Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James. Outside of being first ballot Hall of Famers, what do these men have in common? They make up an elite group of ballers that were selected to their first All-Star game prior to turning 21. A group, that on Thursday grew by one. Kyrie Irving, the 2nd year point guard of the Cleveland Cavaliers was selected to the 2013 NBA All-Star game, joining one of the most prestigious groups in NBA history. Irving has taken the NBA by storm the past year and a half, racking up accolades at a record pace, and he’s put the NBA on notice that he’s got next.
Now I’m sure you’ve heard the term, “wise beyond his years”, Kyrie Irving is accomplished beyond his years. This young man has won an 18 and under FIBA gold medal, became a McDonald’s All-American, USA Today All-American, ranked as the #1 PG in the country, signed with Duke University, became the #1 overall pick, won the MVP award at the Rising Stars Challenge, was selected to the NBA All-Rookie First Team, was crowned the NBA Rookie of the Year, and now, 2013 NBA All-Star. As previously stated, Irving is still two months away from turning 21. Yes, one of the leagues best point guards, still needs the help of a teammate to buy a drink on road trips.
I’ve followed Irving since his junior year at St. Patrick’s high school in New Jersey (pretty much the time he became a possibility to sign with Duke) At that point Irving was a solid PG, with very good upside at the next level, and possibly beyond. Irving dominated his senior year at St. Pat’s, including dropping 30 on current Spurs reserve PG Corey Joesph in a nationally televised game. Eventually becoming the nation’s top PG prior to heading off to Durham. Irving arrived at Duke with a big reputation, and even bigger expectations. Coach K even let the heralded guard wear #1, something that had never been done at Duke, even after former Duke great point guard Jason “Jay” Williams requested the number many years prior. Irving was handed the keys to the Duke squad, averaging 17.4 ppg on 53.2% shooting from the field, 5.1 apg, 3.8 rpg, and 1.5 spg through the team’s first 8 games, well on his way towards becoming the NCAA’s Freshman of the Year. Irving then suffered ligament damage in his right big toe, and was out until the NCAA tournament. He scored 28 in a sweet sixteen loss to Arizona and his short lived career at Duke had come to an abrupt end.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, who were still reeling from the departure of King James, decided to make Irving the new face of the franchise, taking him with the #1 overall pick. The 19 year old, who had only played a handful of games at the collegiate level was now in charge of filling the void of the leagues best player, and the city’s first son. Kyrie didn’t bat an eyelash and hit the ground running. He had ten 20+ point games in his first twenty three, with his breakout game coming against the Nets where he scored 32, with 21 of those coming in the 4th quarter. Irving finished the lockout shortened season averaging 18.5 ppg 5.4 apg and 3.4 rpg, shooting 47% from the field and 40% from long range. Irving nearly had a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio and shot 88% from the charity stripe.
In the summer of 2012, coming off of a stellar rookie season Irving was invited to Vegas to try out for the U.S. National Team as the 2012 Olympic Games approached. While Irving was a long-shot to make the squad, he elected to tryout for the U.S., instead of leading the Australian national team (Irving has dual citizenship). He dazzled coaches with his play on the court, often getting the best of former Olympians, and NBA vets. This was truly Irving’s coming out party, but a broken hand ended any chance he had at making the team. I expect that will not be the case in 2016.
Kyrie picked up where he left off at the end of his rookie campaign, scoring 29 points, grabbing 6 boards and dishing out 3 assists against the Wizards in this year’s opener. He injured his left index finger against the Mavs November 17th, and returned 12 games later against the Lakers, dropping 28 points, 11 dimes, and 6 rebounds in a rare Cavs victory. Just 3 days later he suffered a fractured jaw in the 1st quarter in a game against Milwaukee, Irving finished the game, scoring 26. The very next day he took to the Madison Square Garden court with his Zoro like protective mask, and dropped 41 in a loss to the Knicks, a season and career high. Last Tuesday, Irving and his Cavs took on the man voted by the fans as the starting point guard for the east in next month’s All-Star Game, Rajon Rondo and the Boston Celtics. Irving scored 40, and quite frankly had Rondo on skates all night, in the Cavs 95-90 victory. Two days later Irving was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star roster. (Unfortunately, Rondo just suffered an ACL tear, and is out indefinitely. I wish him a speedy recovery.) Irving will likely now start at point guard for the east. Funny thing is, I initially finished writing this story this past Friday afternoon. Friday evening Kyrie scored 35 in a win against the Bucks, and followed that up with 32 and a game winning 3 with 0.7 seconds remaining on the clock, Saturday in Toronto. Irving has now recorded seven 30+ point games in the month of January. In his first 34 games this season, Irving is averaging 24.0 ppg 5.7 apg 3.6 rpg and 1.8 spg. He is shooting 47% from the field and 40% from 3 point range, with a slightly below 2:1 assist to turnover ratio.
