After I’d swept up the broken glass from my floor (apparently hurling a remote at a window is a terrible idea; who knew?!), and after I’d recovered from the Celtics’ humiliating, late-game collapse at the hands of an inferior Cavs squad, I quickly came to the realization that I’d just witnessed one of the most remarkable rookie performances of the last decade. A quick perusal of the box score reveals nothing exceptional: 23 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 10-14 from the field. Very good, no doubt, but hardly up to par with, say, some of LeBron James’ or Dwight Howard’s earliest efforts.
But for those of us who watched the game, for those who witnessed Kyrie Irving eviscerate the Celtics with his deft, pin-point passes and balletic, jaw-dropping forays to the basket (the last of which proved to be the game’s decisive play), it became all-too-obvious that we were privileged spectators catching a tantalizing glimpse of what the future holds for last year’s #1 pick: Kyrie Irving is the NBA’s next superstar. Rarely does a rookie outperform his veteran peers; that Irving appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be the smartest guy on the court (and it wasn’t even close), and to have already mastered the nuances, the “little things,” which separate the wheat from the chaff in this league, signifies the arrival of an exceptionally gifted talent, one seemingly immune to the steep learning curve which so often inhibits first-year players from keeping pace with their more savvy forebears.
So why, exactly, has Irving failed to inspire the same sort of enthusiasm with which NBA fans have greeted Ricky Rubio over the season’s first two months? Why has his single-handed resurrection of a franchise that most had presumed dead on July 8, 2010, only garnered the faintest of praise?
The answer is quite simple: in an league stocked to the brim with talented young point guards (Paul, Rose, D-Will, Westbrook, Rondo, Rubio, Curry, etc.), Irving’s relatively unglamorous game, humble demeanor, and hype-less entry into the league has undoubtedly left him at a disadvantage in regards to marketability. And with so many compelling story lines to revel in this season, so many amazing individual performances and plays and games to soak in, it’s become all to easy to be inured by the everyday-incredible, particularly when emanating from a 19-year old point guard posting good-but-not-great numbers on a mediocre team in a weak conference.
Irving deserves better, however, especially when one realizes that he’s hoisted his team on his back and carried it back to respectability without a sidekick in sight. Westbrook has Durant (or, rather, Durant has Westbrook), Paul has Griffin, Rose can rely on a deep and talented supporting cast, and Rondo is supported by the Big Three. Even Rubio can count on a superstar big man to carry the load offensively on a nightly basis. Irving? He finds himself in the distinctly unfavorable position of having to defer to Andy Varejao, Antawn Jamison’s desiccated corpse, and arguably the most uninspiring collection of role players ever assembled in the history of the league (seriously, Alonzo Gee?). It’s a testament to his talent and leadership that the Cavs have risen from the abyss and become relatively competitive so quickly, despite inheriting the core of a team which finished with the league’s second-worst record last season.
But can Dan Gilbert and Chris Grant construct a legitimate contender around a guy who was pegged by many as a nice-if-not-quite-dominant player prior to the draft? If statistical comparisons are any indication: absolutely. Indeed, one comes away utterly convinced of his superstar potential when contrasting his output over the first 22 games of his career with the debut seasons of his aforementioned contemporaries. He’s scoring at a higher clip (18 ppg), shooting at a higher percentage (58 TS%), and playing more efficiently (22.1 PER) than such luminaries as Paul (16 ppg, 55 TS%, 22.1 PER), Williams (11 ppg, 50 TS%, 12 PER), Rose (17 ppg, 52 TS%, 16 PER), and Westbrook (15 ppg, 49 TS%, 15 PER) were during their rookie years. And while he may not be setting the world ablaze with his assist average (only 5 per game), advanced statistical analysis reveals a player who’s inarguably the locus of his team’s offense (he’s assisted on 35% of his teammates field goals, a mark surpassed only by CP3 among the group in question).
That’s not to say he isn’t without his flaws. His defense is clearly insufficient, and he certainly needs to start taking better care of the ball (he’s averaging over 3 turnovers a game); but Cavs fans have to be salivating over their team’s prospects all the same. Few could’ve predicted that Cleveland would’ve recovered so quickly from the bitter denouement of the LeBron Era, but Irving’s early success is yet further evidence of the transformative effect an elite point guard can have on an otherwise moribund and direction-less franchise. With an 9-13 record (good for 9th in the conference), the Cavaliers are positioned to at least contend for a playoff seed, and while it would perhaps be unrealistic to expect them to ultimately cash in on their surprising start and fend off more talented squads like the Bucks and Knicks for that final spot, would anyone be surprised if Irving somehow wills his teams the postseason and captures the Rookie of the Year award in the process?
That he passes both the eye test (he certainly appears the elite point guard when orchestrating his team’s offense) and closer statistical examination only confirms that his ceiling is sky-high, however trite that may sound. Maybe he will never reach the same heights as Chris Paul or Derrick Rose, but his talent is unquestionable, and, provided his front-office can eventually surround him with an adequate supporting cast, his team’s future looks all the brighter with him aboard.