Teammates noticed it during the summer. In his first open-gym session on campus, Aaron Holiday harassed the ballhandler with a one-man full-court press, like a fly on sugar.
It was a lot to handle, especially for a pickup game.
Later, at UCLA’s first team practice, Holiday swarmed the ball again, starting from the first minute, for the full 94 feet, for the entire session.
“I haven’t said a word to him,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford said. “He does that naturally. And he does that the whole time.”
The freshman from Campbell Hall High began with the reserves. But gradually, Holiday’s energy — especially on defense — made the coaches reconsider. Before too long, he was practicing with the starters, where he’ll probably remain for UCLA’s opener Friday against Monmouth.
Holiday may already be one of UCLA’s most important pieces. After a scrimmage, San Diego State Coach Steve Fisher called him the best player on the floor, and Alford did not disagree.
Holiday’s ability to change a game defensively gave UCLA something it hadn’t had in his three years leading the Bruins, Alford said.
It is just like a Holiday to operate frenetically. Holiday’s older brothers, Justin and Jrue, both play in the NBA. Jrue and Holiday’s older sister, Lauren, also played at UCLA.
From birth, it seemed to their mother, Toya, each of her four children had a restlessness she couldn’t calm.
She’d wrestle them at nap time, lest they bolt from the blankets. When they’d escape, they’d stomp through the house, throwing balls and breaking things, until she corralled them into the yard.
“You’re not coming in the house,” Toya would say. “You come in the house then you have to sit down and read.”
When the fighting between them got out of hand, she had her children write verses of scripture, over and over, until they settled. But the quiet never stuck.
Exhausted, Toya asked a doctor whether anything unusual was causing the agitation.
Your children are healthy, she was told, just rambunctious.
Aaron is the youngest, so his siblings made concessions. They’d lower the rim outside or fasten plastic hoops low on the walls of the den using white duct tape.
“Bless their little hearts, but our den is white, and I guess they thought I wouldn’t notice,” Toya said.
Soon, the games graduated to regulation size, and Aaron had to adjust. He compensated with energy and athleticism. To work on his leaping, Aaron would try to touch the ceilings while bounding around the house, Jrue said.
Aaron’s much taller and stronger brothers were not the ones who gave him the most trouble. It was Lauren who dominated him in the paint, their father, Shawn, recalled.
“She was the one who used to get him,” he said. “They would go at it.”
One summer, Shawn put Aaron and Lauren through a basic training for defenders.
“We spent the whole summer trying to play defense,” Aaron said.
They practiced closeouts, stopping a dribble drive and slides in the paint.
“And it was tough at first,” Aaron said. “I used to get frustrated. But I became a better defender. And now I pick up full court, and I’m able to keep a guy in front of me.”
Holiday fit well at Campbell Hall, which pressed on defense. He never averaged less than 20 points per game, but during his senior season he began drawing two or three defenders and he learned to distribute more.
At UCLA, Alford considers the other starting guards, Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford, to be point guards. In Holiday, he said, “You’re basically almost three point guards.”
Bryce Alford primarily handled the ball last season. If Holiday can share that role, he would free the other guards for more catch-and-shoot opportunities, where they can be lethal.
Holiday has matured into his role rapidly. After UCLA’s closed-door scrimmage against San Diego State on Saturday, during which Bryce Alford was out for much of the game because of a minor injury, both coaches indicated Holiday shredded a typically stout Aztec defense.
“Holiday was sensational,” Fisher told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “He was by far the best player on the floor.”
A week earlier, in UCLA’s first exhibition game, Holiday made five steals in 27 minutes. In several ways, Holiday is an ideal ball thief. He has a wide wingspan, his big hands function almost as baseball mitts, and he is constantly active.
Holiday is 6 feet 1, but his hands are so big that his high school coach, Thomas Blunt, himself 6-6, shook Holiday’s hand once and refused to again.
“I’m going to give you dap from now on,” Blunt told him.
Blunt thinks Holiday will continue to grow in college. Jrue is 6-4; Justin 6-6.
During the summer, when Justin and Jrue return home, all work out together. They mostly run ordinary drills but on occasion they indulge in some one-on-one. Aaron even wins once in a while.
“Aaron’s motor has always been go, not just in sports,” Jrue said, adding, “I think he learned that from the best.”
Teammates at UCLA are trying to keep up. Shortly after Holiday moved to the starting rotation, the new second-team point guard, walk-on Jerrold Smith, began icing both knees after each practice.
Last season, without Holiday defending, Smith didn’t ice his knees once.
Holiday was wearing him out.
T.J. Leaf, a heavily recruited forward from San Diego Foothills Christian High, will sign with UCLA, he announced Thursday. Leaf probably is the last signee in a four-player class that is among the strongest in the nation. Leaf initially committed to Arizona but changed his mind over the summer.
UCLA vs. MONMOUTH
When: 8 p.m., Friday.
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
On the air: TV: Pac-12 Networks; Radio: 570.
Update: The Bruins’ first game should allow them to gauge their big lineup that features 7-footer Thomas Welsh and 6-9 Tony Parker. The Hawks, who finished 18-15 last season, have a small lineup that likes to run.