When the 2019 NBA draft lottery was over and the Pelicans had somehow won the rights to draft Zion Williamson, Jrue Holiday began dreaming of the future. The past six years had brought mostly frustration. There were injuries, short trips to the playoffs (or none at all) and most recently a trade request from the franchise player, Anthony Davis. With Williamson aboard, everything could be different.
Ecstatic, Holiday reached for his phone and cut through the stream of incoming messages to hit up his oldest teammate. "The first person I texted was Anthony," he says now. "Because at the time we still had Anthony. You're thinking Zion and Anthony together is like—but..." his sentence fizzles. "Um, but yeah."
The notion fell away a month after the lottery triumph when the Pelicans acquiesced to Davis' trade demand. On June 15, they agreed to send Davis to the Lakers for three young players—Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart—and a gift basket of draft picks.
After the trade, Holiday met with the Pelicans' new executive vice president of basketball operations, David Griffin, to discuss the team's path and his own. The Davis deal signaled a youth movement in New Orleans. It would have been fair for Holiday to demand a trade, especially in this hothouse league, and doubly so in the West, where nearly every team could feasibly host a playoff series in April.
But Holiday, not one for melodrama throughout his 10-year career, told Griffin he preferred to stay, to build something solid and sustainable. "I've never wanted to move around a lot to try to win," Holiday says. "There's comfort in staying in one place and a challenge in finding the right pieces."
The Pelicans were thrilled to move forward with Holiday as a keystone.
"We want to build the team in Jrue's image," Griffin says. "There could have been a lot of guys who were the best player here who we would have felt more comfortable or compelled to move away from, but Jrue is sort of a cultural phenomenon in the way he carries himself. He's not an overly vocal guy, but he has incredible gravity among players."
At 29, Holiday is primed to lead a tantalizing Pelicans era, flanked by Williamson and the Lakers trio. His work ethic is renowned among management, coaches and players. "He's about the grind," Griffin says. It's a trait that should rub off on the team's newcomers.
Meanwhile, Holiday is at the top of his game; last year, he averaged a career-high 21.2 points and 7.7 assists per game. In a league that emphasizes adaptability, he is an ideal modern player, moving seamlessly from point guard to shooting guard while defending opponents large and small. Head coach Alvin Gentry calls Holiday a chameleon.
"We have him guard Kevin Durant and then Damian Lillard and then, oh, by the way, can you get 20 points and 10 assists for us?" Gentry says with a laugh. "I think from the standpoint of what is asked of him to do, and him accomplishing that, I don't think there's very many people that are better than Jrue."
For years, he's done all this while maintaining a low profile, an amazing feat in an age when seemingly every player is picked apart on TV and in comment threads. Holiday has for so long been among the league's most overlooked players that it's cliche to even mention it. (Sorry.)
"There's so many talented guys in the league, once you're kind of forgotten about, you kind of have to wait your turn to do something that brings you back to their attention," he says. This season presents a chance to redirect his career just as it peaks, to reach a new kind of stardom.
"I think he really embraces the idea of becoming more, becoming bigger," Griffin says. "We talked about the fact he was the most underrated guard in the league and he could stay that way as long as he wanted to, or he could launch himself into the MVP conversation. He almost jumped out of his skin he was so excited."
In August, a surprising video surfaced online.
It had the look of a typical summertime scrimmage tape, the kind that clogs your offseason Instagram feed, only there was one very curious detail on screen: Davis and Holiday were playing together, scrimmaging at the Mamba Academy outside Los Angeles. It seemed odd the two would be willing to team up just a month after Davis exited New Orleans. One might assume Holiday would want some time apart, and maybe even harbor bitterness. Not so.
"He did what he thought was best for him to further his career and win, which is the ultimate goal," Holiday says of Davis. "Do I wish he was with me? Yeah. But I can't be mad."
Still, during pickup games, "I do give him a hard time, like, 'Oh, you left us,'" he says with a smile. Recently, when his trainer assigned Holiday and Davis to the same scrimmage team, Holiday teased Davis: "Well, naw, he left me, we're not on the same team anymore!"
Holiday lives just up the road from the gym in Thousand Oaks, California, where he's lounging by the pool on this summer day. He spent the morning doing preventative rehab, a routine he has adopted in hopes of avoiding another in a line of injuries that have plagued his time in New Orleans. Over Holiday's first two seasons with the Pelicans, he missed more than half the team's games while nursing a right shin injury. Last March, he underwent abdominal surgery and missed the final 15 games.
He feels fully healthy now, and he's fully relaxed, too; he's barefoot, wearing a Simpsons T-shirt, bouncing a toy baseball bat on his shoulder. The entire pool area is littered with similar toys, plus slip n' slides and plastic cars, all courtesy of Holiday's daughter, Jrue Tyler.
It was three years ago that J.T. was born amid frightening conditions—Holiday's wife, Lauren Cheney, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2016 while pregnant. Holiday stepped away from the Pelicans to tend to her that fall. In September of that year, Cheney delivered a healthy baby (and underwent successful surgery that October).
Today, Holiday's nails are coated in pink polish, his daughter's doing.
"She always wants to do my nails and my makeup," he says. "When I hang out with her, I just do what she wants to do. That's how a dad works, right?" On Holiday's Instagram, you can sometimes catch him in dad mode, asleep on the couch, flashing powder blue across his nails. Indeed, he is far removed from a most stressful season.
