Kyrie Irving has an opportunity to establish himself as a top-three point guard in the NBA next season. Despite the overall depth at his position, Irving's natural progression heading into his third year is very much trending in that direction.
While playing for a Cleveland Cavaliers team that finished the 2012-13 campaign with the third-worst record in the league, Irving became the sixth-youngest All-Star in NBA history.
Only Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Kevin Garnett and Isiah Thomas were younger than Irving when they each made their All-Star debuts.
This summer, Irving's star continued to rise with a standout performance at Team USA's training camp in Las Vegas. During an exhibition scrimmage to close the competition, Irving finished with a game-high 23 points to go along with seven assists.
This performance came on the heels of averaging 22.5 points and 5.9 assists during his second professional season, after earning rookie-of-the-year honors in 2012.
In order for Irving to emerge as a top-three point guard, however, he must first find a way to stay healthy on a more consistent basis than he has thus far in his professional career.
Under coach Mike Brown's direction, Irving must also improve his production on the defensive end of the floor while still maintaining his offensive efficiency. Additionally, in order to fully separate himself from his peers, Irving will need to embrace more of a leadership role for the Cavaliers as well.
If he is able to demonstrate improvement in each category, Irving could become a top-three player at his position much sooner than many people expected when he first broke into the league.
Step 1 for Kyrie Irving Is Staying Healthy
Kyrie Irving has now had two seasons of professional experience to properly adjust his body to the NBA grind. He will also enter the 2013-14 campaign on a Cleveland Cavaliers team which projects to legitimately compete for a playoff spot for the first time in Irving's career.
During his first two seasons, Irving was sidelined with injuries for 25.6 percent of the 148 total games his team played, including 23 games missed last year due to a series of various injuries. He also missed 15 games during the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12
It's worth noting, however, that the Cavaliers organization has operated with extreme caution in regard to Irving's health thus far, and with good reason. Whether he played in all 82 games last year or not, for example, the Cavs weren't coming anywhere close to the postseason based on the talent around Irving.
With the additions of No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett and free agents Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and Andrew Bynum, along with development of Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller, Cleveland expects to play meaningful games well past the All-Star break.
Based on this opportunity, the Cavs may be more willing to allow Irving to play through various dings and bruises throughout the season, when they might not have allowed him in the past.
Beyond that, like all players, Irving will also need some luck in avoiding the more serious injuries that can only be left to heal on the sidelines.
If he can improve his career appearance rate of 74.4 percent to least 85.3 percent this year—or play in 70-plus games this season—Irving will put himself in a position to emerge as a top-three point guard.
Irving Must Improve Defensively Under Coach Mike Brown
In order to establish himself among the elite players at his position, Kyrie Irving must improve defensively in 2013-14. I'm certainly not suggesting that he needs to channel his inner Gary Payton, but Irving will need to be better defensively under Coach Mike Brown.
According to 82games.com, opposing point guards averaged 21.4 points and 9.5 assists on 50.8-percent shooting per 48 minutes against the Cavaliers last season. Irving will need to do his part to improve that number significantly in order to maximize his net impact on the court.
In fairness to Irving, however, the Cavaliers did not demonstrate a collective emphasis on defense last year under Coach Byron Scott. As a team, Cleveland ranked last in the league by allowing opponents to shoot 47.6 percent on a nightly basis.
Under Brown, along with an improvement in overall talent, that production should improve dramatically.
As an individual defender, assuming he embraces the defensive principles Brown will teach, expect Irving's impact on that side of the ball to also improve.
Offensively, Kyrie Just Needs to Keep Being Himself
Kyrie Irving might be the most skilled point guard in the NBA right now.
His ball-handling brilliance and ability to change directions with the crossover move is unrivaled at this point in his professional career. Irving has also entered the league already equipped with the lost art of the jump shot.
As compared to Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker—the three point guards who were each named to the All-NBA team in 2012-13—Irving's production was extremely competitive in the three major offensive categories highlighted above.
With Derrick Rose's return from injury next season, along with the return of Rajon Rondo, the emergence of Damian Lillard and the continued brilliance of Stephen Curry, Irving may need to lead all point guards in scoring to finish among the top three at his position.
He also could stand to improve his playmaking ability by at least one assist in 2013-14 while maintaining his efficiency from three-point range. As evidenced by Irving's statistical production last season, however, each of those improvements is well within reach.
Irving Must Now Embrace a Leadership Role
In order for the Cavaliers to win basketball games in 2013-14 and ultimately make a push toward the postseason, their best player must also be their best leader.
As a 20-year-old rookie, Kyrie Irving started alongside Antawn Jamison, for example, who was a member of the Golden State Warriors when Irving was seven.
It's difficult for anyone to come into a job and start telling people who are 15 years older what they should be doing. It's especially difficult when that person, like Jamison was for the Cavaliers, is also your team's second-leading scorer.
Heading into his third NBA season, however, Irving has done enough for his teammates to expect him to lead. It wasn't necessarily his place to do so as a rookie, or even last year, but it is Irving's place to lead now.
Whether that is with his words, his actions or a combination of both, Irving will ultimately need to take steps toward becoming the floor general that Chris Paul and Tony Parker have become in order to earn a spot among the league's top three point guards.
While he hasn't necessarily done so yet, expect Irving to embrace that evolution now and become a leader worthy of his superstar game.
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