sports 4 days ago

One giant leap for UCLA's Holiday this season

Los Angeles Times — By Ben Bolch Los Angeles Times

Jan. 12-- LOS ANGELES_Aaron Holiday saw the Chevy Suburban parked next to the basketball goal in his cul-de-sac and contemplated the possibilities.

Here was his big chance.

The young boy who had been battered in pickup games with brothers six and seven years older could finally be like them. He could dunk for the first time with a little help from the family vehicle.

He clambered onto the roof and stood at the edge, clutching a ball in his hands, before soaring toward the unknown.

Dunk. Dunk. Thwack!

After two successful attempts, Holiday got hung up on the rim and fell on his face. His mom heard the commotion and ran outside. She worried about how her son's injuries might go over in the emergency room.

"You know I'll get in trouble for that one," Toya Holiday said with a chuckle, recalling what she feared telling doctors. " 'It was because he jumped off our Suburban.'"

Getting to where he wants to go is no longer much of a leap for Aaron. The junior point guard is starring for UCLA thanks in part to a not-so-gentle nudge from Justin and Jrue, the brothers who have gone on to the NBA after years of slaughtering the little sibling who didn't seem to mind.

"It's obviously fun playing against NBA players," Aaron said. "It's helped me out a lot."

A lifetime of facing older, bigger and stronger counterparts has helped make Aaron one of the nation's top college players, going from sixth man last season to leading man for the Bruins (13-4 overall, 4-1 in Pac-12 Conference play) as they prepare to play Colorado (10-7, 2-3) on Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion.

Holiday leads the Pac-12 in scoring (23.8 points per game), three-point accuracy (64 percent) and minutes played (38.6 per game) in conference games while ranking sixth in assists (4.6 per game). His strong play across the board helped land him on the midseason list for the John R. Wooden Award, given each year to the nation's best player.

Holiday's brothers track his every move, calling or texting after games to offer encouragement and feedback.

"They tell me what I've done wrong and obviously when I've had a good game," Aaron said of Jrue, a point guard for the New Orleans Pelicans and Justin, a shooting guard for the Chicago Bulls, "so that's cool."

Jrue, the middle brother who spent one season at UCLA before becoming an NBA All-Star in 2013 with the Philadelphia 76ers, celebrated Aaron's reaching 1,000 career points last month by posting a picture of him dunking on Instagram.

"So crazy," Jrue wrote. "1000 career points as a junior. So proud of you Young 4th. Keep going!! Truly blessed to be your big brother."

Aaron considered joining his brothers in the NBA last summer after declaring for the draft and working out for a handful of teams to assess whether he should spend another season in college. Aaron said he was told that he was good enough to play in the NBA but was encouraged to keep improving.

He announced he was returning to UCLA and later headed to New Orleans for a month of workouts with Justin and Jrue. They lifted weights, battled one another on the court and got up scads of shots. Sometimes, they just talked.

"Aaron was able to be transparent and ask those hard questions where he didn't have to ask anyone else," Toya Holiday said. " 'If my ballhandling is awesome or it's bad, they'll tell me.'"

So might anyone else in the family. Toya, a high school administrator and athletic director, and her husband, Shawn, both played for Arizona State. Aaron also has a sister, Lauren, who played at UCLA.

After getting physically tested by his older siblings from the time he was 2, Aaron used the experience to dominate players his own age.

"They would beat him down," Toya said of her three older children. "I used to feel so bad for (Aaron), you know what I mean? They just didn't give up on him. They were relentless. And so he always had that confidence when he was out on his own."

Aaron believed he could jump from the top of the stairs inside the family's two-story home without getting hurt, but his mom still has the five casts from when he broke and re-broke his finger to prove otherwise.

He has stuck most of his landings for the Bruins this season, including a driving layup for the winning points against Wisconsin and a three-pointer to force a second overtime against Stanford.

Along the way, he has done more than finish. Holiday's teammates say he's more talkative and thoughtful in his leadership approach. UCLA coach Steve Alford said Holiday is processing in-game adjustments at a higher level, among the many reasons it has been hard for Alford to find him breathers during close games.

"I've just missed two shots, now what?" Alford said, referring to Holiday's mind-set. "Our team just had three empty possessions, now what? Or we've been scored on three straight times, now what? These are the things that Aaron didn't pay a whole lot of attention to as a freshman that now as a leader and somebody that's got so much responsibility, those are the things he's learned to do."

Alford noted that UCLA players often improve over the summers because of their exposure to NBA stars who train at Pauley Pavilion and in the men's gym on campus. Holiday has even better access.

"Aaron doesn't have to go out of his own family," Alford said, laughing. "Aaron can stay right within his own family and get better."

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