Where Kyrie Irving Ranks Among the NBA's Best Point Guards
To say Kyrie Irving has made a splash in the NBA in his rookie season would be an extreme understatement. With one month to go in the regular season, Irving has met and surpassed all of the expectations of a No. 1 overall pick. He has most definitely earned recognition as one of the top point guards in the NBA.
But how good is he? Where does Irving stand among the best point guards in the NBA?
The NBA is still in the era of the point guard. When considering the best players in the league, shooting guards, small forwards and centers seem to still rule the roost. But no position is as deep or as talented as point guard.
From crafty veterans like Steve Nash and Tony Parker who are still carving up NBA defenses, to the next generation of ultra-athletic lead guards like Derrick Rose and John Wall, the depth of the position doesn’t look like it’s going to decrease anytime soon.
Enter Irving. After one season filled with highlights and injuries at Duke University, Irving was drafted first overall in the 2011 NBA draft. Out of college, Irving wasn’t the most athletic player, or the fastest. He was a pretty good shooter and a fairly solid defender. However, there was something about how he played the game that made him the clear choice for the top pick.
He hasn’t let anyone down.
Here's where Irving ranks among the rest of the elite point guards in the NBA.
The cream of the crop.
Derrick Rose was drafted by Chicago after leading the Memphis Tigers to the national championship game in 2007. A pure athlete, Rose made his living by cutting through defenses and finishing tough at the rim.
Throughout his years in the NBA, Rose has developed into the total package. He seems to only get more and more athletic with each passing year, and he has developed a very nice outside shooting touch.
Defensively, Rose is a beast. He is as strong of a point guard as you will find, and he uses that strength to intimidate opponents and push them around.
As good as Kyrie Irving is, he has a ways to go to reach the level of Rose, who can put his team on his back and carry them if they are struggling. Irving has shown signs of that in his rookie campaign, especially with his performances in the fourth quarter of games, but he’s not quite at Rose’s level.
Irving needs to get a little stronger and develop more of a bulldog mentality on defense to even be considered with Rose. The two have different styles and are excellent at what they do. But Rose has the advantage over Irving at this point.
At the pace Irving is developing, this might be quite the interesting debate a couple years down the road.
Deron Williams heads up the elite group of point guards that follow Derrick Rose. It’s the combination of Wiliams’ skill-set and his unrivaled killer mentality that ranks him so high on this list.
Williams has taken on a bit of a new persona this year. He’s gone from a quiet, solid player, to a player who seems to take every matchup personally.
Just look at his matchup with Jeremy Lin during “Linsanity.” He made it his mission to show the world that he was the best point guard on the floor that night, and he certainly succeeded, scoring 38 points to seal the Nets’ win.
There is just that something about him this year that I haven’t seen before. I’ve seen it in games with the Cavaliers, when he would look at Kyrie Irving like he wanted to remind him that he was the rookie. It’s an old-school mentality that is seldom seen in this era, the era of great players who’d all prefer to play on the same team. Kobe Bryant's got it, so does D-Will.
As a rookie, Irving hasn’t developed that quite yet, though he has gone toe-to-toe with Williams in their games this season. Williams is just about the perfect blend of skill, athleticism (see video) and will.
The only problem with Williams is that he’s stuck on a bad team, with an owner who can’t get him any help.
Seriously, look at the Nets roster. Normally, I would say something negative about him not being able to win games for his team, but I don’t know if anyone could win with that roster.
Regardless, Williams ultimately will be marked down by some people because he’s never won anything. Still, at this point, I would rank him higher than Irving.
This is where things get a little interesting for me. Chris Paul is an elite player in the NBA. Supremely talented with the dribble and with his shot, Paul has been a big reason that the Los Angeles Clippers (yes, those Los Angeles Clippers) are sitting in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race.
Having said that, I really struggle to say that I’d rather have Paul right now than Kyrie Irving.
Coming into the league, Irving was compared to Paul. This was most likely due to the fact that there is an overwhelming need for people to compare young players to the veteran they most resemble. However, I think Irving has displayed better athleticism and body control than anyone expected, and I think it puts him on par with Paul as a game-changing player.
