Aaron Holiday’s 2020-21 campaign hasn’t gone how he, or the Indiana Pacers, wanted it to go.
After showing signs of growth and improvement during his second season, the expectation was that the young guard would continue to evolve into a rotation piece for the Pacers. He had an opportunity to earn a significant role this year if he continued to refine his skills.
Instead, most of Holiday’s season has been disappointing. His shot hasn’t gone in, he hasn’t polished up his passing, and none of his other skills have noticeably grown in a way that would make his lack of scoring and passing growth acceptable. He simply hasn’t been good enough to get significant minutes for the Pacers this season, and as the team got healthier at the end of March, Holiday lost his spot in the rotation entirely for a pair of games. His season was disappointing.
That perception has changed in the past two weeks. In the month of April, Holiday is averaging 12.1 points and 1.7 assists per game while shooting 54.5% from the floor. His solid play has kept him on the court for over 20 minutes in four of the team’s seven games throughout the month — he only played over 20 minutes four times in February and March combined. The UCLA product is playing well, and it’s allowing him to get more time on the hardwood.
“I’m just out there playing, honestly,” Holiday said after dropping in a season-high 22 points against Minnesota. “[I’m] just trying to do what I can to help my team win the best way I can.”
His teammates are taking notice of his growth and impact. “He’s been incredible these last two games,” forward Doug McDermott said last week. “Credit to Aaron, he’s been working his tail off all year and no one deserves it more.”
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Holiday started receiving playing time again as a result of multiple injuries befalling the Pacers. Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, Jeremy Lamb, Malcolm Brogdon, and McDermott have missed action this month, opening up time for the young guard.
Those ailments led to Aaron Holiday getting minutes, but he earned extra playing time with his strong play. He stayed on the floor late in three different games this month — Pacers’ wins against San Antonio, Minnesota, and Orlando — and against Orlando he played for over seven minutes in the final frame. Indiana Head Coach Nate Bjorkgren has allowed Holiday to remain on the court when he is feeling it, and that trust has been helping the Pacers win games.
What makes this enhanced run of play from Holiday all the more impressive is that it comes on the heels of him losing his rotation spot altogether. On March 21st, despite being fully healthy, Holiday did not play for the Pacers. Three days later, it happened again. His rotation spot was disappearing.
But injuries gave him another chance to get on the court, and the 24-year old has taken full advantage. “That’s a true sign of a professional,” Pacers guard Caris LeVert said of guys staying ready and helping the Pacers succeed after not playing.
It’s impossible to pinpoint just one thing that is allowing Holiday to have a larger than normal impact. One factor that has helped the young guard improve is the Pacers’ rapid pace of play. They are playing faster, the team is running in transition off of misses and even pushing the pace more frequently after the rival team makes a shot. As a result, Indiana leads the league in pace during the month of April. That speed, and the reaction to it, is perfect for the way that Aaron Holiday wants to play. He wants to use his agility to bend opposing coverages, and once he sees a play open up, he bursts and fully breaks the defense.
“They are getting out and running,” Bjorkgren said of the Pacers. “And [Holiday] is good when he’s out there playing free, playing with some space. You know, that second unit, they’ll throw that thing ahead and push it ahead and really run the floor. It gets the opponent on their heels a little bit.”
The youngest Holiday brother is also playing with more confidence recently. He won’t ever admit when his confidence falters — Holiday always speaks positively. But on the court, it’s clear when he’s feeling like himself. His decisions involve little thinking and his movement is crisp. His shots look more rhythmic. His defense is stout. The third-year guard rarely looks timid, but there is still a noticeable difference in his performances when he is playing with more confidence.
“He’s out there playing with confidence,” Bjorkgren said of Holiday. “He’s making the most of it… he just looks good out there.”
The Pacers, who are sitting outside of the top-eight in the Eastern Conference standings, will hope this run of play can last for a while, perhaps even for the rest of the season. While winning may not be paramount for a 25-28 team, the growth of younger players on the roster is. If Holiday can play well for Indiana throughout the rest of the ongoing campaign, that would be a boon for both his development and the team’s playoff push.
For this level of impact to sustain, Holiday will need to continue to push the pace and remain confident. He will also need to develop some of his other skills. Holiday is tasked with finishing plays more than creating them, but he still had zero assists in both of his last two games. There will be nights when his shot isn’t falling — he needs to be able to effectively set up his teammates so that he can still be impactful on those nights. As he plays more, he needs to continue to find the right balance of scoring and creating for his teammates.
Holiday will undoubtedly continue to grow during this season’s final stretch. After an excellent 20-point outing in Orlando, he mentioned that he can’t help but think more about the four turnovers he had in the game than the big scoring night he produced. The 2018 draft pick wants to get better, not bask in his successes. That mentality is a recipe for growth, even if the signs of development come at varied times.
“Usually it’s going to work out for you when you play the way Aaron does on the floor, being aggressive and not shying away from anything,” Aaron’s older brother Justin said. “Which is one of the many things I love about him.”
The youngest Holiday brother showing signs of life again has some sizeable ripple effects. First and foremost, his solid play should keep him in the Pacers’ rotation for a few more games. If he can continue to shoot well and push the pace, he may even take Jeremy Lamb’s spot in the rotation when the team is fully healthy (sans T.J. Warren, who is out for the year). That would shake up the Pacers in-game strategy and allow the team to give more minutes to a younger player, two benefits that should be important to a below-.500 team.
Additionally, his upgraded play helped keep the Pacers’ season alive. The team’s lackluster record illustrates how important Holiday’s big month is for the blue and gold. Without his contributions, the Pacers likely don’t go on their recent three-game winning streak. They may have fallen out of the playoff race entirely. His hot shooting kept Indiana in the hunt for a decent seed in the postseason.
This all needs to continue to be the case for Indiana. Holiday has helped the Pacers win many games this month, which jives with the team’s stated goals from before the season. But he’s also young and developing, which is key for a team having a down campaign. Should the UCLA product continue to positively impact winning, giving Holiday a permanent rotation spot would be good for the team in both the short and long term.
The front office certainly hopes that occurs. Obviously, every organization wants its players to grow and play well. But the Pacers have reportedly held on to Holiday through three seasons of trade discussions and offers — they have bet that the young guard will turn into a useful player.
Most of this season has made that gamble look like a poor choice. But if Holiday can continue his current run of form over a long stretch, he could make the decision to keep him around pay off.
“[I] just came out trying to be aggressive and help my team win the best I can,” Aaron Holiday said after a win earlier this month. The Pacers might end up reaching their desired spot in the standings if Holiday continues to do those two things — be aggressive and help his team win games. The Pacers have waited all season for Aaron Holiday to do that. Now, they need it to continue.