THE FIRST TIME eyes were set on Richaun Holmes as part of the 76ers organization, he was jumping in a gym in Salt Lake City as if there were a spring beneath him.
"Raw" and "wow" were the two words that usually followed when someone was asked about the 6-10, 245-pounder out of Bowling Green. The 37th overall pick in the 2015 draft, Holmes immediately showed a hunger for the ball, particularly on the offensive boards, and a bullish drive to get to the basket. His shot blocking was both impressive off the ball and on the man he was covering, and he showed a limited ability to shoot the ball from the outside.
"Intriguing" was probably the best way to describe what Holmes was that July at the Utah Jazz Summer League, before he shattered his right elbow when he ran down a attempted layup and skied high to block it, only to have his legs taken out and the force of his whole body land on the elbow. It was such a typical play from Holmes - sacrificing body and limbs to make a play.
Really, it's the same way he plays now.
Holmes was like the fifth Beatle entering this season. The focus was on how the Sixers were going to handle having three centers: Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. Those three figured to be eventual starters in the NBA who had been forced together on the same roster because of high draft picks accumulated through the years. While Noel complained at the beginning of the season about the logjam and Embiid proved himself a force before his season-ending knee injury, and Okafor has had the ups and downs of an elevator, Holmes has done what he does: show up at the gym with a smile that turns to a scowl on the court, play as hard as he can, and keep his mouth shut.
Now it appears he is the best fit to be Embiid's backup moving forward.
Noel has been traded. Okafor continues to battle knee and conditioning problems and most likely will be moved in the offseason. Meantime, all Holmes has done is play - play without injuries, play with unmatched energy, play big minutes - and flourish.
In a month's time this season, surrounding December and January, Holmes either sat idly or ventured down to the Development League with the Delaware 87ers while the Sixers - with a healthy Embiid and Noel capably backing him - played their best ball of The Process. But with injuries and trades again rattling the roster, Holmes has found his place over the past 14 games.
With four starts sprinkled in during major backup minutes in that time, Holmes has averaged 13.4 points and 6.7 rebounds while shooting a torrid 62.5 percent. He has racked up 21 blocks, protected the basketball and provided an energy that coach Brett Brown so desperately wants out of his second-unit center.
It is an energy level that has been borne out of much hard work, Holmes transforming his body from relatively doughy to ripped.
"My confidence has always been there," said the 23-year-old. "I'm always confident, no matter how much time I get. The more time on the floor, the more I get to showcase and help the team win. My confidence has never been a problem.
"For me, it's not so much weight loss. I haven't lost weight, it's more about redistribution and how my body is and my body-fat percentage. My body is completely different from when I got here. It's definitely changed. I'm down from, like 12 percent body fat from when I first got here to about 5 percent right now. It's been a big difference. It's helped me tremendously. I don't get tired. I'm able to move, run, get better position for rebounding. It's helped me tremendously. I've been preparing for this moment, working hard, so it's never a surprise to me what I'm able to do on the court."
Somehow, of the three-headed monster that dominated talk of the center position to begin the season, it is the least talked about and most forgotten fourth member who has emerged as the most solid piece.
"Because his game is almost derived exclusively out of energy, you can count on that," Brown said. "The variables that become uncertain are, is he going to hit a three-point shot tonight? Is he going to hit an 18-footer when somebody backs off him?
"Is he going to run the floor? You can count on him. Is he going to run both ways, offensively and defensively? You can count on him. Is he going to be tough to box out? You can count on him. Is he going to screen and roll way more than he pops? You can count on him. Those effort- and energy-type things are the reliable parts of his game. The other things, at times, are outliers and really put him over the top when he starts doing those other things."
Holmes has started to do them regularly enough that seeing him as Embiid's backup or as the emergency starter has resulted in quite a settling feeling for a position that was so unsettling at the beginning of the season.