Irving May Be Under the Radar, but Not for Long

Kyrie Irving shooting over Nate Robinson of the Bulls on Friday.

Only 20 years old and having played in just 56 N.B.A. games, the precocious second-year point guard Kyrie Irving is forcing a question: how early is too early to start talking about a player as one of the best point guards in the N.B.A.?

It’s seems like a silly question, really. The list of superb point guards is long, and there are a lot of players at the position who are very good and are often overlooked — Kyle Lowry of Toronto being one example.

But the Cavaliers’ Irving really is special, with skills perfectly tailored for the modern game. He combines Chris Paul’s low, mesmerizing handle with Steve Nash’s sense of balance and ambidextrous coordination around the rim — not to mention a dead-eye jump shot, which punishes defenses that choose to play him for the drive. The pick-and-roll has become the primary staple of N.B.A. offenses around the league, and shooting point guards who also possess the burst to find the rim can devour defenses using a steady diet of ball screens.

Irving is just such a player. An open 3-pointer seems as good as made, and his knack for creating — then knifing through a defensive seam designed specifically to stop him — borders on supernatural. At times, even in the fourth quarter, Irving’s effortless drives make it seem like the five defenders are complicit in his attack.

As a rookie, Irving had a better season than LeBron James did in his first campaign. And in 2011-12, only James and Chris Paul, both sure to go down as historically great players, had better fourth-quarter Player Efficiency Ratings than Irving did. Irving was especially unstoppable in the clutch, when teams supposedly batten down the defensive hatches and buckets become harder to come by.

More evidence that Irving is an outlier: the only other rookie to ever put up points and assists with similar shooting accuracy was Michael Jordan.

If this all comes as a shock, do not be alarmed. As fantastic as Irving is, he is also, at least through this season, very hard to find.

Unless you are one of the hoops-obsessed N.B.A. League Pass subscribers or willing to pay N.B.A. ticket prices to see him live, you may never have seen Irving play. His Cavaliers did not appear even once on national television during Irving’s rookie year, and have just one nationally televised game this year, Dec. 5 against the Chicago Bulls.

Those who fall short of an unhealthy passion for early-season N.B.A. basketball would only know by rumor that Irving out-dueled Paul in the last five minutes of Monday night’s game — assisting on eight points and scoring four more to close out the Clippers.

This is germane to the question posed above because the reputation of N.B.A. players is like a commercial brand. It takes hard work and lots of exposure to convince people to trust a new brand, and once that trust is earned, it sticks.

That’s how a once-dynamic player like Caron Butler convinces the Clippers to give him a three-year, $24 million dollar contract even though Tuff Juice (Butler’s odd nickname) has been flat and unsavory for a few years.

For now, Irving builds his brand via guerilla marketing: hardcore fans willing to trumpet his excellence in local markets and in fervent blog posts. Irving appears in viral videos, not the big-time national T.V. campaigns. And as such he may not seem to warrant the hype. After all, underground brands are usually underground not by choice, but because they haven’t yet proven their worth to the mass audience.

Through five games this season, Irving is proving last year was no fluke. He is fourth in the league in points per game and is looking like the best scorer from the point guard position in the N.B.A. Again, he’s 20.

Though his successes will only receive marginal exposure this year, it will not be long before Irving is the subject of the interview segment during an N.B.A. broadcast, before he becomes a household name like Derrick Rose did in his third season.

So buy Irving stock now, while the price is still affordable.Do not buy it because he is going to be one of the greats in the league, but because he already is.

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