Ever since its inception in 1953, the Portsmouth Invitational has hosted the nation’s premier college basketball seniors each April. Legends like Rick Barry, Earl Monroe and Dave Cowens graced the floor in the 1970s. Later came John Stockton, Dennis Rodman, Tim Hardaway and Scottie Pippen. In 2011, an unheralded Marquette guard named Jimmy Butler used the four-day tournament to jumpstart his NBA career.
Even with the storied history of giving NBA-worthy players the ability to get seen by NBA scouts, when Bowling Green senior Richaun Holmes’ collegiate career ended following a loss in the CIT, he was unaware of the opportunity Portsmouth offered in his pursuit of being selected in the NBA draft.
“I had never heard of the Portsmouth before this year,” Holmes tells SI.com.
After just three years at Bowling Green, Holmes became the only player in Falcons history to record 1,000 points, 600 rebounds and 200 blocks. Yet even with rim protection at a premium in the NBA, the 6'9", 232-pound specimen was unsure if his playing days would continue. “I always felt like there was going to be a chance for me to play professionally somewhere, I just didn’t know where.”
Although unsettling, Holmes found himself in a familiar situation. A late-bloomer in high school, both physically and skill-wise, Holmes played only two seasons of varsity basketball, leaving him without any Division I scholarship offers.
Then came his Portsmouth invitation, and after putting up 22 points, seven rebounds, and six blocks in the opening game, a subsequent invitation came shortly thereafter for the NBA draft combine. In a matter of days, Holmes jumped up mock drafts and draft boards as rapidly as he grew during his late teens.
Holmes entered Lockport High School as a 5'9" guard. He graduated as a 6'6" center, rocking rims and patrolling the paint. Just 35 miles southwest of Chicago, Holmes’s transformation reminded many of a Windy City product one year his senior, Anthony Davis.
“Seeing how hard he worked, with how skilled he was, especially hitting the growth spurt at a similar time, he was something to aspire to and it pushed me,” Holmes says.
Holmes played just one year of junior college ball, earning Division II All-American honors at nearby Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois. He averaging 19.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 5.2 blocks per game while growing two more inches to 6'8" before committing to Bowling Green.
Moraine Valley head coach Dedrick Shannon had a history of helping players like Holmes, having previously assisted big men Dwight McCombs in transferring to Central Florida and getting Louis Green to catch on at Seattle University. Even still, Holmes made plays that left the coach simply shaking his head.
In Moraine Valley’s 81–61 first round win over Oakton in the 2012 NJCAA Region IV first round, Holmes jumped a passing lane at the top of the key and raced down court for a reverse, windmill jam—an acrobatic feat most players might shy from in a dunk contest, let alone in a live game.
“We all just kind of looked at each other like, ‘What in the world was that?’” says Shannon, now an assistant coach at Division II Oklahoma Panhandle State. “You don’t see big guys move like that. It just showed how special he was.”
Shannon challenged Holmes to be the first player down the court on each possession, barking at Holmes to run rim-to-rim with every ounce of energy he harnessed in his bouncy legs.
The request struck a chord within Holmes, whose competitive streak had been engrained in him from endless Saturdays of fierce bowling—his first sport—with his father and three brothers. Holmes competed in Saturday leagues starting at just five years old. Talking trash was more encouraged than welcomed. “It got kind of serious,” Holmes says.
Saturday bowling was followed by church on Sundays. Dr. Richard Holmes Sr. has been the senior pastor at Morning View Word Church in Chicago for almost 25 years, preaching with a raspy voice reminiscent of Dave Chappelle.
The family’s faith made it easier to entrust Bowling Green head coach Louis Orr, a devout Christian in his own right, with their eldest son. “That’s always been the foundation of my life and coaching: My relationship with the lord Jesus Christ,” Orr says. “We had that common bond.”
Holmes frequently visited Orr’s office. The coach would often print scriptures and other motivational readings and post them in his players’ lockers.
Orr had also played eight years in the NBA, two for the Indiana Pacers and six for the New York Knicks. He spent the next 20 years coaching across the country, mentoring Brian Grant at Xavier, Eric Williams and Austin Croshere at Providence and Etan Thomas at Syracuse. Under Orr, Holmes felt his NBA dreams could become a reality.
“To whom much is given, much is required,” Orr says, quoting a scripture he felt appropriate for Holmes’ story. “He’s been given some athletic ability and he’s learning to work. That’s the key for him. If he can continue to work and stay on the path that he is, he’s got great gifts and he can be a guy that can be a contributor at the NBA level.”
After Shannon lit the fire underneath him and Orr guided his maturation off the court, Holmes says Chris Jans “pushed me to be better than I thought I could be.” Jans, a former Wichita State assistant, took over the Bowling Green program in 2014 after the program parted ways with Orr following the 2013-14 season.
Jans brought a fiery technique in contrast to Orr’s laid back personality. “Nothing I did was good enough,” Holmes says. “If I did something right, he was going off about something I did wrong two plays ago. He just demanded perfection every day and that really made me better.”
Holmes posted career-best numbers with the same high level of efficiency, leading Bowling Green to a 21-12 season which culminated in that CIT defeat. He ranked No. 19 in the nation in blocked shots, winning the MAC Defensive Player of the Year award and earning a First-Team All-MAC selection as well.
From a distance, Orr proudly watched Holmes’ progression: “I think this year, the lights came on in terms of how hard he had to work and he was a leader."
Holmes is set to graduate from Bowling Green with a degree in liberal studies.
All the above has Holmes in tremendous position entering the NBA draft. Teams have expressed interest in Holmes as high as the late 20s in the first round, according to multiple sources, which has him practically overbooked for pre-draft team workouts. His rim protection, athleticism and legitimate three-point range—Holmes converted 41.9% of his long-range attempts in '14-15—are the foundation of today’s prototypical NBA rotation big.
To make the most of his opportunity, Holmes simply has to approach the next few weeks like he does rotating from the weak side to erase a shot: “It’s just staying on your toes and being ready to move.”