By Steve Habel
MOST PEOPLE earmark two plays — both last second, game-winning shots — as senior Jonathan Holmes’ most important contributions to the Texas Longhorns basketball program.
But his actions in two other games truly illustrate what the senior forward is all about and what he brings to his team day in and day out.
The first was his defense against a Stanford player on Dec. 23. In the final seconds of regulation, Holmes’ defense led to his game-tying shot in an eventual overtime loss to the Cardinal. The second was on Jan. 17 against West Virginia when the Mountaineers’ Devin Williams knocked him to the ground. Holmes got up angry, instilling an attitude of “we’re not gonna take it” for his teammates that carried over to a 77-50 Longhorn win.
You see, Texas basketball is defined by defensive pressure and toughness, and those are aspects that Holmes brings to the court in spades.
Holmes’ work ethic and blue-collar style have been his calling card in his three and a half seasons on the 40 Acres — a style that could translate to success in the NBA.
Head coach Rick Barnes said he enjoyed watching Holmes adapt his game to the needs of the team and develop as a full-court player.
“Jonathan’s the type of player that every coach wants to coach,” Barnes said. “He only knows one speed, and he’s going to go as hard as possible every single time. Jonathan has great passion and is a very unselfish player.”
When Holmes arrived in Austin from a prep career in San Antonio, he was far from the most-ballyhooed player of his signing class. But one by one, the players who entered the program with Holmes in 2011 started to leave. Only one player stayed after the Longhorns’ subpar 2012-13 season, in which the team missed the NCAA tournament for the only time in Barnes’ 17-year tenure with the Longhorns.
That player was Holmes.
Talented point guard Myck Kabongo spent two seasons with Texas — one of which he was suspended for 23 games — before opting for professional basketball. Guard Sheldon McClellan transferred to Miami, where he has become the Hurricanes’ leading scorer. Point guard Sterling Gibbs transferred to Seton Hall, forward Julien Lewis transferred to Fresno State and post player Jaylen Bond opted to go back home to Philadelphia to play for Temple.
Holmes stuck it out in Austin and led the Longhorns to a surprising 2013-14 campaign that ended in the third round of the Big Dance with a loss to hot-shooting Michigan. That season, and the fact that Holmes is the only senior on Texas’ roster, laid the groundwork for high expectations in 2014-15 and a preseason top 10 ranking.
Because Barnes needed to make room for prized freshman 7-footer Myles Turner, Holmes expected to find himself on the wing more often, and that’s happened. To play the position, Holmes went to work on his body, dropping from 254 to 232 pounds, and provided Texas with a small forward with a power forwards’ skill set, doggedness and experience.
“Coach Barnes told me that I needed to lose the weight if I wanted to be serious about [playing more and at the next level], so that’s what I did,” Holmes said. “I’m down to do whatever they want me to do — I just want to win. Just being able to play [small forward] is something that can expand my personal game and help my team out.”
There were times this year that the 6’8” Holmes played like an All-American while there were others — such as the two consecutive losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State when he scored a combined four points — that he seemed to draw back.
“I have always been the dirty work guy — the one that does the extra work,” Holmes said about his performance in those two games. “When I don’t make my shots, I can’t let it affect me. I have to play with more confidence in those situations.”
Holmes has seen considerable growth as a jump shooter over the years. The number of jump shots he takes hasn’t changed much, but his effectiveness has. That improvement is most evident in his 3-pointers.
But don’t dismiss his work in the paint. Holmes has a relatively simple, but effective, back-to-the-basket arsenal. He fights for and establishes position well, presents a good window for the entry pass and has good touch on a hook shot, on which he’s able to shield the ball well and get it off over bigger defenders.
“Jonathan’s the guy you want taking the last shot of the game,” junior forward Connor Lammert said. “On the court, he’s always had a serious side to him which I’ve always respected and looked up to. He’s a do-it-all guy.”
Holmes’ significantly improved effectiveness as a jump shooter, combined with his quickness, creates a fairly effective face-up threat.
“I have a lot more experience than I did when I was a freshman,” Holmes said. “Things have started to slow down for me [on the court] and I’m able to know different assignments. There’s no question I see the game much differently than when I arrived here.”
Holmes’ father, Daryl, played football at Nebraska and his mother, Angela, is a Texas alumna, making for a divided household when the two teams played. Holmes sided with his father most of the time until he was recruited to play for the Longhorns.
He flew under the radar for a while as a high school player but turned plenty of heads when he dominated AAU tournaments in the season before his senior campaign. Holmes reportedly had more than 20 college scholarship offers before signing with Texas.
“The teams I played against in high school were not as good as the ones I faced in AAU,” Holmes said. “I had to learn to raise my level of effort to be consistent every practice and every game.”
Holmes is usually the first person into and the last player out of the gym every day.
“My father told me when I was in middle school that if I wanted to play basketball that I needed to be serious about it or to stop wasting my time and his time,” he said.
“Ever since then, I have taken the game very serious and do what I can to get better each day,” Holmes added. “I’ve always been a guy who likes to compete but to win you need to put the work in before you can start competing.”
During his first two seasons in Austin, he played the role of rebounder and determined grinder. As a freshman, he ranked second on the team in rebounding (4.8 per game) and led the team with 74 offensive boards.
Despite breaking a bone in his hand and missing five games in the middle of his sophomore season, Holmes still paced the squad in rebounding (5.6 per game) in 2012-13.
Last year as the team’s lone scholarship upperclassman, Holmes made the transition into a consistent force on both ends of the court. He led the team in scoring (12.8 points per game) and ranked second in rebounding (7.2) while earning All-Big 12 second team honors. Holmes also claimed both the team’s most valuable player and most improved player accolades at Texas’ postseason awards banquet.
In addition to stepping up his performance on the court, Holmes also stepped into a more vocal role as the team’s leader.
“Jon is a quiet, reserved guy, but he does speak up a little more now,” assistant coach Chris Ogden said. “He’s able to communicate better and what he says carries a lot of meaning. The biggest thing is, physically he has gotten himself in the best shape he’s ever been in, which allows him to be a more versatile player.”
Holmes plans to continue supporting his teams, even if that means he needs to be the do-it-all player. He knows how to win, and also understands what it feels like to lose — a feeling that fuels him.
“I’m blessed to be in this position,” Holmes said, “and I don’t want to look back years from now and regret that I didn’t make the most of my opportunity.”