Rookie Spotlight: Are We Really Appreciating Kyrie Irving?

Rob Mahoney@RobMahoneyNBA Lead WriterMarch 23, 2012

David Dow/Getty Images
David Dow/Getty Images

With all due respect to the remainder of a fairly impressive rookie class, this year's Rookie of the Year "race" is a mere formality. Kyrie Irving—the top overall pick in last year's draft—has already been crowned, and rightfully so.

But even with his formal coronation imminent, it's worth considering if we're properly appreciating the arrival of a phenomenal rookie with a fully formed offensive game. We've all seen the numbers, but I wonder if many people have really seen Kyrie—the ahead-of-schedule star of a small-market team that isn't bad enough to be tragic nor good enough to be playoff-relevant.

Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers currently sit in the NBA's obscured middle ground. While that's an impressive accomplishment for a team that seemed destined for misery, it's only seemed to bury the contextual accomplishments of a player deserving of high recognition.

All of that said, a clarification is surely in order: Although Anderson Varejao has had an excellent year, and Antawn Jamison has been more effective than expected, Irving is the saving grace of one of the most under-talented and haphazardly assembled teams in the entire league.

Not that the Cavs are expected to be of particularly sound construction. This is a rebuild, after all.

These Cavaliers aren't even remotely postseason-viable, and yet Irving's tenacity makes them appear so rather routinely; from his polished play comes some semblance of order where, honestly, there ought be none. Cleveland's offense itself isn't exactly sound, and the roster isn't stable enough to rely on talent alone.

Yet there the Cavs were, putting up strong offensive outings against the Celtics (fourth in defensive efficiency), Pacers (ninth) and Knicks (10th) as if it were par for the course.

That's not poise; that's magic. How Irving could propel the Cavs to even the occasional heights is a bit of a basketball mystery, made sensible only by his uncanny control of a game's possessions. He plays with a wisdom both far beyond his years and far beyond our wildest expectations.

Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy echoes this notion (via the Orlando Sentinel):

“I said this the last time we played ’em: This guy’s a great player, and what’s amazing is you don’t feel like when you’re watching him that you’re watching a great young player," Van Gundy said. "It looks like you’re watching a great veteran player: the plays he makes, the demeanor he has on the floor, the way he interacts with his teammates, his decision-making, everything.”

Van Gundy isn't prone to overstatement, and he's certainly not off the mark here. Irving has set an unreasonably high bar for the rookie playmakers of tomorrow, as has Ricky Rubio. Both players have entered the league ready to operate (and, on occasion, defer as mere members of) fully functional offenses. Each have their respective weaknesses, but by and large, Irving and Rubio both started their NBA careers with a complete understanding of how to pick their spots, balance an offense and exploit their individual strengths.

That's just not something that rookies in the NBA often do. We see first-year players flare up and die down over the course of the season, but rare is the rook who can exert any considerable influence over an entire campaign.

Irving has shown the ability to accomplish that much in his sleep, while in his waking life he dribbles through defenders as if he were a living embodiment of moxie. It's entirely possible that in his casual spins through traffic and effortless lay-ins over and around several defenders, Irving makes a complicated game look far too easy. How else can we explain the fact that such a unique talent somehow garners both respect and neglect?

Irving isn't going anywhere, and this season, neither are his Cavs. There is no temporal construct that demands you watch him or his team of questionably fitting parts, nor any sense of urgency that should drive anyone to the Cavs for the sake of dissecting playoff clubs. There's merely Irving himself, and a season in gaudy stat lines, vibrant colors and perfect control.