Two years ago, it would have been Bryce Alford. Last year, Lonzo Ball.
Now, with UCLA facing a key late-game possession, Aaron Holiday had the ball in his hands.
Dribbling up the floor with three minutes left in Friday’s season opener against Georgia Tech, the junior guard blew by one defender before crossing over another to get into the lane.
The defense converged, all five Yellow Jackets standing in the paint as Holiday took off. It didn’t matter.
The 6-foot-1 Holiday flew by all of them and flipped the ball softly off the glass with his left hand to extend the Bruins’ lead to eight.
It was part of a late-game stretch in which Holiday scored seven straight points for UCLA. He wasn’t great throughout the night, turning the ball over four times and not making a field goal until the second half, but showed up in crunch time to polish off UCLA’s 63-60 win.
It was a welcome sight for the Bruins, who will rely on Holiday as heavily as ever this season.
Two years ago, Holiday was a talented-but-erratic freshman, asked to do too much for a thin UCLA squad that finished 10th in the Pac-12. He averaged 10 points and four assists but shot just 39.4 percent.
Then Ball showed up, and Holiday spent last season as one of the best sixth men in the country, putting up 12.3 points and 4.4 assists per game while shooting 48.5 percent in a bench role.
“If you look back (at him) as a freshman, he was pretty much one speed – and that was as fast as you can go,” said coach Steve Alford. “He’s really understood how to develop now – it’s not about just one speed all the time, it’s about change of speed. He’s being much more efficient now.”
Now, in his third year, Holiday finally has both the experience and the opportunity to emerge as a true star.
He’ll need to – not just for the Bruins’ sake, but also for his own.
The younger brother of NBA players Jrue and Justin Holiday, Aaron Holiday tested out the draft waters last spring, but decided to return to school after going through predraft workouts with a handful of teams. If he hopes to get drafted this spring, said one NBA scout, he’ll have to show more on the court.
“He’s a very good defensive player and can do a little bit of everything, but his size and lack of a niche will make it an uphill battle for him to get drafted,” the scout said. “I think the cool part is that it’s his team this year and hopefully he acts the part.”
Holiday certainly has the skills to do that.
In addition to his standout defense – ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz called him “an elite on-ball defender” and the Arizona Republic named him the Pac-12’s top perimeter defender in its season preview – Holiday boasts a well-rounded offensive game.
A knock-down shooter who has drilled over 41 percent of his 3s in each of his first two years, Holiday is often able to use the threat of his shot to attack off the dribble.
And though he struggled to finish inside as a freshman, shooting just 42.7 percent at the rim, he improved dramatically last season, raising that mark to 64.4 percent, per Hoop-Math.
The talent of last year’s squad undoubtedly helped Holiday find better scoring chances, but it would be unwise to assume his improved finishing was solely a result of easy looks created by Ball and others. Over 80 percent of his buckets at the rim were unassisted, by far the highest mark on the team last season.
He’s a good passer, too. He was outshone, of course, last season by the brilliance of Ball, but Holiday posted the third-most assists in the Pac-12 thanks to a smart passing sense on the perimeter and his ability to probe the defense off the dribble.
Improving even more on those assist numbers this year would go a long way toward helping Holiday get drafted, the NBA scout said.
“It would be great to see him average seven assists a game like he had the other night,” the scout said. “He definitely shoots it well, (but) I want to see him be more aggressive getting to the basket and creating.”
Holiday certainly won’t be lacking opportunities to show what he can do. Even with five-star freshman Jaylen Hands in the fold, Holiday is the Bruins’ lead guard – in more ways than just on the court, Alford said.
“His leadership’s been really, really good,” Alford said. “He’s become much more vocal, he’s become a big-time leader for us and that’s going to be imperative.”