Dear Philadelphia 76ers: Don’t Let Richaun Holmes Remain Forgotten Man
I sit on my couch half-watching the Philadelphia 76ers struggle through a late-winter game when, suddenly, a big man throws down a resounding dunk. “Holmes!” the commentator shouts, as I begin to turn my attention back towards my computer. Just then, I stop and scold myself: “Wait, did I really forget Richaun Holmes exists?!?”
Holmes is perhaps the most surprising—and overlooked—member of the Sixers’ youth movement. Former general manager Sam Hinkie’s plan (The Process) has net a diversified collection of young talent featuring Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric and even Robert Covington. Lost in the shuffle of The Process was (and is) Holmes, who quietly had a breakout 2016-17. Selected 37th overall in the 2015 NBA draft, he was an intriguing prospect coming out of Bowling Green. Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz had this to say in his Draft Express scouting report:
He passes the eye test immediately with his ripped 6-10 frame, solid length and terrific athleticism, but also managed to put his tools to full use as well, coming up with one monster tip-dunk, and blocking a number of shots around the basket, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Holmes has terrific feet for a player his size, which gives him great potential as a defender when combined with his outstanding physical attributes and excellent timing. He’s not particularly skilled, but seems to have plenty of upside to continue to grow into, and appears to have all the makings of a future NBA rotation big man.
For his first 1.5 seasons, his role was largely limited to spot minutes off the bench. Then, during the 2017 All-Star break, the Sixers traded Nerlens Noel to the Dallas Mavericks. With Embiid already sidelined for the rest of the season, the deal opened the door for Holmes to showcase his talents:
During that 26-game stretch, he saw a substantial increase in playing time along with 15 starts. His basic stats benefited significantly, but it was Holmes’ scoring efficiency that made the most drastic jump. Despite the fall in three-point knockdown rate after the All-Star break, he managed to raise his effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) and true shooting percentage (TS%) by 7.2 and 7.5 points, respectively.
Though it was Embiid who dominated mid-season headlines, Holmes managed to outpace him in certain offensive categories. Taking a look NBA Math’s value-added metric, defined as “the difference between individual points per possession and the league-average PPP for that play type, multiplied by the number of possessions used,” we can see that Holmes was more efficient in a few important facets last season:
It’s worth noting Holmes yielded better results in several key play-types. He scored 1.23 points per possession (PPP) as roll man in the pick-and-roll (88th percentile in the entire NBA). He has a soft touch around the rim and is a strong finisher in traffic. In the below clip, he sets a screen for Alex Poythress, who then feeds Holmes for an almost effortless finger roll between two defenders:
Holmes has developed into an outside threat as well, which is big for the Sixers. Opposing big men don’t want to get pulled too far away from the rim when guarding high pick-and-rolls, so it’s a plus when a team has centers who can stretch the floor. Holmes embodies exactly this, and he flashed his range when running the high pick-and-roll with T.J. McConnell:
The big man connected on 39.5 percent of his above-the-break three-point attempts, and he also proved to be a decent spot-up shooter:
The 23-year-old also pumped in 0.94 PPP on spot-up opportunities, which places him in the 45th percentile of the NBA. While it’s a below-average figure, it was a vast improvement over his rookie season, when he tallied 0.61 PPP in these situations—or the 7th percentile. He will likely never be among the best deep threats in the game, but another jump in shooting efficiency like the one he had isn’t out of the question. The Sixers posted the fourth-worst point differential (and owned possibly the most talent-depleted roster) in the league after Embiid was shut down. With him healthy alongside Simmons, Fultz and veteran sharpshooter J.J. Redick, Holmes should feast on an excess of wide-open looks.
Beefing up his low-block play is another must-do for the young skyscraper. He was not an efficient post-up option in his sophomore season, scoring 0.75 PPP (21st percentile), but the physical tools are there for him to develop into an interior threat. Draft Express’ Derek Bodner had this to say about his back-to-the-basket chops:
Holmes has also continued to develop his post game, which currently makes up nearly a third of his offensive possessions. He’s improved his effectiveness in the MAC, with a good touch on a jump hook over his left shoulder which is tough to guard as a result of how much elevation he gets, and an ability to face-up and take his man off the dribble if the opportunity presents itself. His footwork, counter moves, and post repertoire is still not overly advanced, but what he does, he does fairly well.
Holmes made use of that jump hook several times last season. If you watch closely below, the Sixers screen for him to get switched onto the smaller Jabari Parker; once he’s fed the ball down low, Parker stands no chance of defending this shot:
Since he played 98 percent of his minutes at center, the Sixers may rely on Holmes to occasionally back down smaller opponents. They might even make this look a staple of their offense, particularly when Embiid isn’t on the floor. Holmes notched a 65.0 eFG% on contested looks (defender two to four feet away)—the second-best mark among those who finished the season in Philly—so he has no problem hitting shots with defenders in his face. Even if he’s getting a lion’s share of his looks on dives and lobs, his efficiency when under any kind of duress suggests he has the touch and savvy to add more layers to his offensive game.
Pivoting to the other end of the floor, Holmes was fairly competent on defense.
Individual metrics contain a strong amount of statistical noise, but defensive field-goal percentage around the rim is one exception to the rule. Holmes excelled in this department for a second-year player, limiting opponents to a 49.1 percent clip on their field-goal attempts around the basket—interior stinginess that ranked 21st among 92 bigs to clear 30 appearances while averaging at least 12 minutes per game, placing him in the company of reputable towers Robin Lopez and Dwight Howard. Granted, he did not have quite the same defensive impact as fellow Sixers center Embiid. Philadelphia played like a top-three defense with Embiid on the floor, surrendering 102.2 points per 100 possessions; that number jumped to 112.9 with Holmes as the lead defensive anchor, and his 3.7 block percentage was the 30th-best rate among all players with the same qualifications. He will likely never be a stifling rim-protector along the lines of Rudy Gobert, but he has the tools to be competent when called upon.
Holmes, in all likelihood, will never be a star, but Philadelphia has another gem on its hands, adding to a roster already littered with young talent. He may have to fight for playing time with Amir Johnson and Jahlil Okafor, but burying him in the depth chart would be a mistake by the coaching staff. As long as Embiid is healthy, Holmes should be the go-to big man off the bench. The Sixers won’t be losing much, if any, production on both ends of the floor by vacillating between the two, and he’s insurance in the event the would-have-been Rookie of the Year gets hurt again. Plus, both players can share the floor together. Couple Embiid’s handles with Holmes’ outside shooting, and Philadelphia has a formidable big-man duo that will leave opponents struggling to match its versatility.
Having a backup big man who can contribute in so many areas has become crucial in the current NBA landscape. Just look at Okafor. His low-post performance was supposed to be transcendent enough to offset his other shortcomings, but his defensive play and outside shooting have shown little to no improvement since he entered the league and are just too detrimental to ignore. In just two years, he’s gone from the No. 3 pick to essentially unwanted. The NBA is an adapt or die league, which is why it’s paramount to Philadelphia that Holmes succeed where Okafor has failed.
And so, as the Sixers look to make their first playoff push in more than a half-decade, Holmes will play a pivotal part in their ascension—not just because he’s earned the chance, but because, frankly, they need him to.
Follow Tim on Twitter @StubbHub.