One of the truths of college basketball is that the biggest leap for a player tends to happen between their freshman & sophomore years. Their conditioning catches up to the length of the NCAA season(~1400 potential minutes played vs. ~1120 in high school, increased travel schedule, etc.), they've mostly adjusted to the increased speed of the game, are adapting to the smaller passing windows & faster defenders, and have a year of work under a higher-level coaching staff. In short, they're in better shape & the game slows down. For a 4-year NCAA starter, the difference between the first & second year on campus is often the most stark. This is particularly relevant to Texas basketball as the roster turnover over the past few seasons has robbed Barnes of this kind of development more than most programs, and is one of the many issues that led to last year's dumpster fire of a season. However, the biggest leap made on this squad isn't by a sophomore, it's by the sole scholarship junior: Jonathan Holmes.
The Jonathan Holmes Explosion* isn't a complete surprise as there were signs last season that Holmes was starting to tap into his potential prior to breaking his hand against Oklahoma. His shot selection was improving, he was getting more aggressive with the ball, and his penchant for picking up silly fouls was starting to ebb. Unfortunately, he broke his hand & after missing a handful(/rimshot) of games he never quite found that form again. Popular opinion on Holmes entering this season was generally positive & nearly always carried the caveat of '..if Jonathan can avoid early foul trouble..' because few players of his caliber in recent memory had a habit of picking up 2 cheap fouls in the first 4 minutes of a game quite like Holmes. In other words, if Jon Holmes* could stay on the floor, he could be an asset for the team. Little did we know...
There are a variety of ways to measure player progression, and I want to give a hat-tip to Jeff Haley's PAM method and Ken Pomeroy's advanced stats($) as great resources for this sort of thing if you want to do your own research. For the purposes of this piece I'm going to stick to year-over-year changes in shooting, rebounding, passing, and turnovers to show the difference a year of off-season work can make(note: I'm using cumulative totals for last season compared to the first 25 games of this season).
So what is it that this team has improved upon over last year? Well, basically everything. Scoring is up both in per-game totals & percentages, rebounding is up, assists are up, turnovers are down, blocks are up; the only thing that hasn't really improved is the steals category(6.44 per-game last year vs. 6.38 this year). Almost every measurable category has changed for the better this season, and nowhere is it more obvious than looking at Holmes' stats.
That sound you're hearing in the background is Rick Barnes high-fiving everybody in the office, because this kind of progression is what coaches dream about. Holmes is not only shooting more effectively literally everywhere on the floor, he's shooting more effectively at a higher volume(5.8 FGA last year, 8.3 FGA this year). Just as importantly, his offensive rating according to Pomeroy is 118.9. That rating is good for top-200 in the country and if the season ended today, would be the highest rating Texas has had since A.J. Abrams in 2008(on a Texas team that made the Elite Eight). Need I say more? No, but I will anyway. Holmes has the 3rd-most blocked shots behind Cameron Ridley & Prince Ibeh, has the 4th-highest steal/game rate, and let's talk about the foul situation again. Jonathan Holmes has cut his foul rate by nearly 25% which has allowed him to stay on the floor and continue to contribute. When you're the most productive offensive player on the team, that kind of difference in body control & court anticipation helps in more ways than I can enumerate here. To say the light has come on for Holmes is an understatement, Jonathan has started writing economic theories on windows in Jester West.
With that said, there are a handful of things Holmes still needs to improve, particularly if Myles Turner joins the team. Turner is a natural 4 & would likely mean Holmes moves to the 3. Holmes will have to learn how to defend quicker players than he's used to; he's defended the 3 at times when Barnes has gone with his ultra-big lineup(Cam/Ibeh/Holmes), but he'll be doing it 30 minutes/game instead of 5-6. This is something he'll need to learn anyway if he has NBA aspirations as the 3 is the only place Holmes is likely to crack a lineup. Given Holmes' motivation, I think he's up to the challenge. Regardless of what the future holds for Jonathan, the leap he's made is one of the most impressive Texas has seen in many years.