Kyrie Irving was the third ranked overall recruit out of high school in 2010. He then played point guard under coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke University, was chosen #1 overall in the 2011 NBA draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers and proceeded to win the Rookie of the Year award. His personality is both teammate and fan friendly, paving the way for him to be embraced by Cleveland at a time when the city desperately needs a new star. To put it simply, Kyrie Irving’s life is better than yours.
That resume doesn’t exactly scream “under the radar.” So am I crazy? Maybe just presenting a typical pro-Duke view of things? Or even worse, laying out a Skip Bayless type of discussion where I can give generalized personal feelings of Irving while failing to acknowledge the existence of another side to the argument? Let’s take a look.
Yes, Kyrie Irving was the #3 overall recruit in 2010, but his name only started to rise up the charts after his Junior Season in 2009. Just a couple of months later, Irving committed to Duke. Without a lengthy recruiting process, he was freed of the unnecessary attention. The first time I heard discussions on the best middle school basketball players in the country, I almost fainted. Maybe a kid is really good enough to be ranked, but it seems unfair for the media to take away the privacy of the child by labeling him a star athlete before hitting puberty. Austin Rivers dealt with this kind of recruitment, and was well known throughout the country barely into his high school playing career. To be fair, I’m sure some players love all the attention that comes from the recruiting love fest, and more power to them, but I liked the fact that Kyrie committed to Duke just before his high school basketball reputation started to reach a level that could have cause his recruitment to become unhealthy. (I.E. Tony Parker’s “wankfest”)
Being recruited to be a point guard for Mike Krzyzewski comes with a ton of pressure considering Coach K’s great history with point guards. Bobby Hurley is considered the ultimate Duke point guard, as he was basically an extension of Krzyzewski on the court, but Coach K has had many different types. Some were score-first point guards like Johnny Dawkins, William Avery and Jason Williams, while others were pass-first, hustling point guards guards like Tommy Amaker, Quinn Snyder and Steve Wojciechowski. Chris Duhon, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith made tremendous transitions to the position during their Duke careers, and just to prove his flexibility, Coach K even used a combination of three point guards during one time period with Daniel Ewing, DeMarcus Nelson and Sean Dockery. It hasn’t always worked out perfectly, as Greg Paulus and Jeff Capel went through some tough times, but it’s not a fluke that so many ex-point guards for Duke are now coaching.
Krzyzewski stated after Kyrie’s commitment that he was going to change the tempo of Duke’s offense to accommodate his new star’s up-tempo style of play, which should have told me everything I needed to know, but I wanted to judge for myself. I remember the first time I saw Irving in a Duke uniform was during the Blue-White scrimmage at Midnight Madness (or whatever it’s called at this point). Seth Curry was matched up as the point guard on one team, Kyrie on the others. Curry received the ball and dribbled up the court. Irving quickly stripped him without any effort, grabbing the ball and the reigns of a Duke team with seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler like it was his birthright. Right from the start, he dominated high profile matchups versus Kansas State, Michigan State, Marquette and Butler. Late in the Butler game, it looked like he stubbed his toe, but he finished out the game.
After the game, though, the injury was diagnosed as much more serious than first thought, and Kyrie’s Duke career was all but a memory. He worked his rear end off and made it back for the NCAA Tournament, even hitting the game winning shot against Michigan and dominating the game offensively versus Arizona, but the chemistry that Duke had been forced to build together while Irving was out was disrupted. His toe injury did not allow him to do much running while he was out, and it hurt the team on the defensive end, as he had trouble getting back in transition, where Arizona had a field day in one of the most efficiently played second halves I have ever seen in my life, giving me nightmares for months to come. (Topping my previous record of a couple of weeks of nightmares after watching the guy in Poltergeist rip off his face when I was seven years old)
Arizona’s Derrick Williams put on quite a show against Duke and in the rest of the NCAA Tournament that season, bringing him enough momentum for some to say he was the worthy #1 pick in the draft. Irving was out of action for all but 11 games in the season, and when a player doesn’t play, nitpicking about imaginary deficiencies (not enough experience) begins. Many labeled the 2011 NBA draft as terrible, so Irving going #1 to the Cleveland Cavaliers was considered not so much that he was a great player, but instead due to the fact that the draft was so weak.
