Originally published in SLAM 167

by Adam Figman@afigman

On Friday, February 15, sometime around 10 p.m. EST, Kyrie Irving changed the news cycle.

The BBVA Rising Stars Challenge, an absolute blowout by all accounts of organized basketball standards, was trudging through its second half, as those present in the lifeless Toyota Center sat and wondered maybe about their plans for the remainder of the evening, maybe about who’d win Saturday night’s Dunk Contest, maybe about whether Houston was impressing as an All-Star Weekend host, and maybe about, well…maybe about anything other than what was taking place on the court in front of them.

And who could blame ‘em? What was taking place was an insipid display of nothingness, a defense-less scrimmage in which one side—Team Chuck—effortlessly scored a whole bunch of points, while the other—Irving’s Team Shaq—effortlessly scored many less. And that’s about it.

But then the Cavs star guard gained possession and brought the ball up over the halfcourt line, setting up a seemingly nonchalant isolation situation for himself. Pistons point man Brandon Knight leaned forward, D’ing up tight (er, relatively speaking). The 20-year-old Irving dribbled to the right elbow, then faked right and crossed back left, bringing the rock a step backward to create some separation from the defender. Knight attempted to keep up with each juke but didn’t foresee that final move, and when he launched his body forward, his legs didn’t come with him. Irving fired a J while Knight headed straight for the floor. The shot kissed nothing but net. The audience went nuts.

A video or .gif (and probably both) of the aforementioned sequence was immediately posted on your favorite basketball website. On every basketball website.

Knight, not one to cower, drained a three in Irving’s face on the ensuing possession. A nice comeback, sure, but the battle had already been lost. Next time down the floor, Irving drove left on Knight, cradled the ball in his elbow and then lofted a lay-in over Knight’s outstretched right palm. To his credit, Knight never retreated, and the two went back-and-forth for the next few plays. But both failed to finish a variety of floaters and three-pointers, and the energy boost died shortly thereafter.

What Knight didn’t know was that Irving was (and is) well prepared for what was essentially a game of full-court one-on-one. It wasn’t that long ago that the New Jersey—by way of Australia—native was improving his conditioning by completing that very drill. Sandy Pyonin, a Jersey-based trainer and teacher, is renowned for making his trainees go through one-on-one contests all the way to 100 points, and Irving’s been subjected to more than a few of them. “We’d play game after game after game,” Pyonin says now. “I’m famous for one-on-one games to 100, and he can do that. He can challenge anybody at any time.”

After the Challenge, with the game failing to meet even the lowest of expectations—Team Chuck won 163-135; Kenneth Faried somehow stayed interested enough to score 40 points and took home MVP—the only thing anyone (the Twittersphere, the basketball blogosphere, the Houston-sphere, etc.) wanted to talk about was the embarrassment Irving provided Knight with. The YouTube video “Kyrie Irving’s ankle-breaking moves on Knight!” has been viewed 389,806 times as of this writing, and will be headed towards seven figures by the time you read this. Just when it appeared a forgettable night was headed nowhere fast, a lightning-quick point guard with a killer handle and a smooth jumpshot saved the show, if only for a couple minutes.

It’s funny: Sometimes headlines come out of nowhere, hitting readers with shocking info from places entirely unexpected. And sometimes—like, say, whenever Kyrie Irving does something spectacular enough to cause a ripple or two in that day’s news cycle—they originate exactly where you expect them to.

***

The next morning, Irving sits on a small stage between Blake Griffin and Joakim Noah at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center during the requisite NBA All-Star media availability. Beneath him, hordes of  media members stand with microphones and cameras and tape recorders pointed upward, question  after question being rocketed north like chest passes. Irving’s heavily lidded eyes are lidded even heavier than usual, and though he answers each inquiry politely enough, one thing is obvious: Dude is bored as all hell.

Irving slogs through the media session, answering questions from local, national and foreign reporters one by one. Yes, he’ll be playing for the USA national team instead of the Australian one, though it was a tough decision. Yes, he’ll be finishing college within five years, completing a promise to his pops that’ll be “the toughest thing I ever did in my life, honestly.” Yes, he can feel the game changing as he gets more and more NBA reps under his belt, slowly picking up “all the defensive principles that I had to learn in Coach Scott’s system, and trying to be that point guard that Coach Scott needed.”

So yeah, at this very moment, Kyrie’s thoughts on Kyrie aren’t exactly profound. Instead, we go to others:

Fellow Eastern Conference All-Star and point guard Jrue Holiday: “He’s obviously a quick guy. His handles are impeccable. He can score around the basket. He has all the flip shots—it’s fun to watch, for sure.”

