Jonathan Holton didn't have the atypical collegiate career path. Graduating from Coral Gables High School (Coral Gables, FL.) in 2011, a hotbed for professional baseball talent that includes Mike Lowell and Yonder Alonso, the incoming freshman opted to head north to play basketball at University of Rhode Island. URI's 46-24 record in the two seasons prior to his arrival on campus was the primary factor in Holton choosing the A-10 school, along with the athletic scholarship that he received.
Holton entered the college landscape as a three-star recruit poised to make an immediate impact in arguably the top Mid-Major conference in the nation. Not only did the Miami, FL. native thrive for the Rams as a freshman (10.1 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 1.1 BPG in 31 games), it appeared that Holton's impact as a forward for URI would occur over a four-year span.
"When I went to URI, I thought I would finish my college career there," Holton said.
Having an imprint on a university's success in any sport comes with expectations attached. A college experience is volatile for many students, especially student athletes asked to handle an egregious workload of education, sports and handling business during free time. Holton withdrew from URI and opted to enroll at Palm Beach State Community College. The 2012-13 season served as a detour beneficial in his efforts to play D-1 basketball again.
Able to transfer again after averaging a robust 17.5 PPG and 14.1 RPG, Holton scoured his possibilities, bypassing schools that offered him in high school. Attracted to the hilly, almost secluded city of Morgantown, WV., Holton's affinity to play for West Virginia University centered around his desire to suit up for coach Bob Huggins. It was a decision predicated on preference and system, but the laid-back, rural environment also proved to benefit the incoming redshirt sophomore.
He had to sit out the 2013-14 season due to transfer rules and utilized that year to learn the complex defensive game plan Huggins notoriously runs and become a successful student athlete. Holton wasn't just an asset on the court as a junior, he hit the books and displayed a strong work ethic away from the WVU Coliseum.
Majoring in sociology, he made the Garrett Ford Academic and Big 12 Commissioner's Honor Roll. Holton believes his intellect also translates on the court and is something that could be useful to him in the future.
"Basketball IQ is definitely something that's important at the NBA level," Holton said. "With so many sets and rotations, sometimes within one possession, you have to study and you have to be able to adjust quickly."
Focusing on his studies wasn't a requisite to garner playing time; Holton showed a commitment to wanting to thrive in multiple areas. That desire translated on the court as well.
At URI, Holton played a hybrid role of forward, using his 6-7, 220-pound frame to overpower players and convert shots fueled by athleticism. However, he also shot 86 threes, despite only making 18.6 percent of them. At West Virginia, Holton sought out the two-point look at a higher rate and attempted fewer three-point attempts per season, which catapulted his offensive efficiency. There was a correlation to the rise in field goal percentage from Holton's junior (45.2 percent) to his senior campaign (53.3 percent) with attempting a decreasing amount of triples.
More than half (55.3 percent) of Holton's shots on offense in the 2014-15 came in the jump shot variety, but Holton's efficiency spiked, refraining from taking shots that didn't feature his physical gifts. Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles Jr. and Jaysean Paige assumed the role of the team's primary shooters while Holton camped around the rim for put-backs and easy looks.
Able to compensate for his lack of size down low, Holton attempted 69.0 percent of his shots near or at the rim last season to convert a team-high 63.2 percent of his attempts. Almost miraculously matching his offensive rebounding total to his numbers of his board cleaning on the other end of the floor (113, 122), his shooting proficiency was slightly predicated on engulfing his teammate's misses and following them up. He averaged 8.9 PPG and 7.6 RPG as a senior, as his PER shot up to 23.2 with less volume and added effectiveness.
Huggins also utilized Holton as an athletic asset loaded with two-way potential able to seamlessly be plugged into the rotation. Entering his 10th season at the helm for the Mountaineers, Huggins has had an abundance of talented power forwards that include Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones and Aaric Murray, but Holton is a rare breed in terms of his role in the system.
Holton's burst and lane filling on the break allowed the West Virginia guards to locate him when defenders trailed the play. An adept finisher evident by his shooting percentage near the rim, Holton's exceptional body control, paired with innate athleticism, gave Huggins a legitimate frontcourt weapon in transition.
What's unique about these sequences is Holton subsequently turning to face the inbound passer and attempting to disrupt the opposition's offense. That what separates Holton from the bevy of other big men Huggins has featured in his frontcourt over his tenure as head coach.
Holton is long, handsy and an aggressive defender, which makes ball handlers uncomfortable dealing with the full court trap etched into West Virginia's defensive game plan. It also helps that his athleticism is unparalleled on the team. Holton contributes his defense ( being a part of steals) to generating a portion of his scoring. It's definitely evident when you watch film on his work on defense.
He also feels that playing in an athletic league like the Big 12 will make his professional transition simpler. It doesn't stand out in his stats (1.0 SPG, 0.3 BPG), but Holton's physical gifts allowed him to evolve into a stellar defender, able to handle a complex defensive scheme like Bob Huggins'. Now, he's focusing on areas that have hindered his progression in the past.
Holton believes that the main aspect of his game that improved the most from his junior to senior season was his perimeter shooting. Upping his efficiency from 20.3 percent in the 2014-15 season to 24.4 percent in his penultimate campaign, Holton's ascension as a marksman continued in the offseason, with the Worldwide Invitational serving as a showcase for his improvement. The assessment on his shot proved to be promising.
"I got good feedback on my shot mechanics from a number of high level European coaches in Vegas," Holton said, adding. "I think I have the length and versatility to be successful on the perimeter."
The Worldwide Invitational is a showcase tournament for free agents not invited to Summer League to play against other professionals in front of coaches, media and scouts. Holton relished and embraced the week, trying to stand out among other talented players seeking a contract.
"The tournament was really intense and the level of competition was great," Holton said. "It was also packed with high-level coaches from top markets and leagues like Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and others. I was prepared and I think I made a good impression on teams."
In addition to elevating his jump shooting prowess, Holton has trained on improving "everything" in his game during the offseason. BJ Bass, his agent, felt that Holton's progression shined in the important tournament, with his energy and multifaceted ability noticeable.
"Jonathan showed his versatility to play and guard multiple positions," Bass said. "He also showed he has more skill, particularly in transition, than I think most people realize. Perhaps most important, he is always active, getting deflections and steals, both in half-court and in full court press defense."
Coveting a chance to play professionally, Holton attributes his growth as a player and daily preparation to playing high level college basketball at West Virginia and is salivating at a chance to play in the NBA, with making pit stops essentially in the D-League or overseas. Holton believes that teams could feature his talents and athleticism, but shooting and competency at both forward positions will only further his development.
Holton is blessed with a rare combination of athleticism and mental prowess. Now, it's grinding in the gym to mesh his talents with his gifts that will be fortuitous in his career.