T O ALL EXCEPT coach Brett Brown, Richaun Holmes was the afterthought of the logjam at the center position that had been plaguing the 76ers since the offseason.
Joel Embiid was the starter, and there was no question about that. Who was going to play next to him or back him up - between Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor - was the biggest experiment that faced Brown heading into the season.
But the questions of Embiid's health, of Okafor's or Noel's ability to be second fiddle behind him, and how a rotation of the three could be solved dominated the conversations. None of those questions ever really got answered, mostly because Noel missed the first 23 games of the season due to minor knee surgery, Okafor battled a sore knee and Embiid was hampered by cautiousness and now an injured knee.
And while Noel has been shipped and Okafor hasn't stepped up the way many envisioned, there was Holmes, sort or just hanging around. When it was announced recently that Embiid would be out for the rest of the season, the focus went to Okafor. But with his spotty play of late and him still battling soreness in his surgically repaired right knee, Holmes is now in the spotlight.
Who would have thought, at the beginning of the season, Holmes might emerge as the biggest story coming out of the center position?
Embiid has proved to be a potential superstar when on the floor. But a huge question mark still surrounds his health. Who knows what is going to happen to Okafor, perhaps now a trade throw-in come draft night in June. Noel is now defending in Dallas.
So all Holmes has done since Noel's departure and the official end of Embiid's season is show why the organization might be comfortable having him back up Embiid next season. If the franchise cornerstone can stay healthy, Brown envisions Embiid playing about 35 minutes a game. That only leaves 13 for his backup.
Holmes seems well on his way to being able to handle that. In the past six games, when he's gotten an average of about 24 minutes of run, Holmes has averaged 12.2 points, just over four rebounds and blocked 12 shots. His activity on both ends of the floor is immeasurable. At just 23, the Bowling Green product is simply scratching the surface of his potential.
"I think it's still blossoming," Brown said of the 6-10, 245-pounder's game. "I wouldn't want to put a ceiling on him, either way. I feel like he's got a bounce, he's got a toughness, he's got a style of game that equals the way this modern-day sport is emerging to. It's one with speed, it's one with tremendous athleticism, it's one to switch out and guard multiple positions. He's got that. I think that we've all seen over our years with Richaun, glimpses where you wonder, 'What if?' If he really had an identifiable clear role, like 14 to 16 minutes as Joel Embiid's backup or behind Jahlil or whatever it is, give him a clear role, could he handle that for 82 games? That's the goal right now for Richaun."
"There are things I've worked on, things I've been preparing for, for an opportunity like this," said Holmes. "For me, it's about going out there and continuing to play my game and doing what I can to help the team win."
Noel might turn into one of the best big-man defenders in the league, but he still is a suspect offensive player and might always be. Okafor can pretty much score at will, but right now is sorely lacking at the other end of the floor. Holmes probably will never match the defensive abilities of Noel or the offensive ones of Okafor, but he can bring a respectable bit of both right now. Whether it's enough to give the organization confidence in him moving forward is yet to be seen.
"The thing that I'm most impressed with Richaun is that he navigated through not playing for a long time," said Brown, "and he went through Nerlens and Jahlil and Joel and there was Richaun. He was always the fourth one. He found that balance of accepting it and being a good teammate and not putting up with it in relation to going backwards in his work. Over time, as this whole thing was shaking out of where does he play, where does he fit in, he went down to the D-League.
"His improvement has been most realized by me mentally. I think he's grown up. He understands how gifted and lucky he is to be here. I think his on-court improvement has come from growing his 18-foot shot, a little bit more comfortable shooting a three. But I think the total growth, really to me, was kick-started with his attitude on handling this situation and still being a part of our team."
That part might become a really big one next season. Few saw that coming.