if they hope to first survive without Evans and then take a step forward as a team.

There’s no point-guard depth available right now for Gentry, as both Evans and Norris Cole are out. Nate Robinson, who shouldn’t be in the rotation of a playoff team, is on the roster, but the team will surely bring in an emergency backup. Even if they can find someone worthy of minutes in the brutal West, they’ll need every second Holiday can give them. If instead of 15 minutes he can go for 20, that would give the Pelicans a big boost.

Once Evans returns, Gentry will have the chance to play one of the team’s best lineups from last season. In 2014-15, the Holiday, Eric Gordon, Evans, Davis and Asik lineup outscored opponents by over 11 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. They didn’t play together as much as most starting lineups, but among five-man units that were on the court for at least 150 minutes, they ranked 18th in the league in net rating. With everyone healthy, the Pelicans can make a deep playoff run.

Things haven’t started out great for New Orleans this year. Too many injuries have robbed them of the momentum they could’ve gained during preseason, and Evans’s in particular is a tough blow. They might not be where they want to be in the standings a month into the season.

Like his team, Jrue Holiday will have to start slow and build from there, hoping to be healthy as the New Year arrives. If he is, not only will he be taking the first step towards getting his once promising career back on track, but he could help the Pelicans put a scare on the West contenders.

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