Irving leads all NBA PG’s in scoring, he is 10th in field goal percentage, and 10th in 3 point field goal percentage. Since Irving isn’t on pace to play 70 games this season, he doesn’t qualify to be ranked in other major statistical categories pertaining to point guards, but here is where he would rank for the purpose of this piece. 23rd in apg, 12th in rpg, 10th in steals, 45th in assist to turnover ratio, 19th in free throw percentage, and 9th in minutes per game. As you can see he’s near the top in every scoring category, and a little behind in others that point guards need to excel in.
Irving averages nearly 24 points a game not because he wants to, but because he has to. Dion Waiters, the Cavs second leading scorer averages 14 a game, ten points less than Irving. Kyrie is the only Cav that can consistently win one on one match-ups and create his own shot. Whether it’s getting to the lane, and the line or pulling up for a mid range jumper, Irving can score at will. He has always been the type of player to crash the defensive boards and get out on the break leading to easy baskets for himself or a teammate. This coupled with his ability to break down a defender on an iso and get to the bucket have made the game come easy for Kyrie. He’s made tremendous strides with his medium and long range game in the past few years. The one time streaky shooter is now in the top ten percentage wise amongst point guards, and that average has been steady dating back to last season.
Kyrie is at his best when he is able to create on the fly, specifically for his teammates. He has great vision, whether is on a break or in a half court set. He is often able to see one or two moves ahead of the defense, but the lack of skill amongst his teammates doesn’t allow many of his reads to come to fruition. Irving has tremendous footwork, and often can split two defenders on a screen with ease. It’s pick your poison for opposing guards, go above the screen and the big is at Irving’s mercy, go under and he can pull up for the jumper. He also has a knack for attacking bigger defenders in the lane, either using a spin move or hesitations to get to the hoop. There isn’t many holes in this young man’s game and the scary thing is he continues to get better and better on a nightly basis.
It seems as if the few holes in Irving’s game are dictated by his durability. He’s had numerous injuries dating back to his freshman season at Duke that have sidelined him for a substantial amount of time. After bouncing back from a major toe injury nicely, he broke a hand, and then a finger, and most recently his jaw. While these injuries haven’t seemed to slow him down on the court you have to wonder, is it bad luck? Or is he indeed injury prone? If these injuries linger, and continue it could unfortunately end an illustrious career before it even begins.
When I think about Irving’s future, I wonder where it will take him. Not on the court but in geographic terms. His rookie deal will be up before you know it and I’d expect Cleveland to offer him the farm, but would that even have him stick around? The Cavs are 11-32 and are nowhere near playoff contenders. They have a very young, and promising nucleus led by Irving, power forwards Tristan Thompson, and Tyler Zeller, and lottery pick SG Dion Waiters. This team could gel nicely and contend, I’m not sure of it, but one thing I do know is that Irving is a lifelong winner and he’ll surely go where he can compete for a ring, or two. Maybe that’s in Cleveland, possibly with LeBron back home in a couple years (boy would that be fun), maybe as a Laker (they’ll need a PG soon), possibly as a Knick (he loves the bright lights), only time will tell, and we’ll all surely be watching.
The NBA is a guard driven league, and the crop is plentiful. Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, these guys are considered elite and any given night can be the NBA’s best point guard. While it may be premature to add Irving to that group, his play suggests that he’s not far away, and the gap is closing rapidly. In my eyes, Kyrie is on the cusp of being amongst the elite point guards in the NBA. He may not have the resume to be in the same sentence as them quite yet, but with his feel for the game, athleticism, scoring prowess, creativity, decision making and work ethic he will soon be mentioned in the same breath as the leagues best. His charisma and personalty can’t hurt either. His Pepsi commercials, where he plays seasoned street baller “Uncle Drew” are a major hit and were a huge boost to his off the court marketability. Irving has took the league by storm in just over a full season’s worth of games with his silky smooth play, and boyish charm. He stepped into a situation that not many 19 year old young men would’ve been able to handle. Not only has he flourished, but he’s put a franchise on his back, and we’ve yet to see him flinch. Kyrie Irving looks destined to be the NBA’s next big thing.