Kyrie Irving was 19 years and 312 days old when he beat Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics with a driving layup as time expired. The Cleveland Cavaliers were on the road against a team coached by Doc Rivers. It was the 19th game of Irving’s professional career. He finished with 23 points on 10-14 shooting to go along with 6 assists and 4 rebounds.
On March 19 of that same season, Irving led a talent-starved roster to another road victory in New Jersey. He totaled 26 points and 7 assists while helping Cleveland to a 105-100 win over Deron Williams and the Nets. He’d be named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year a few months later.
Since then, the point guard from St. Patrick High School has earned two trips to the NBA All-Star Game. He’s collected an All-Star MVP trophy, won the three-point shootout, signed endorsement deals all over the country, and assumed a leadership role with USA Basketball. But after being projected by some as an All-NBA player heading into last season—who was asked to single-handedly lead his team to the Playoffs—questions still surround the 22-year-old Irving as he embarks on the next chapter of his basketball journey.
In 2013, Irving ranked No. 9 in the #SLAMTop50. Expectations soon morphed into unreasonable requests from a fan base in Cleveland that hoped he would fill the superstar void left by LeBron James in 2010. The requests were unfair, the pieces didn’t fit and the system didn’t work. Twelve months later, David Griffin and David Blatt have replaced Chris Grant and Mike Brown as the new general manager and coach of the Cavaliers.
Despite averaging 20.8 points and 6.1 assists, Irving appeared lost in Coach Brown’s offensive structure. He over-dribbled at times, tried to do too much by himself, and didn’t always know where to find his teammates with the basketball. He slipped seven spots to No. 16 as a result of all that.
Operating now in Blatt’s spacing-oriented version of the Princeton offense, Irving appears more comfortable at the point of attack. That’s obviously supported by the additions of James and Kevin Love. But while the Cavaliers are now James’ team, Irving enters the upcoming year with an opportunity to improve his NBA stock considerably.
The Cavs point guard might not average the 20 points he previously did while co-starring alongside James and Love. But expect the best overall season of his career regardless. Irving’s ball-handling metrics, shooting percentage and assist totals should all approach career-high marks based on the talent that now surrounds him. He will have to remain healthy for close to the 71 games he appeared in last year—and he will also have to learn how to best compete alongside LeBron and his new teammates—but if he accomplishes as much, Irving could still become an All-NBA player in 2015.
Irving is arguably the best overall ball-handler in the NBA. He told me two years ago his cross-over dribble was constructed by using aspects of similar moves made famous by Tim Hardaway and Kevin Johnson. Now that cross has evolved into something entirely his own. He improved his turnover average from 3.2 to 2.7 last year while being met by defenses exclusively designed to stop him. With that load now lessened by James, Irving’s turnover-per-game numbers should improve yet again.
His shooting percentage should also become more efficient. Irving shot 43 percent from the field a year ago, combining for 44.7 percent on his career. While trailing the secondary break, stepping into open jumpers on skip passes in the half-court, and attacking driving lanes created by the attention paid to James, Love and the rest of his teammates, Irving should eclipse the 47 percent mark he established as a rookie. Similarly, he will find a steady dose of open looks from three-point range that were never available to him before.
There haven’t been too many open shots that Irving has been allowed to enjoy at the NBA level. As attention is now divided between doubling James and Love, being aware of Dion Waiters, boxing out Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson, while also getting hands up to contest Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and others, Kyrie will be open now more than ever. His three-point shooting—which has dipped since topping out at 39.9 percent as a rookie—is likely to creep over the 40 percent plateau with the open looks he’s now afforded.
In the simplest terms, Irving will also be passing to a collection of much better players this season. His assist total is likely to reflect that. He dished out 6.1 dimes per game with Earl Clark as his opening night starter at small forward. This year, the opening night starter is LeBron James. I can go on, but I’m sure you get the point.
More than any of that, though, Irving is poised for his best season as a pro because he can now just be himself. He no longer has to be the savior of a wounded franchise. He no longer is tasked with the impossible challenge of replacing the best basketball player on the planet. He will only be asked to be Kyrie Irving moving forward. The same electrifying talent who put the NBA community on notice ever since he first arrived.
The Cavaliers are LeBron’s team. But LeBron’s point guard could be on his way to becoming the League’s gold standard at that position. So don’t sleep on Kyrie Irving just yet, even if you think there’s cause. He’s never had an opportunity to succeed quite like this before, and there’s a good chance he takes advantage of it.
|#SLAMTop50 Players 2014|
Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’14-15—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.