Paul is still a bit of a more polished shooting threat, but it’s difficult to make an argument that any other part of his game is better than Irving's. Kyrie plays a little bigger, doesn’t get pushed around too much and still makes those jaw-dropping plays that Paul became so famous for.
As a Cavaliers follower, I really tried to look at any reason not to rank Irving this high.
I didn’t succeed.
As a 20-year-old rookie, he has been historically good. You want incredible passing? Check.
The ability to score from anywhere on the court? Check.
Clutch performances? Super check.
Irving has played through about three-quarters of this season with the poise and maturity of a perennial All-Star. He has become the true leader of the franchise, and his teammates have accepted him in that role. Statistically, he’s the best rookie in the NBA and one of the better point guards.
Aside from the most basic statistics, Irving has been impressive in other ways. First, he has become a vocal leader. He has no fear of going up to veteran players and talking to them about where he expects them to be and what he expects them to do. He also doesn't hesitate to calm them down when needed.
It’s amazing to watch the team buy in and allow this kid to take control.
The most impressive thing about Irving has been his ability to take over in clutch time and perform at the highest level. Since the end of February, he is leading the league in fourth-quarter scoring at almost nine points per fourth. That’s better than Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and yes, LeBron James.
Irving has been absolutely stunning for the Cavaliers, and at 20 years old, things only look to get better. He may not quite be on the Derrick Rose-level yet, but that might not be too far off.
Russell Westbrook is a supremely athletic and talented point guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He is an offensive-minded scorer who uses his size and quickness to dominate other point guards.
Having Westbrook has been a blessing for Kevin Durant, who can afford to have a slow night, knowing that his teammate has the firepower to pick him up.
Westbrook is a score-first, distribute-later type of player who will hoist shots from anywhere at any time.
There is no question that Westbrook is one of the most fun players to watch in the NBA.
He’s also one of the most frustrating.
I would classify him as a pretty severe head-case who seems to take everything personal. He has trouble controlling his emotions on the court. It has gotten to the point this year where several Thunder teammates have either had to try to calm him down or yell at him for losing it mentally during games.
Westbrook is also not the smartest player. The Thunder is a team loaded with talented players who can get hot and make plays at any time, especially Durant. Instead of feeding the hot hand like a good point guard would do, Westbrook tries to feed off his teammate’s hot hand and get himself going.
It’s extremely frustrating to watch him take a contested fade-away jumper when Durant has made the past few baskets.
I would take Irving over Westbrook for that reason.
I think Westbrook is the kind of guy who will get unhappy if he isn’t the focal point in every game. I don’t see Irving doing that. Irving is a natural leader. I have yet to see his teammates get angry or frustrated with him during a game. That seems to be at least a weekly occurrence with Westbrook.
Westbrook could be one of the really great players in the NBA, but he needs to screw his head on his shoulders a little tighter, or he’ll never reach that point.
Rajon Rondo is one of my favorite NBA players. He’s undersized, he looks overmatched and he’s not one of the most skilled players out there.
However, Rondo uses his hustle and creativity to make his teammates better. He is a master distributor to his teammates, and when they aren’t hitting their shots, he takes over offensively and hits all kinds of crazy shots.
In recent years, Rondo has improved his shooting and scoring game to become another threat in addition to the Big Three in Boston. When he first entered the league, defenders would sag off and practically beg him to shoot. Not anymore.
Defensively, Rondo is one of the stellar players in the league. He is the definition of pesky and reads passing lanes as well as anyone. He has truly become one of the solid lead guards in the NBA.
But the fact remains that he is still limited by a deficiency in fundamental skills and natural abilities. Though he has improved in many areas, he’s still not going to be listed among the league’s elite in those areas. His jump shot has improved, but it’s not exactly consistent. And though he may be pesky on defense, bigger players can push him around.
Irving is simply a more well-rounded player than Rondo. He has that natural ability to go along with the facilitative mentality to set himself up to be a great point guard. Rondo has the mentality, but not the skill to match.
Before Kyrie Irving was selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, there was John Wall, the super-athlete out of Kentucky.
