The rise of Kyrie Irving

Amin Elhassan [ARCHIVE]
ESPN Insider
December 26, 2012

It was September 2010 and I was serving as the Phoenix Suns’ assistant director of basketball operations. Grant Hill, having recently returned from a summer sabbatical at Duke, walked into the training room.

“I just saw the best player in the nation,” he said succinctly.

I asked him if he thought the kid from St. Patrick High School in New Jersey was that good. Hill replied that coach Mike Krzyzewski was going to “give the kid the keys,” something he hadn’t done with any freshman since Bobby Hurley. I was a bit skeptical; I had seen a couple of the kid’s high school and AAU games, and while I was impressed by his poise and maturity on the court, I couldn’t fathom Coach K giving that kind of freedom to a freshman.

“ I just saw the best player in the nation.

” – Grant Hill, after watching Kyrie Irving as a freshman at Duke

Two months later, I sat down for my first look at Kyrie Irving as a collegiate basketball player. About 10 minutes later, I shut my notebook.

“This kid is clearly wasting his time playing another minute of college ball,” I said to myself.

A few games later, he’d get injured and miss most of the remainder of the season. However, in those few appearances, he was one of the most NBA-ready freshmen I had ever seen, particularly at the point guard position.

Two years into his pro career, Irving seems destined for greatness, even gracing the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s NEXT issue. How great? By 2015, he will be the best point guard in the NBA. Here’s a scouting perspective on why.

What makes him special? Most young players generally play the game at a frenetic pace, symbolic of their inability to absorb all the information coming to them in each instant of an NBA game. What sets Irving apart is his incredible patience on the offensive end. Whether it’s out of a pick-and-roll or an isolation situation, he allows the play to develop before deciding whether to attack, pull up or dish.

He shows excellent recognition of time and score situations (short clock, two-for-ones, etc.) and is vocal and unabashed at directing traffic on the court, even when playing with older, far more experienced players. His timing is impeccable, and he delivers one-handed pocket bounce passes with the ease and accuracy of a wily veteran. Not only does he make all the right reads out of the pick-and-roll, but he also knows how to create new opportunities after initial action has stagnated.

Scouts put Irving’s dribbling ability right at the top of the league with Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford; however, he’s more Paul than Crawford in that there is an efficiency of dribbling and space creation (he’s not just going into a “dribble tantrum,” as Crawford will frequently resort to). Again, this is a trait that belies his age, as most young players don’t have the discretion to know when to use – or not use – a superior skill.

Additionally, Irving’s footwork is extremely refined, as he is able to create space by changing stride lengths not only in the open court but also in extremely tight situations. He will often explode with his first step and then bring a right to left crossover back to a short second step, throwing defenders off.

Irving excels going either direction, using either hand and going off either foot. He has fairly large hands, which allow him to palm the ball and manipulate it repeatedly after he picks up his dribble for pass and shot fakes en route to the basket. He is an excellent perimeter shooter, shooting at above 40 percent from 3-point land in his NBA career. His in-between game has improved tremendously, and he actually attempts a fair amount of left-handed runners and floaters, which will one day make him that much harder to guard. He finishes at the rim through contact, but is also extremely aware of baseline cutters and will make the drop-off pass.

Indeed, Irving’s shooting prowess and ability to score in so many different ways make defending him against the pass much more difficult, as is the case with Paul and Steve Nash.

In fact, you can see elements of other players’ games incorporated in his style, from Paul and Nash to Rod Strickland, John Stockton and Isiah Thomas, which tells us that Irving watches a ton of film not only of contemporaries but also of past stars. Statistically, he shares rare company as one of just eight players to average at least 15 points per game, shoot an effective field goal percentage of at least 50 percent, and have an assist percentage greater than 30 percent for his career, although his sample size is much smaller (the others: Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Paul, Kevin Johnson, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Mark Price).

Further, according to Kevin Pelton’s SCHOENE projection system, Irving’s three-year projections have him at a combined 28.0 wins over replacement (WARP) in 2015, second only to Russell Westbrook among point guards under the age of 25. However, Irving’s 2015-16 WARP projects to climb at 11.8 as opposed to Westbrook, whose numbers should be in decline at 9.3.

All of this, and Irving won’t turn 21 until March.

What will hinder him? Irving’s biggest hindrance so far has been his supporting cast, as Cleveland continues its rebuild. Playing with lesser-caliber teammates, particularly younger ones, makes his job much more difficult and alters his development.

Irving is a pass-first point guard, but his scoring ability (and the lack of other viable offensive options on the Cavs) force him to look for his shot more aggressively, which can manifest itself in subpar shot selection. For example, he’ll go into stretches in which he will come down the court and pull up for a 3-pointer before running anything.

Of greater concern, Irving will often “conserve” energy on the defensive end. He is overly reliant on help defense when guarding the ball, often taking a liberal interpretation of “send him to the help” with an open stance that not only allows but encourages blow-bys. On the weak side, he is aware but not alert, meaning he is in the right spot initially, but because he is not in an active defensive stance (i.e., standing straight up and down), he is then left to scramble out in rotations. Related to that, his closeouts are either too soft or too hard (i.e., he overcommits and flies right by the perimeter player).

The longer Irving has to play savior on offense, the longer it will be acceptable for him to give subpar effort on the defensive end, which slows his overall development toward being the best PG in the league.

Of course, there are other players who could potentially lay claim to the “Best Point Guard in 2015” title. One can make a case for and against Westbrook, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Ricky Rubio and Rajon Rondo to be the best point guard in 2015, but none brings the combined abilities that Irving brings to the table.

Irving combines the savvy of a veteran, the fresh legs of a young player, the explosive first step of an athlete, the perimeter accuracy of a knock-down shooter, the scoring ability of a shoot-first player, the passing acumen of a player who can’t shoot, and a personality that shines through – making players want to play with him, coaches want to coach him and marketers want to pay him. It’s only a matter of time before he becomes the example after which other players will pattern themselves.

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