Kyrie Irving’s NBA future was decided in May of 2011, when Adam Silver, then NBA Deputy Commissioner, announced the Minnesota Timberwolves would pick second in the upcoming Draft. Irving was the lottery’s biggest prize—and the Cavaliers won.
“This is a new beginning,” said the triumphant Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert after the lottery, “Cleveland, we’re coming back.”
While the Duke product spent the days leading up to the Draft knowing well he’d be the top pick, another PG by the name of Isaiah Thomas was facing a much less certain NBA future. Despite a solid three-year career at the University of Washington, Thomas received little NBA hype because of his small stature.
So the story went with the 2011 NBA Draft, held on the 23rd of June in Newark, NJ. Cleveland selected Irving, who greeted commissioner David Stern in front of a loud and approving audience. Fifty-eight more names would be called before Thomas’. He was the Kings’ selection with the 60th and final pick of the Draft.
Irving burst onto the NBA scene as a rookie, dazzling fans with his crossover and ziploc-tight handles. He was given free range by an organization with low expectations for the 2011-12 season and averaged 18.5 ppg and 5.4 apg en route to the ROY award and a spot on the All-Rookie First-Team.
In Sacramento, Thomas quietly put together a solid rookie campaign, playing 65 of 66 games during the lockout-shortened season. He finished with averages of 11.5 ppg and 4.1 apg. At season’s end, he was named to the All-Rookie Second-Team.
During the offseason, Irving launched the ultra popular “Uncle Drew” ad campaign, which catalyzed his rise to fame in the 2012-13 season. Despite being limited to just 51 games, he was selected to his first All-Star game, won the Three-Point Contest and famously embarrassed guard Brandon Knight in the Rookie-Sophomore Challenge with a killer crossover.
He finished with impressive numbers in his second season—improving to 22.5 ppg and 5.9 apg—but Cleveland floundered to its second dismal record in as many seasons. As a result, some whispers of doubt were planted in Irving’s otherwise solid roots.
Thomas’ progression in his second year was less apparent than Irving’s, but was there nonetheless. He notched 62 starts and played in 79 games overall. His scoring jumped to 14 ppg and his 88.2 percent mark at the line was good for seventh in the League. The Kings, however, continued their prolonged rebuilding plan and finished with the same record as the underachieving Cavs at 24-58.
Two seasons into their careers, No. 1 and No. 60 found themselves in eerily similar positions, as starting point guards on incompetent teams. But one was an All-Star, and one was still unnoticed outside the city of Sacramento.
The hype around the 2013-14 Cavaliers was legitimate, as the team had won the lottery for the second time in three years, surprised many by selecting UNLV forward Anthony Bennett, and signed the enigma that is Andrew Bynum to a low-risk deal. Irving was surrounded by a solid core of players and was expected to anchor a winning team for the first time in his career.
It didn’t happen.
Bennett played more like your typical last draft pick, and Bynum was traded after 24 games of uninspired play. Not even the mid-season acquisition of former All-Star Luol Deng could vault the Cavaliers into a top-eight spot in one of the worst Eastern Conferences in history.
Irving received a second All-Star nod and was awarded the game’s MVP trophy, but the Cavs finished the season a disappointing 33-49. For the first time in his career, the Duke product’s high-volume scoring and elite ball-handling did not overshadow his team’s lack of success, and criticism from fans and experts alike began bubbling to the surface.
Meanwhile, the Kings’ secret was out, as the previously irrelevant Thomas had become one of the few bright spots in another typical season in Sacramento, improving in every offensive category.
In fact, Thomas’ third-year numbers stacked up almost identically to another bright young player’s:
Thomas 13-14: 20.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 6.3 apg, 45.3 FG%
Irving 13-14: 20.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 6.1 apg, 43 FG%
Of course there are hundreds of factors that contribute to the state of a franchise. Still, the parallels that have run between Kyrie and Thomas—and their teams—since they were selected 59 slots apart is astonishing.
Thomas and Irving will garner very different contract offers this summer. Irving recently received a max deal in Cleveland. Thomas has received interest from several teams—most notably the Pistons—but will certainly not cash in like his counterpart. Whatever the end result, this summer figures to be the latest chapter in the careers of Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas.