By Bryan Toporek
During the 2015 NBA draft, Richaun Holmes was mostly an afterthought.
The Philadelphia 76ers spent the No. 3 overall pick that night on Duke center Jahlil Okafor, creating an unpalatable frontcourt logjam that would come back to haunt them. Holmes, who they drafted 37th overall, profiled as little more than an end-of-the-bench big man, as he had three lottery-pick centers ahead of him in the rotation in Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. With Dario Saric lurking overseas as further competition, it seemed as though Holmes would have no chance to carve out consistent playing time.
CBS Sports suggested as much in its instant draft-night reaction.
Sixers select Richaun Holmes: No. 37. Grade: D
Total project. Don't expect to see him.
— CBS Sports NBA (@CBSSportsNBA) June 26, 2015
Two years later, the Bowling Green product has flipped the script. Halfway into his rookie contract, it appears as though he, not Okafor, was the best center the Sixers drafted in 2015. (ESPN.com’s Chad Ford, long on “Prokafor” Island, has reached that conclusion as well.)
Holmes showed promising flashes as a rookie in limited minutes, racking up an impressive 14.7 points and 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes while finishing with a slightly above-average player efficiency rating of 15.9. His shot-blocking came as no surprise to those who watched him in college—he racked up an average of 2.6 rejections in just 26.5 minutes per game throughout this three-year career at Bowling Green—but a dismal showing on the defensive glass threatened to undermine the positives he displayed elsewhere.
Among players 6’10” or above who played at least 300 minutes in 2015-16, Holmes had the league’s worst defensive rebounding rate, directly ahead of luminaries such as Andrea Bargnani and Donatas Motiejunas. Of the 73 defensive rebounds he pulled down as a rookie, only 20 of them were contested. Those rebounding woes served as a footnote to an otherwise promising first-year campaign from Holmes, but a spotty showing in summer league—he averaged just 3.6 defensive boards in 23.4 minutes across eight games—did little to assuage those concerns.
As a sophomore, however, Holmes has attacked the defensive glass with new ferocity. Heading into Tuesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets, the 23-year-old had pulled down roughly one-fifth of the available defensive rebounds when he’s on the floor, almost twice as many as he did last year. He has nearly tripled his number of contested defensive boards (57), as he’s become more adept at boxing out and reading which direction missed shots are likely to bounce.
In the 21 games since the Sixers controversially shipped Noel to the Dallas Mavericks at the trade deadline, Holmes has already pulled down 38 contested defensive rebounds. Some of the credit goes to his teammates for executing textbook box-outs—particularly Dario Saric and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot—but Holmes is improving his rebounding technique, too. He’s begun timing his jumps better, using his athleticism to high-point the ball before it falls into the scrum.
Whereas Holmes tended to overpursue blocks as a rookie, leaving him out of position for rebound opportunities, he’s learning to control his instincts and instead use verticality to his advantage on defense.
This season, Holmes’ defensive rebound rate is higher than up-and-comers such as Willie Cauley-Stein, Myles Turner and Kristaps Porzingis. He’s still nowhere near the league-high rates of Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside or DeAndre Jordan, but he’s at least more in line with the league average than dead last league-wide. (San Antonio Spurs rookie forward Davis Bertans holds that ignominious honor among players 6’10” and above this time around.)
Holmes is making similar strides on offense, where the three-point stroke he displayed over his final two seasons in college is beginning to come around. As a rookie, the big man’s efficiency on jump shots (20.5 percent on 83 attempts) and his 18.2 percent mark from downtown left much to be desired, albeit in a limited sample size. With floor-spacing big men becoming more en vogue in recent years—and Noel and Okafor combining for just eight three-point attempts during the 2015-16 campaign—Holmes’ chances of carving out a consistent role largely depended on whether he could become more consistent from beyond the arc.
This season, Holmes is shooting 21-of-61 on three-point attempts (34.4 percent) and has knocked down 35.9 percent of his 156 jump shots. Okafor isn’t much worse in the jump-shooting department—he went 74-of-212 on the year before right knee soreness ended his season prematurely—but he didn’t attempt a single three-pointer. Holmes is by no means a Ray Allen-esque long-range sniper, but his willingness to pull the trigger from deep catches opposing bigs off-guard and out of position on occasion.
The Bowling Green product isn’t solely a spot-up shooter, though. He’s quickly emerging as one of the league’s top pick-and-roll threats, as evidenced by the 1.30 points per possession he’s averaging as a roll man. Among players with at least 50 such possessions this season, the second-year big man ranks ninth league-wide in efficiency, ahead of Noel, Karl-Anthony Towns and Hassan Whiteside, among others.
With a 7’1.5″ wingspan and impressive bounce, Holmes can explode at a moment’s notice for a poster-worthy dunk, as Al Horford can attest.
Since the All-Star break, Holmes is averaging 13.3 points on 60.0 percent shooting, 6.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.2 blocks, 1.0 steals and 0.6 triples in just 25.7 minutes across 21 games. The Noel trade remains a sore spot for many Philadelphia fans—particularly the relatively paltry return—but the beneficial side effect of opening more minutes for Holmes cannot be ignored.
His teammates have taken notice of his eye-opening play as of late.
“He’s a beast,” Justin Anderson said in mid-March, per CSNPhilly.com’s Jessica Camerato. “I’ve that for a while. I remember watching him in summer league. He plays extremely hard, and then now he’s shooting the three, his ability to just dunk on people. He’s really good. He’s a really good player.”
Holmes is also an underrated screener, having racked up a team-high 85 screen assists in his 1,034 minutes on the court this season. Setting tough screens or boxing out opponents correctly aren’t SportsCenter Top 10-worthy plays, but those small fundamentals make a difference over time, particularly for a player who must fight to maintain his spot in the rotation. Continually doing things that won’t show up on a traditional box score will also endear him to the Sixers’ coaching staff, who routinely track hustle plays.
Holmes isn’t a finished product on either end of the floor by any means. Offensively, he’ll need to continue honing his consistency from beyond the arc and further develop his playmaking skills. The former MAC Defensive Player of the Year also needs to work on his perimeter defense, as opponents are shooting 2.5 percentage points above their average against him when firing away from 15 feet or further. On the bright side, he’s proving to be a somewhat effective deterrent around the rim, holding foes to 6.0 percentage points below their average within six feet of the hoop.
With Embiid’s long-term health still a giant 7’2″ question mark, having Holmes locked up through 2018-19 at a paltry $1 million per season is a godsend for the Sixers. They can allocate their copious amount of cap space elsewhere—such as extensions for Embiid and Robert Covington or free agents to help round out their backcourt depth—while banking on Holmes to serve as Embiid’s primary backup.
Though Holmes doesn’t yet profile as an everyday NBA starting center, his head coach is quickly developing faith in his ability to fill an energy role off the bench.
“I think a lot of the good teams have those lightning-in-the-bottle players that can just change a game,” Brett Brown said recently, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “You know, initially, you are wondering can he be one of those. Is he a duration player? I think since he’s come into the starting five, you are recognizing that there’s more durability.”
The Noel trade may remain a sore spot among the Philadelphia faithful for years to come, particularly if Embiid’s body continues to betray him. Having Holmes around for the next two seasons should help dull some of that pain, though.