Irving and his new team were dealing initially with some tricky situations. A short training camp and preseason because of the NBA lockout made things tough on rookies. The Cavaliers, after losing Lebron James two years prior, were at the bottom of the barrel in terms of general fan interest, so they had a grand total of zero nationally televised games. Irving, without much help, would typically try to get his teammates involved in the first three quarters of games, but developed a reputation of taking over in the 4th quarter. He hit multiple games winning shots, and 82games.com developed “clutch stats” which are statistics of a player during games with less than five minutes left and neither team ahead by more than five points. Irving came out on top, ahead of players, like Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony.
Major media outlets don’t spend too much time on teams that are floundering, and because of this Kyrie was not discussed on many NBA programs. He took his one chance in the national spotlight, the 2012 Rising Stars game during All-Star Weekend, to showcase his talents. Irving scored 34 points and made each of his eight three point attempts, showing viewers what they were missing while watching flashy players and feel good stories like Ricky Rubio and Jeremy Lin. Unfortunately, the losses piled up for Cleveland and Irving suffered some unfortunate injuries as the season went on, but he developed more than enough of a resume to win the Rookie of the Year Award in a landslide vote. But if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s listening…(yep, I went full-on cliché right there).
Despite Irving’s otherworldly skillset, his personality has always come across as selfless and humble. His mother tragically passed away from an illness when he was just four years old, and he keeps pictures of her so she is always with him. Raised in New Jersey, his father Drederick (a great basketball player for Boston University in his own right) would take him to New York City to play in tougher games to develop Kyrie’s edge and his competitiveness. His teammates constantly talk about how humble he is and how he can fit in with every type of player on the Cavs team. It always impressed me how upbeat Irving was while he was injured at Duke. An argument could be made that he actually became the team’s most high profile cheerleader from the bench, emotionally investing himself into the games and rooting his teammates on.
Irving plays with an efficiency level that true basketball fans can appreciate, but is difficult to capture on highlight reels. He is athletic, but not to the level of a Derrick Rose or a Russell Westbrook. He is a great passer, but not to the level of a Steve Nash or a Ricky Rubio. He rebounds well, but not to the level of a Rajon Rondo or a Jason Kidd. When I watch Kyrie, I see him thinking the game faster than anyone he plays against. His instincts are tremendous, allowing him to play a step ahead of his opponents, creating angles and mismatches before others can react. What he lacks in pure speed he makes up for in the quickness of his moves, leaving defenders grasping at air, and he finishes with his left hand with equal prowess as his right, which is very rare for a young player.
Visibility is the only thing holding Irving back at this point, and that is about to hopefully change. First, the NBA knows that Kyrie plays and acts the right way, and should look to promote him more next season. Next, the Cavs will build around Kyrie so he can be more than a one man show. Miles and Mason Plumlee are quality players, but when they played with Kyrie at Duke, they looked like stars. That was no accident. He makes his teammates better. Lastly, the Cavs had to be hesitant to place any undue pressure on a player to become the face of the franchise after the Lebron fiasco. Irving has now proven he can handle any amount of pressure, so look for more promotion from the Cleveland organization.
So despite all of Irving’s accolades, the general public has not yet caught on based on a short recruitment, a freshman year at Duke cut short by injury, and an NBA rookie year with no nationally televised games. Outside of Duke and Cleveland Cavalier fans, it is generally hard to find many basketball fans that have seen Kyrie play. Therefore, until next season, the #1 draft pick and NBA Rookie of the Year can still be called under the radar without any hint of irony.
Hold on…it’s too late? Kyrie’s taken it upon himself to write, direct and star in a Pepsi Max viral advertisement that has taken on a life of its own, shown in 30 second clips during the NBA finals? Oh well. I guess technically Kyrie Irving can still be a secret among the general public. Uncle Drew, on the other hand…