INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana Pacers saw Aaron Holiday as a perfect fit even before Thursday night’s NBA Draft.
They liked his scoring potential and his commitment to defense. They were impressed by his basketball wits and his family’s athletic successes. And, they figured, he could make a smooth transition from college to the pros by blending into the Pacers’ locker room culture.
So when they finally got a chance to make an offseason move, the decision-makers didn’t hesitate to take a potential point guard of the future.
“He’s a tough guy, he prides himself on playing on the defensive end of the floor and he comes from a successful basketball family,” coach Nate McMillan said after adding Holiday with the No. 23 overall pick. “He was the guy we had at the top of our board.”
The only problem was McMillan and president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard never got to see the 6-foot-1, 185-pound UCLA star up close in Indy.
McMillan said he was didn’t know why Holiday didn’t make it to Indianapolis for a pre-draft workout, and neither Holiday nor Pritchard provided an explanation either.
But Pacers scouts met with Holiday at the draft combine and did enough homework to know passing on Holiday so late in the draft probably would have been a mistake for a team needing more scoring help now and a potential void if Indiana’s top two point guards become free agents next summer.
The 21-year-old Holiday brings a solid resume to a team he’s already has some familiarity with.
Indiana’s two draft picks last year, T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu, also played at UCLA. So did starting point guard Darren Collison, a college teammate of Jrue Holiday, one of Aaron Holiday’s two older brothers who currently play in the NBA. Collison, who turns 32 in August, can become a free agent next summer.
“We look at Darren (Collison) and Holiday and see a lot of similarities,” Pritchard said. “We see speed. We see elite shooting and we were shocked he (Holiday) was there.”
Holiday averaged 20.3 points, 5.8 assists and 1.3 steals while shooting 42.2 percent on 3-pointers last season, becoming the first Bruins player to lead the Pac-12 in scoring since former Pacers star Reggie Miller in 1985-86. Holiday was named first-team all-conference and was chosen to the Pac-12′s all-defensive team.
What really sold the Pacers on him, though, was how they believed he would mesh in a locker room brimming with confidence and hope after last year’s surprise season.
Most analysts thought the Pacers would be a lottery team after trading All-Star Paul George to Oklahoma City for shooting guard Victor Oladipo and backup forward Domantas Sabonis in July.
Instead, Oladipo made his first All-Star appearance, led Indiana to 48 wins and was named one of three finalists for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The Pacers even pushed eventual Eastern Conference champion Cleveland to a seventh game in the playoffs.
Sabonis also emerged as a valuable piece off the bench in his second NBA season, and they expect 22-year-old center Myles Turner to improve heading into next season.
“Somebody who’s going to come in and play hard, a playmaker who shoots the ball and a hard worker,” Holiday said, describing what the Pacers are getting.
Indiana also took 6-9, 212-pound forward Alize Johnson, who averaged a double-double in both seasons he played at Missouri State, at No. 50 overall. The 22-year-old Johnson averaged 15.0 points last season and finished fifth nationally in rebounds (11.6) and eighth nationally in double-doubles (20) after starting his prep career as a 5-9 point guard.
Holiday could be another critical piece for a team facing a potentially intriguing offseason.
Pritchard confirmed backup point guard Cory Joseph already has decided to return to Indy next season. The Pacers also could exercise team options on guards Lance Stephenson and Joe Young. Starting forward Thaddeus Young, meanwhile, continues to wrestle with a decision to stay with the Pacers for $13.7 million or test free agency. Pritchard wants him back.
Indiana also could have as much as $30 million to play with in free agency and enough flexibility to invest in the trade market. Pritchard said they considered offers during the draft and acknowledged the team was “hunting” one unidentified player before deciding the cost would be too prohibitive.
Besides, Pritchard considers doesn’t want to do anything to break up the team chemistry and he believes Holiday’s presence will work just fine in that role.
“I think he’s confident but my gut feeling is that he knows he doesn’t know everything yet,” Pritchard said when asked why he’d fit in. “We love when a guy says, ‘I want to be great and I’ll do whatever it takes to be great.’”
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