With the economy being where it is, I've had a lot of time to read about Bruin basketball. Over the past several weeks. I've read many a commentary on other Bruin fan sites and to a lesser extent this one, that have expressed grave disappointment in our top freshman player, Jrue Holiday. I could go to those other sites and express my contempt for a lot of those thoughts, but I frankly don't think they deserve to know any better. My friends on Bruins Nation, however, are always prone to reviewing and appreciating the facts, so I thought I would reconstitute my call to stop bashing Jrue into a post about why it's okay as a Bruin, and possibly even essential, to praise what he's done for us this year. To me, he has become akin to the girlfriend that you take for granted and break up with, only to realize how great she was when you try to find her replacement.
It probably started with unrealistic expectations. Kevin Love was the last HS player of the year before Jrue, so Jrue came with Love-like expectations. And he surely has not equaled Love's performance. Looking back, we shouldn't be too surprised. Kevin was a once in a generation type of player in a once in a generation freshman class. That's the wrong comparison to use.
I think that this comparison with Love is causing us to overlook some obvious and not-so-obvious contributions that Jrue has been making to the 2009 Bruin team. As Meriones said, he's sort of like a Swiss army knife. (Question for history majors: Why is it called a Swiss army knife when the Swiss have always been neutral?) When you peel back the banana, the facts show that Jrue is a valuable member of the team.
What has Jrue contributed? On the team, he ranks 3rd in rebounding, 2nd in steals, 2nd in assists, 1st! in blocked shots, and 5th in points. He is 4th in the conference in assists to turnover ratio. Coaches (not Howland--he can't vote for his own players) thought enough of him to name him to the All Pac-10 freshman team.
Offensively, Jrue has not been a great scorer. He is the 5th scoring option in our offense in part because Shipp and Dragovic have been shooting the lights out and in pat because that part of his game is less developed than other parts. Being the 5th option comes with it fewer opportunities to score, and he has, indeed, scored less. He also is playing off the ball, and in an offense designed to have the point guard dominate the ball, he doesn't have it in his hands very often. But he has still been a very good player on offense because of his passing, rebounding, and low turnover rate. He also shoots at a pretty good percentage (though not as high as the other starters). All of this combined, gives him a 110.3 Offensive Rating according to Pomeroy's tempo-free stats. That rating is only good enough for 6th best on the 2009 Bruins (behind Roll, Collison, Aboya, Shipp and Dragovic). Or you could say, he is the 6th best offensive player on the 3rd best offense in the country--a team that is the best in the NCAA at shooting and in the top 10 in fewest turnovers.
How good is a 110.3 rating? Well it's 429th in the NCAA. If you consider that there are 343 teams in division I and about 8 players per team play enough minutes to get rated, he ranks well within the top 20% of all NCAA players offensively. But on such a good offense, not playing in a featured role, he is overshadowed or lost in the shadows. In fact, UCLA is the only team of the top 15 Pomeroy offenses that has 6 players in the top 500 in individual offensive rating (it would be surprising if we weren't the only team in all of division I with 6; as you go down the list, you find fewer and fewer players on each team that rate in the top 500). Only Pitt and UCLA have 5 players with a higher rating than Jrue's. In many of the top-15 offenses, Jrue's rating would place him in the top 3 on the team. If Jrue is good enough to be a top 3 player on a top 15 offense, we must conclude that Jrue is a very good offensive player.
I mentioned above that the comparison to Love was both unfavorable and unfair to JH. The more apt comparison would be to Westbrook. After all, he replaced RW in the line up at the 2 guard and has been asked to do similar things. Looking at him and remembering what I remember about RW, I would say that he sure doesn't seem like he's as good as RW was last year. So, I found it fascinating that RW's ORating last year was 109.6, which is close to but not as good as Holiday's 110.3. Holiday's rating is also higher than Shipp's rating was last year (110.2). So, if this were last year's offense, JH would be the #3 most effective offensive player on the team. We would probably be singing his praises and wondering why he can't play more minutes over Shipp or Westbrook. Instead, we're saying that he should be benched in favor of Lee, who's O Rating is 96.3 and commits 5.4 fouls per 40 minutes. Now, I really like what I see from Lee, and I think he should continue to be used in spurts and can't wait to see him develop over the next two years, but his offense is nowhere close to Jrue's at this point. His defense, though good, is not as polished, which helps to explain why he commits 70% more fouls but only manages 33% fewer steals (by rate).
Speaking of defense, it is clear that JH has not been the "stopper" that RW was, or for that matter AA. He physically is not as versatile as RW was. But Jrue appears to be getting way more than his fair share of criticism for the team's poor defense, when the reality is that he is probably our 2nd most consistent defender, behind Aboya. (Note: Pac-10 coaches disagree, having named Collison to the All-Defense team.) Aboya is our only defensive rock (of the starters anyway). Jrue is most often assigned to the other team's #1 scorer, and some of those scorers have produced fairly well against Jrue. Others, like Calvin Haynes, have flailed against Jrue. Despite facing some top guys like Christopher (who performed lower than his averages against Jrue) and Harden (who overmatched JH and nearly everybody else in the league), Jrue hasn't surrendered any Pac-10 player of the week performances (unlike another guard on our team). It's also uncommon for Jrue to get beaten back door or to be lazy getting back on defense. He does things effortlessly, which belies the effort he puts into his defense. Although we don't have a great measurement for individual defense, his numbers do show that he does some defensive things well, namely rebounds, blocks and steals. We also must remember that he is a freshman. As much as we remember that AA and RW were stoppers, they really didn't excel at it until they were sophomores.
I hope that some of you will read this and agree with me that Jrue is a very good all-around player, a top-flight player on a top-flight offensive team and an important defender on a team that struggles to defend well. His contributions not only go unnoticed, but they are also punished because he is not as good as we wanted him to be. He's not as mature as Love, or as good, and that is an albatross we are making him bear. This is not his fault but ours. In comparison of his all around game to the sophomore RW, he holds up fairly well offensively and his failure to be the stopper RW was does not mean that Jrue has been a below-average defender or that he is not a better defender than Shipp and Dragovic or more consistent than Collison.
Those who think that the team will be better off next year without him are mistaken. He is already our best underclassman (on offense, by a wide margin) and when you factor in defensive contributions, he is probably our best non-senior. He will only get better with an offseason under the best coach in America, to the point that perhaps like his predecessors at the 2 guard, he could be a legitimate stopper on defense while excelling as a distributor-first point guard. If he goes pro, it will be a setback for a program that will be left with no back-up point guard and scarce backcourt depth. Should he return, we will once again compete for the Pac-10 title and could be a major threat in the post season. the difference between the two scenarios is staggering.
Whether or not you agree with me about my praise of Jrue's contributions, however, is less important to me than this: Jrue is a Bruin; he plays hard; he seems like a good kid; he supports his teammates; he accepts his role; he doesn't get into trouble; and he represents the Bruin community well. A Bruin who exemplifies so many of the qualities that we love to see in our Bruins does not deserve the fans' ire or scorn or good riddance. He deserves our support, our well wishes (if he does go pro) and our thanks for his effort to make the 2009 Bruins a great team (whether or not they get there).
On Thursday, I will be watching the team with great interest, and I will be watching and appreciating the little things that Jrue does, even the things that I struggle to notice. I will be hoping that Jrue and his teammates play their best basketball over the next 3 weekends to stay allive to play a 4th. Go Bruins!