dec 23, 2016 | jeff miller |o.c. register | ARTICLE LINK
LOS ANGELES – His team is undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the nation and already has one RPI-boosting victory a season after the program absorbed way too many RIP-inviting defeats.
So, naturally, Aaron Holiday, UCLA’s sixth man, shares the same sort of delight being felt by the five men in the rotation before him.
“We’re just out there hooping pretty much,” he said. “We’re swinging the ball, shooting open shots. I thought we had a pretty good team last year. We just didn’t gel together like we have now. It’s a joy to play with this team.”
So, there you have it, Bruins fans. On Christmas Eve, no less.
For a few moments, though, let’s consider just how easy it would be right now for this sophomore guard to be bah-humbug bumming as the grump of Christmas present.
See, Holiday started all 32 games for the Bruins last season.
He has two brothers – Justin and Jrue – who are in the NBA.
He has a sister – Lauren – who played basketball at UCLA and a sister-in-law – also named Lauren – who won two Olympic gold medals in soccer.
Generally speaking, when it comes to sports, the Holidays achieve. And then they achieve some more.
Suddenly this season, the baby of the family was being asked to do something he never had done before in a basketball career during which he has done so many things.
Aaron Holiday was being asked to sit on bench.
If you don’t think this is such a big deal, that anyone with the opportunity to play at a school like UCLA should just be thankful, consider that plenty of college athletes have transferred for reasons far less legitimate.
“I didn’t look at it as disappointing,” Holiday explained. “I felt like I did all right last year, but I still have a lot to prove. I still need to get better. This is just part of that process.”
The addition of program-reshaping freshman Lonzo Ball – along with the holdover presence of seniors Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton – meant the Bruins had too much backcourt for only one backcourt.
In October, Coach Steve Alford met with all four guards and explained that “it wasn’t ideal” for each of them to be a starter, that the Bruins also had enough inside talent to be more balanced than that.
“I said, ‘With the eliteness that you all have, it’s about being efficient,’” Alford recalled this week. “Their efficiency is way up from last year. It’s been a great rotation so far. They know the roles they’re playing are key.”
Almost all of Holiday’s statistics are up from a year ago, other than minutes per game, which are only slightly down.
He’s averaging 14.5 points, is second on the team to Ball in assists and has been UCLA’s most accurate 3-point shooter.
What’s more, Holiday’s most-impactful performances have come against then-No. 1 Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio State, three of the Bruins’ more notable victories.
He has been the embodiment of the team’s unselfish style, Holiday picking up an enormous assist before the games even tip-off.
He leads the Bruins in sacrifices, no question, and this is a team where almost everyone is giving up something.
A boost off the bench is a weapon UCLA has lacked the past couple seasons, Holiday’s instant spark not entirely surprising given that former Bruins big man Tony Parker once called him “a young, energetic energy bar.”
“I just come out and try to play,” Holiday said. “At first, it was a little iffy because I was sort of lackadaisical, not having come off the bench before. Now, I just try to bring fire and energy.”
As for incentive, there’s also the reality that, in college basketball, being benched is nothing like being banished, particularly for players who are talented.
Zach LaVine, for example, started one game during his single season at UCLA. Now, he’s starting for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
It certainly hasn’t hurt a potentially thorny transition that Holiday and the 2016-17 Bruins have yet to experience defeat.
“It’s obviously easier when you’re winning,” he said. “It lets you trust the process a little bit more.”
Still, this is a player who averaged 25 points and more than eight rebounds as a senior at Campbell Hall High in North Hollywood, Holiday twice earning player of the year honors from the Los Angeles Daily News.
NBC Sports’ website recently noted that he would start for all but “at most, five or six programs” in the country and would be the best player on maybe all but 20 teams.
And here Holiday is, coming off the bench, impressively helping the Bruins rise from his initial seated position, UCLA’s often-employed four-guard lineup, among other things, so far too much for the opposition.
“If somebody’s open, we’re going to find them,” Holiday said. “We run and we shoot threes, and that’s what every kid wants to do nowadays. We share the ball, which is key.”
The Bruins share more than that. They share minutes and status, too, the mix an unbeatable blend to date.
Happy Holiday, indeed, Bruins fans, during a UCLA season that has been all about giving.