Fellow Rising Stars Challenge participant Isaiah Thomas: “When we went at it last year, that was one of the times I felt like, I always come at people, but he came back at me. I respect him for that. He’s a talented player, one of the best point guards in the NBA.”

Former Cavs star and current NBA MVP LeBron James: “I think he’s great. I don’t see him take a night off. You’re going to have bad shooting nights, but he’s doing great things. I said it earlier this year or last year that in a couple years, he’d be [one of the] top two or top three best point guards in the League. He’s headed there already.”

And more from Pyonin: “He’s not only a talented player, he’s an exciting player. People watch him and say, Wow! It’s just fun to watch him play because he’s going to do something special. I would say he has a bag of tricks, so he hasn’t shown his bag of tricks. He hasn’t shown all of it yet. He can do teardrops with his left and right hand that you wouldn’t believe.”

Pyonin pinpoints a specific moment as crucial to Irving’s development. It was the summer before Irving’s senior year of high school at St. Patrick in Elizabeth, NJ. Pyonin had placed him in a pro league in East Orange, NJ, to help the young guard learn to play against bigger and older guys, but Irving was fading from the action. The trainer pulled his pupil aside and demanded that he get himself involved, shooting and scoring like it was a regular game against kids his own age. “Once I told him that, his eyes lit up,” Pyonin says, “and he went out there and did it. He was a little nervous in the beginning, which is normal, but then that was over.”

Perhaps it’s that confidence that explains the ridiculous crunch-time stats Irving has been putting up this season. Despite being a member of one of the worst teams, record-wise, in the NBA, his numbers during the time period officially considered crunch-time—less than 5 minutes remaining, both teams within 5 points of one another—are impeccable. According to NBA.com/stats, the League’s new official statistical haven, Irving’s 125 points (as of this writing) is second in clutch scoring to only Kevin Durant (128). Irving’s field-goal percentage during tight games within that frame is 47.8, higher than KD’s (39.7), LeBron’s (46.4) and Kobe Bryant’s (43.9).

Which is to say there’s a legitimate statistical argument to be made that Kyrie Irving is the most clutch player in the NBA.

Once again: The kid is 20.

But for a 20-year-old, his accomplishments haven’t been insignificant. He was named MVP of the 2012 Rising Stars Challenge, then took a spot on the All-Rookie First Team and brought home the ’11-12 Rookie of the Year award. (He received a Kia Sorento for winning ROY, which he donated to Pyonin; after recently getting married, Pyonin says his wife has been driving the Kia as of late, though he does use it to scoop up his AAU players from time to time.) Not a bad first year, especially when you factor in the dozens and dozens of YouTube hits featuring game-winners, buzzer-beaters and highlight mixes filled with ankle-breaking crossovers and impossible passes threaded right through unsuspecting defenders.

The night after breaking down Knight, Irving adds another award to the mantle. Participating in the Three-Point Shootout against five sharpshooters, a couple whose entire NBA existence revolves around long-distance marksmanship, Irving scores 23 points in the final round—2 short of the Jason Kapono-owned record—and wins the competition.

Minutes later the 6-3 guard is in the interview room fielding questions. “I honestly need rest right now,” he says, dropping possibly the best summation of All-Star Weekend to date. He continues, “I just wanted to go out and prove a point that I was one of the premier shooters out here with all these guys.”

The next night, in the Weekend’s entrée event, more of the same. Irving didn’t start, but his 24 minutes were more than any Eastern Conference non-starter, and his appearance late in the game hints at a status above the rest of the other reserves. He finished with 15 points on 6-11 shooting, plus 4 assists and 3 treys for good measure.

His time spent fielding media questions that Sunday night was brief, but a nice wrap-up had already been administered 24 hours earlier. “This weekend was just basically about earning everybody’s respect and getting a chance for people to see me that don’t usually see me,” he said. “We’re not nationally televised. This weekend is to show my face to the fans and get everybody acclimated to my face in the League.”

Just about every NBA fan should’ve already been plenty acclimated with Irving, but for those who slept, here’s one last chance to hop on the bandwagon. Cavs fans have planted themselves there for almost two years now, and to say that Irving has eased the pain caused when a certain transcendental mega-star left for the sunny beaches of the M-I-A would be a heck of an understatement. But post-Decision, when it looked like things couldn’t get any worse in Cleveland, a lightning-quick point guard with a killer handle and a smooth jumpshot came in and changed the news cycle.

For some reason or another, he’s always doing that.