The comparison might seem obvious, even lazy, but it’s valid.
Aaron Holiday, the point guard selected by the Pacers with the 23rd pick in the 2018 NBA Draft on Thursday, bears a lot of similarities to Darren Collison, the Pacers’ incumbent starter. Not just because they both attended UCLA, and not because they’re about the same size. They also happen to have a similar skill set and degree of athleticism.
Which could make Collison the perfect mentor for the rookie next season.
“We see a lot of similarities,” Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard said following the draft, in which the Pacers also took Missouri State forward Alize Johnson in the second round. “We see speed, we see elite shooting. We were shocked that he was there.”
Holiday, the younger brother of two established NBA point guards — Jrue was a near-elite player with New Orleans last season and Justin had his best season yet with Chicago — was widely projected to go between six or seven spots higher in the draft. He is regarded as a “safe” pick, a player who should at least become a capable backup.
Despite the expectation Holiday would go higher than 23rd, the instant analysis from media outlets was mixed. ESPN declared the Pacers to be one of their six “big winners” in the draft. CBS Sports awarded them an “A-.” Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated, and SB Nation gave “B” grades, and The Sporting News, USA Today, and The Ringer handed out “C’s.”
The Pacers weren’t able to bring in Holiday for a workout before the draft, but interviewed him extensively at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. They left convinced he would fit their culture for his humble nature, work ethic, and toughness.
UCLA’s coach, Steve Alford, spoke to those qualities in a distributed comment.
“He’s such a driven young man with a burning desire to get better at both ends,” Alford said. “It’s hard for me to put into words what Aaron meant to our team. He was simply remarkable.”
He’ll also have to meet the demands of an NBA point guard, however. He isn’t an exceptional athlete and is undersized at 6-foot-1, but has an unusually long wingspan at 6-foot-7.
Shooting is not a concern. Holiday hit better than 40 percent of his 3-pointers all three of his seasons at UCLA, including 43 percent last season, and 83 percent of his foul shots. He hit better than 45 percent of his 3-pointers off the catch last season, which could make him compatible with Victor Oladipo, who often handles the ball in the Pacers’ offense.
He’s also an aggressive defender who averaged 1.2 steals. His length could enable him to defend taller players effectively despite his lack of height.
“He’s a bulldog defender,” Pritchard said. “He’s as tough as they get. When we talk about players, the first thing we talk about is, is he tough. And he’s that.”
Holiday, clearly tired after enduring all the post-selection demands at the NBA Draft site in Brooklyn, wasn’t expansive in his conference call with reporters, but clearly has followed the Pacers last season.
“You guys are very, very talented,” he said. “Pretty young, actually. I know you guys took LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games and the calls just didn’t really go your way at the end. I know you guys are on the rise and I feel like I can come in and help you guys.”
He’ll find familiar faces in Indianapolis. He will join former UCLA teammates TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu, who were drafted by the Pacers last season. He also said he’s met Collison, who last played at UCLA in the 2008-09 season, “a couple of times.” And, Jrue’s wife, Lauren, a former member of the U.S. national soccer team, is from Indianapolis.
Pritchard said he considers Holiday a potential starter down the road. If nothing else, he’ll have veteran tutors next season. Without specifically saying it, Pritchard indicated Collison will be brought back for the second year of his contract — he only had a minimal guarantee for next season — and Cory Joseph already has turned in the paperwork to claim the option on the final year of his contract.
“He goes into the season behind Cory and Darren, but I see him competing for minutes,” Pritchard said. “I would be shocked if he didn’t play some this year.
Collison and Joseph will become free agents after next season, giving the Pacers a wide array of options at point guard, and giving Holiday an opportunity to step into a greater role.
“We felt we needed a point guard in the pipeline who could at least fill a backup role in the future. He has some characteristics of a starter.”
Regardless of his future role, Holiday projects as someone who can carve out a long NBA career in Pritchard’s opinion.
“He is going to be an NBA player,” Pritchard said. “There are some guys you just sit and talk…he’s going to be an NBA player.”
Pritchard said he explored some trades to move up in both rounds of the draft. He had the asset of cap space, which would have enabled him to take on a big contract, but didn’t find the right opportunity.
“There were a couple possibilities, but they just became too cost-prohibitive,” Pritchard said.
“We had a guy targeted. We really wanted a (certain) player.”
Johnson, a 6-9 forward, was described by Pritchard as a “bulldog” rebounder. He averaged 11.6 in 31.2 minutes per game at Missouri State last season, along with 15 points. A 5-9 point guard when he began high school, he has exceptional ballhandling skills for his size. He’s not a perimeter scoring threat, having hit 28 percent of his 3-point shots last season.
“I wanted have a guy Nate could throw out into a game and go guard somebody in February,” Pritchard said. “That just says, ‘I don’t care about anything. Just put me on the floor in February when everybody’s going to be tired and I’m going to do something.’ There are some guys who are just around the ball.”
Pritchard said he’s unsure of Thaddeus Young’s intention regarding free agency. Young could return to the Pacers under the final year of his current deal, become a free agent, or sign a new contract with the Pacers.
“I’ve had a few conversations with his agent,” Pritchard said. “At the end of the day it’s his decision. We’d like to have him back.”
Young has until June 29 to decide whether to opt in or out of his contract. At that point Pritchard will know his needs for next season, and how much money he’ll have under the salary cap to spend on free agents or to put into uneven trades for players with larger contracts.
“Now the real games begin for us,” he said.