In some ways, it pains me to write this.
See, this is the love letter I was supposed to be writing to—er, about—John Wall. You know, the franchise point guard selected No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft, hyped as a future All-Star set to change his team’s fortunes.
Yeah, that guy.
On my personal list, I ranked Uncle Drew at No. 15—ahead of a handful of names you’ll see over the next few days, including Tony Parker. Which means that, for you math wizards out there, I think Kyrie Irving is—if you allow me to exclude a probably partial season from Derrick Rose—a top-five point guard in the NBA. Right now.
What’s not to love about Kyrie? A year removed from playing in just 11 games as a freshman at Duke, he showed enough in his freshman campaign in the pros to live up to his No. 1 draft position and more.
He’s skilled, he’s heady, he’s confident, he’s a leader and he’s a winner. Beyond earning the affection of NBA fans (or at least those with League Pass) in ‘11-12, he added Rookie of the Year honors to a first-year resume that featured an 18.5 ppg/5.4 apg/3.7 rpg line in 51 games. In his first 23 games, 10 times he scored 20 or more points. In a 32-point outburst against his hometown New Jersey Nets, he dropped 21 in the fourth quarter alone. And, considering that dude didn’t blow out the candles for his 20th birthday until the last month of the season, well, watch out.
Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss statistics in the face of the eye test. Players can rack up points on a crummy team, and we know it. It’s why David Lee finished No. 12 in the League in scoring last season, and yet he can’t sniff this list. In Kyrie’s case, it’s the exact opposite—his stats don’t accurately measure just how good he was in year one.
For one, he nearly made the Cavs a Playoff player, despite being hobbled both physically and by the cast of characters around him. But more importantly, the kid who has yet to throw back his first legal drink has cemented himself as one of the game’s best closers last season.
Ask Boston in January. Sacramento in February. Denver in March. All victims of Irving’s late-game heroics. All in the last 10 seconds of the fourth quarter. And all in different ways.
To beat the Celtics, a spin move out of a pick-and-roll, finished with a lefty finger roll. Against the Kings, a lightning quick blow-by to earn a trip to the free-throw line, where he was true. Versus the Nuggs, a full-court sprint past an elite perimeter defender in Arron Afflalo followed by a twisting layup in the face of Nene.
The kid’s got ice in his veins, the heart of a lion and killer instinct. So much so, that he genuinely challenged Kobe Bryant to a game of one-on-one during Team USA Olympic training camp over the summer.
By now, you’ve seen the tape, in which Kobe responds, “You just came out of high school!”
Shit, he’s right. Irving played fewer than a dozen games at the college level before instantly being inserted as a starting lead guard in the L. That’s like skipping from elementary school science to AP physics after two weeks of barely paying attention in junior high.
True to form, Kyrie hit back, “Some people need 30 games, and some people need 11.”
I’m inclined to believe him. Because while some players need a couple seasons to crack our Top 20, he’s done it in one. And making the All-Star team and Cleveland into a post-season contender could creep him even higher in a year’s time.
Leaving John Wall to play catch-up.
|SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2012|
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’12-13 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Maurice Bobb, Rodger Bohn, Brendan Bowers, Franklyn Calle, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Adam Figman, Eldon Khorshidi, Eddie Maisonet III, Ryne Nelson, Ben Osborne, Allen Powell II, Sam Rubenstein, Jonathan Santiago, Abe Schwadron, Leo Sepkowitz, Dave Spahn, Ben Taylor, Tzvi Twersky, Peter Walsh, Tracy Weissenberg, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Dave Zirin.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.