Fourth of a five-part series
Jrue Holiday can dance - quite well.
Inside road arenas, with the beat thumping during home-team introductions, you can see Holiday near the bench, dancing as if in front of the bedroom mirror.
Sometimes he dances at the end of halftime, and always he dances after the 76ers intros.
He's a kid, a freshly minted 21-year-old. He has rhythm. He's playing in the NBA, and he's excited for the game.
You can't blame him for dancing.
But what if you were to learn - in one very distinct way - that Holiday is this team's catalyst, its trendsetter, its budding leader?
Would you be nervous?
The Sixers have a core of young talent, of guys filled with potential who haven't yet done much. Although finding a scoring guard and solidifying the center position are crucial pieces, so too is this young group's ability to grow together. Not just grow individually but grow in a way complementary to one another.
If guard Jodie Meeks shows up in September having worked only on his one-on-one moves, but not having continued sharpening his outside shot, he'll become just a lesser version of Lou Williams.
The Sixers already have Lou Williams.
And if Meeks doesn't step onto a court with Holiday this summer, there will be no gained advantage of time spent - both on the court and off - that leads to a nod of the head for a backdoor cut, or a quick glance that both players understand means, "We're about to catch 'em sleeping."
But most important, there will be no offseason sweat poured into the bucket that makes accepting losing much more difficult.
How did the Oklahoma City Thunder evolve into the NBA's up-and-coming franchise? In large part because of the unique talent of Kevin Durant, but also because of Durant's approach to basketball: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are just things he does between playing hoops. When young guys join the Thunder, they see that Durant works hard and has fun.
So they do, too.
In past summers, the Sixers scattered to various locales across the country and made no mention of spending time with one another during the NBA's long offseason. On the day after the Sixers' first-round loss to the Miami Heat, Holiday said he would change that pattern this summer.
With Evan Turner and Jodie Meeks taking summer classes at Ohio State and Kentucky, respectively, the onus will be on Holiday to travel from Los Angeles to log some time with his young teammates.
At this moment, this young core includes Holiday (who turns 21 Sunday), Turner (22), forward Thaddeus Young (22), Meeks (23), big man Craig Brackins (23), big man Marreese Speights (23), center Spencer Hawes (23), and Williams (24).
Turner and Brackins, both added to the Sixers roster last summer, are the newest additions to this young nucleus, and each chose to join Holiday and Meeks in the "fun-loving, gym-rat" club.
For this group, basketball is not yet a dreary professional obligation. They are not bound by a contract to slough to the gym and get up at least 500 shots; they seem inspired to improve at the game they still love.
Holiday's summer workouts blend focused work (a track-and-field regimen with sprinter Maurice Greene) with typical gym-rat enthusiasm (hours in the gym late at night).
With the potential lockout looming, the players will likely be cut off from coaches beginning July 1. And there will be no rookie league. That means Turner, Brackins, and the first-round draft pick to be determined during the NBA draft on June 23 won't participate in the typical NBA Summer League. That means the burden of keeping this team together won't fall to its coaching staff, but to its players.
And carrying some of that burden will be Holiday.
He's still a gym rat. He still loves the game.
Although you and I might not dance the C-walk before taking the court, Holiday does. Because Holiday still loves playing, and the longer he keeps that attitude, the better this franchise will become.
The Sixers have eight players under 25, which makes them one of the younger teams in the NBA. The primary comparison is the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have a similar young core, but who possess two superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. What follows is a quick-hit assessment of two NBA franchises whose rosters somewhat mirror what the Sixers are attempting to build.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Youth: Serge Ibaka (21), James Harden (21), Cole Aldrich (22), Kevin Durant (22), Russell Westbrook (22), Byron Mullens (22), Daequan Cook (24), and Eric Maynor (turned 24 on Saturday).
Cohesion: Last summer, when Durant and Westbrook tried out and played for USA Basketball's world championship team, they worked out together before practice, ate meals together, and went back to the gym after practice. The pair of young stars built a culture in Oklahoma City, and each subsequent addition embraced that culture.
Result: Record of 20-62 (.244 winning percentage) in 2007-08, 23-59 (.280) in 2008-09, 50-32 (.610) in 2009-10, and 55-27 (.670) in 2010-11. Lost in this season's Western Conference finals to the Dallas Mavericks.
Youth: Mike Conley (23), O.J. Mayo (23), Darrell Arthur (23), Rudy Gay (24), Greivis Vasquez (24), Marc Gasol (26), and Sam Young (26).
Cohesion: While the Grizzlies' success has been due in large part to the acquisition of scoring center Zach Randolph, Memphis also possesses a core of young talent led by Gay, Conley, and Mayo. Their success is slightly different from the Thunder's as they've added strong veteran pieces to complement their youth. The Thunder have instead allowed their youth to lead the way.
Result: Record of 22-60 (.268) in 2007-08, 24-58 (.293) in 2008-09, 40-42 (.488) in 2009-10, and 46-36 (.561) in 2010-11. Advanced to this season's Western Conference semifinals.
- Kate Fagan