Last year's Pelicans were stuck in an odd limbo. Davis went public with his trade request in late January, but the team's front office—then led by Dell Demps—declined to deal him mid-season. After the Feb. 7 trade deadline, he was only permitted to play about 20 minutes per night to lower his injury risk (and maybe boost New Orleans' lottery odds). It was an awkward solution at best. "That was new," Holiday says coyly.
Many expected New Orleans to tank, to shut down Davis altogether and maybe even shut down Holiday, too. He wasn't interested in that. Gentry recalls Holiday saying, "'The one thing I won't ever be involved in is tanking.' I said, 'That's good, 'cause I'll never be involved in tanking, either.'"
The Pelicans marched on as best they could late in the year, even snapping off a three-game win streak not long after the deadline.
Through it all, Holiday was peppered with questions about trade rumors and the direction of the club. He found it ironic that people wanted to know whether Davis' request was a distraction. In his mind, the only distraction was constantly being asked about it.
"To us, it was still Anthony, our brother, our teammate. To us, he still went out and played every game," Holiday says. "I think it was a bit annoying because of how big a deal people made it."
Holiday chose the high road, even calling Davis "an ultimate professional" as his trade request hovered. His poise amid such chaos impressed Gentry.
"Through the AD situation, I think he became a much better leader," Gentry says. "He's still not one of the rah-rah, in-your-face verbal type guys, but I think he saw an opportunity and really felt like he needed to step up as a leader for the young guys on the team, and he did a great job with that."
With Davis gone, Holiday is now the team's longest-tenured player, and he will carry a significant leadership load. It's a role for which he feels well-suited. "I've always been pretty vocal to my teammates. I'm really positive and optimistic. Positive enforcement—I feel like throwing that energy into the air is big," he says. "But I've been quiet to everything outside, to the public."
Indeed, Holiday has never been an outspoken player. He rarely stirs the pot with controversial comments or engages much on social media. Even meeting for this interview is beyond the scope of what he might have agreed to in the past.
As he relaxes in his backyard, he stares at the tape recorder resting a few feet away, its red light blinking. "This whole thing here, that's not me," he says. "This is fairly new. Just being able to, I guess, speak on the behalf of everybody, you know, is a bit different."
Meanwhile, Holiday has received a different sort of treatment from the team.
This summer, as Griffin overhauled the roster, he made sure to keep in touch with his franchise player. "Having your voice heard makes you feel more involved and somewhat important," Holiday says. He weighed in not just on personnel but also on the little things in an organization: the quality of the team's weight room, the availability of a team masseuse.
"He gets a chance to establish the identity of this franchise, and he's excited about it," Griffin says. "To some degree, Jrue needed a team of his own to see what he's capable of, and I think he didn't feel comfortable trying to be the man here because he was trying to facilitate and make things easier for AD. With AD asking to be traded and being traded, this sets up for Jrue to sort of test his limits and see how far he can go."
All of this looks familiar to Griffin.
More than a decade ago, he was working in the Phoenix Suns front office when the team signed Steve Nash away from the Mavericks. Nash had been a respected point guard in Dallas, but he was Dirk Nowitzki's sidekick. It was a team designed for somebody else. The Suns provided Nash his own team, and a dynamo was born.
"Nobody expected Steve Nash to be MVP, and he was a two-time MVP because he was in exactly the right place at the right time," Griffin says now. Nash was 30 when he signed with the Suns; Holiday recently turned 29. "The fit around him was perfect to take advantage of everything he does."
In New Orleans, the team around Holiday looks just right. Ball brings a certain zippiness to a backcourt that leaned on the likes of Rajon Rondo, Elfrid Payton and Jameer Nelson in recent years. His kick-ahead style should jolt the Pelicans offense, and particularly Holiday, who's looking forward to playing off the ball. ("Who doesn't like scoring?" he says.)
The frontcourt is even more enticing because that's where Williamson will live, playing some novel, unspecified position. He will handle the rock and sprint and jump and hawk the baseline. On the wing, Ingram can handle it, too, and JJ Redick, signed to a two-year deal, is a spacing wizard. "We've got to be the best-conditioned team because we're going to be the team that leads the league in pace," Gentry says.
There's defensive upside here, too.
Last year, Holiday graded well against the pick-and-roll and in isolation spots, per Synergy Sports. Ball was above-average in both fields and should only get better from here. "You're talking about a pretty doggone good defensive backcourt," Gentry says. In the frontcourt, Griffin has likened Williamson to "Draymond Green with rockets in [his] ass." Sounds promising.
"We've got a lot of guys that fit defensively," Griffin says. That wasn't the case last season when New Orleans allowed the third-most points per game in the league (116.8), wiping away a productive offense (115.4). "We have the ability to defend at the pace we're able to play offensively, and that's unique."
Still, there is a reality check for any team in the West, especially an underdog relying on a rookie for immediate production. "I'm not sure if there's ever been anything like it," Holiday says of the stacked conference. Most compelling, especially to him, are the Lakers, whom he rooted for while growing up.
"One of my good friends is playing for the Lakers," Holiday says, referring to Davis. "I think that's pretty dope." It will be his first time observing The Brow from afar since 2013, when Holiday was with the 76ers. In New Orleans, Holiday will lead his own playoff chase for the first time.
"That'll definitely be weird," he says of going solo. "But it'll be new. New can be good sometimes. How do you grow? How do you see what you're made of? We'll see."