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Richaun Holmes’ infectious energy and nonstop hustle are helping change the longstanding culture of the Suns

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The Suns will likely miss the playoffs for the ninth straight season but Richaun Holmes is helping to change their identity.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past decade, the perception of the Phoenix Suns has changed drastically. Long gone are the days of Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion executing Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less offense to perfection. The Suns are now known as the league’s laughingstock.

Ever since Nash left, Phoenix has been searching for the correct recipe to build a sustainable contender.

When Phoenix began tanking for prospects following the 2015 draft where they lucked into Devin Booker, it didn’t turn out well for them. It’s quite possible, if Josh Jackson isn’t able to turn things around over the next year, they whiffed entirely on the 2016 and 2017 draft classes. Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis, Davon Reed, and Alec Peters are already gone with Dragan Bender soon joining them.

Signing free agents like Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley, and Trevor Ariza to fill the “veteran leadership” role has blown up in the Suns’ face. Especially with the debacle surrounding Ariza, whose effort wanes depending on how far Phoenix is trailing in games, it should signal the end of this pointless strategy.

Both of these avenues chosen by Phoenix were easy ways to stagnate a rebuild, but one way to try to bounce back out of it is adding in players who exude extreme competitive fire.

If you were to classify one player who oozes this trait 100 percent, it’s easily Richaun Holmes. Ever since Holmes was inserted into the rotation following Chandler’s buyout, he’s averaged 8.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in only 17.6 minutes.

Along the way, Holmes’ high-end motor has helped bring new life to this Suns roster.

Take Holmes’ effort during Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers. His knack for making winning plays and doing whatever it takes to make it happen, is such a breath of fresh air. In the play above, I doubt most on the roster would even attempt this dive for a loose ball. It definitely wouldn’t be Deandre Ayton, because Holmes’ plus effort has actually caused Ayton to be benched once already this season by Kokoskov.

When speaking to Holmes’ teammates about him this week, the buzzword many have brought up is contagious. Whether it’s blocking shots or rim-running like his life depends on it, the effort this fourth-year big has played with on a nightly basis is starting to spread around Phoenix’s locker room.

Kokoskov took it a step further when I asked him about Holmes and his unwavering attitude on the court. What Holmes has is an absolute talent, you can’t just walk out and do it.

“Talent, energy is a talent,” Kokoskov said Tuesday after Holmes tallied 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocks in 25 minutes. “Playing hard is a talent and he has to be also just a little more cautious and smart when it comes to the staying down in the pump fakes. But you know, it’s hard when you play so hard to control your emotions and your energy but that’s a talent. He was huge tonight.”

Holmes not only was huge on Tuesday, but he has continued to be a valuable cog in the Suns’ rotation since the beginning of November.

The former Bowling Green Falcon tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve, case in point with his fun primal screams when flushing home alley-oop opportunities, and Ayton noticed Tuesday that Holmes was beating up on himself after their overtime loss. Ayton tried his best to cheer him up, but his comments show someone who is noticing why Holmes is producing at the level he is.

“He had his head down at the end of the game,” Ayton said after Homes fouled out. “I had to scream his name and say, ‘Yo, you brought us here, bro.’ His energy and him being consistent every game is insane. And it’s contagious.”

Consistency with effort can definitely be as contagious as the flu. If you place enough of those player archetypes on your roster (see De’Anthony Melton and Mikal Bridges as well), it will eventually start to flip.

Jackson, who himself loves to bring an aggressive mindset, had interesting comments about Holmes. We have seen it countless times already this season when it comes to lack of effort, and the No. 4 overall pick in 2017 made sure to single out why having a player like Holmes on the court is so valuable.

“Oh, it’s really contagious. All you need is one. It just starts with one guy,” Jackson said Tuesday. “It’s kinda hard to just watch somebody work so hard and, you know, try every possession and you know you’re not giving your all and you continue not to. So, we just need one guy. He brings it every game, and that’s his role for us.”

There again is that buzzword of contagious.

Holmes, who just turned 25 in October, has transformed into an energetic big man cut from a similar cloth as Montrezl Harrell. He flashed this potential in Philadelphia in short spurts, but with Joel Embiid and Jonah Bolden around, he didn’t have an opportunity there long-term.

Circling back on the McDonough tenure, I think it’s fair to argue that his trade for Holmes was his best. Phoenix ended up only giving cash considerations to Philadelphia following a trade hours earlier that sent Jared Dudley and a 2021 second-round pick (protected 31-35) to Brooklyn for Darrell Arthur’s smaller expiring salary. Even if you include Dudley and the 2021 second in there, that’s still a bargain for a big who is earning himself a major pay raise come July.

Jamal Crawford, who has seen his fair share of players enter and exit the league throughout his 19 years as a pro, believes having a player like Holmes is a huge luxury to have. Not only will he not ever give up, but he’s already showing how dependable he is on both ends of the floor.

“It’s huge every night, which is unbelievable. It is (contagious), he plays so hard,” Crawford said after Thursday’s 99-89 win over Dallas. “Everything he does full boar, ready to go. You can depend on that every night. I think that’s a luxury. I said it before, it’s the fact that you can get guys like that. I think with the Clippers, Montrezl Harrell provides that for them. So, different guys bring it.”

This season, Holmes will only make $1.6 million, but if he keeps this play up for the next few months, which I have no doubt he will, he’s probably going to fetch anywhere from $5-7 million per year as an unrestricted free agent. Last summer, Harrell ended up re-signing in LA as a restricted free agent for $6 million annually through 2019-2020.

And if we wanted to zoom in with the microscope even further comparing Holmes and Harrell, their per-36 numbers (Harrell’s breakout in 2017-18, Holmes in 2018-19) show how similar they truly are.

T.J. Warren, who helped lead the Suns in snapping their 10-game losing streak this week with a 30-point outing against Dallas, knows how big a role Holmes plays for them. He’s doing all the dirty work and he’s being rewarded for it.

“It’s big for us,” Warren said Thursday. “He’s active. Keeping balls alive. Blocking shots. Catching lobs. It’s just his defensive presence, it means a lot for us. He’s playing really well and I’m happy for him.”

The Suns’ front office should be happy as well, because they have discovered a key rotation piece who can be secured for multiple years under team control.

It’s fair to say that Holmes’ impact on the culture in Phoenix since his arrival in July has been more apparent than any other “veteran leader” free agent signings of years past.

Now, let’s see over the second half of the season if Holmes’ infectious energy spreads even further once Booker returns to the starting lineup later this month.