Wall came into the league with tremendous hype as a freakishly gifted player physically. He is as fast a player as you will see on a basketball court, and he puts moves on defenders that require serious ankle-icing after games.
Wall is a gifted scorer when he uses his quickness to get into the lane and his athleticism to finish at the rim. He is also adept at driving into the lane and finding open teammates when defenses collapse on him. His tremendous court vision allows him to make highlight-reel passes and show-stopping steals on a nightly basis.
The problem with Wall is that he isn’t exactly the definition of efficient. He might make 10 shots in a game, but it’s likely to take him shooting 25-30 times to get that number. The farther away he gets from the hoop, the worse it gets for Wall. He’s actually a pretty bad three-point shooter, which really helps to shrink the court for opposing defenses.
Irving can stretch defenses more than Wall, and he’s more efficient with his decisions. Wall definitely has the edge on speed and athleticism, although not by too much.
Of course, Wall has had to participate with the train wreck that was the Washington Wizards before trying to rid themselves of some kooky players. Wall could be the type who would bloom in a different scenario with a better team.
But Irving is blooming on a pretty weak team, so that may not be much of an excuse for Wall.
Rubio is a real wild card for me in this discussion. He is a player who makes a “wow” play every time he is on the court. He has the vision and passing ability of a young Jayson Williams (yes, that Jason Williams, who used to fill up a SportsCenter Top 10 with his passes every time he played).
On top of his passing, Rubio has shown a solid ability to score, which was a question mark for him while making the transition to the NBA.
Rubio started off the season so well that he had people questioning, and rightly so, who the real Rookie of the Year was in the NBA.
But that talk faded, along with Rubio’s play, as the season moved on. Don’t get me wrong, Rubio was still having a fine season, but there was a noticeable decline in his play.
Then the injury happened.
I think Rubio does just about everything well and could be closer to the top of this list one day. But his injury has prevented me from being able to judge how he holds up over the course of a physically-grueling season.
Stephen Curry is one of the best scoring point guards in the league when he can stay healthy.
Curry is a natural-born scorer who finds ways to make shots when he’s open, in traffic and off balance. It’s incredible to watch him when he has a bigger, more athletic player defending him. Curry always seems to find a way to get that split second of separation to get the ball to the hoop.
The problem with Curry is that he is pretty much a one-dimensional player. He just likes to score.
He is most certainly not a distributor at the lead guard position, and the Golden State Warriors might as well be playing 4-on-5 when he has to defend an opponent.
The other major problem with Curry is that he struggles to stay healthy. He has missed significant time in his young career. As an undersized, yet aggressive player, there’s no reason to think that’s going to change.
Kyrie Irving might not be quite the scorer that Curry is, but he certainly brings more to his team and the game than Curry can offer.
The Best of the Rest
Brandon Jennings: He is another prime scorer who uses a bit of an unorthodox style and some serious quickness to burn teams. Like Curry, he doesn’t bring a real interest in other areas of the game, especially in being a distributor for his team.
Tony Parker: Maybe the 29-year-old player in the league. Parker has so many miles on him that he just can’t perform the way he could four or five years ago. He is still a tremendous ball-handler and passer, but his shooting has not been great and he has become a defensive liability
Steve Nash: If you take all of the players on this list and put them in their prime, Nash is right there with Derrick Rose. He was that good. Though he can still produce and play at a high level, the question remains for how much longer?
Though he’s still quite a good shooter, his agility and quickness have hit a sharp decline and have taken an element away from his game that once made him so special.
Jameer Nelson: He is a guy who, when healthy, is a terrific player for the Magic. The problem is that he’s rarely healthy, and he doesn’t impact seasons for the Magic like he could.
He’s a great scorer, a very good passer and a solid defender. He would be much higher on the list if he wasn’t made of glass.
Jason Kidd: See: Steve Nash.
Jeremy Lin: He's a talented player who could never, ever live up to the kind of hype he received after a torrid debut with the New York Knicks. Since Linsanity ended, Lin has actually continued to play pretty well, though he looks a little slower and has more trouble getting open shots now that teams are actually game-planning for him.
Lin should prove to be a serviceable point guard in the NBA, but probably not one of the elite.