Biggest Hurdles Kyrie Irving Must Clear To Become Legit NBA Superstar
To contend for All-NBA honors and prove his worth as a truly legit superstar, however, Irving will need to clear four key hurdles in terms of his individual production.
While first duplicating the All-Star success he achieved in 2012-13, Irving will also need to capitalize on the talent around him by increasing his individual assist total.
Beyond that, he will now be asked to play through the bumps and bruises that may have been used to sideline him previously in Cleveland while also emerging as a competent defender for the Cavaliers.
If he can accomplish that much, while working to help Cleveland secure a playoff berth, Irving will finish the year ranked among the NBA's top 15 players and remove any doubt regarding the legitimacy of his superstar status moving forward.
Duplicate All-Star Success
The superstar discussion for Irving begins with an assumption of All-Star level production again in 2013-14.
While that's certainly fair and likely for the point guard who averaged 22.5 points and 5.9 assists on 45.2 percent shooting a year ago, it still shouldn't be simply dismissed as anything other than a noteworthy hurdle.
Despite having more talent around him now in Cleveland, through the additions of Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark, Anthony Bennett, Sergey Karasev and the prospects of a healthy Andrew Bynum, Irving will remain the primary focal point of opposing defenses on a nightly basis.
He will need to combat a collection of defenders equipped with two years of NBA game film highlighting when and where Irving likes to attack, who are also tasked with the specific goal of slowing him down. Unlike last season, Irving will also be competing with a healthy Derrick Rose, a revamped roster around Deron Williams and other elite guards for one of a few spots on this year's Eastern Conference All-Star team.
While I expect Irving to overcome these challenges by increasing his numbers across the board, that accomplishment shouldn't be viewed as a mere given—regardless of how easy he makes it look when he's out there.
Increase Assist Total
While injuries played a role in preventing players like Derrick Rose and even Rajon Rondo from securing that honor, this group still represented the elite at the point guard position. In addition to the work they each put in scoring the ball, Paul, Parker and Westbrook each ranked in the top eight among all players in the league with 9.7, 7.6 and 7.4 assists, respectively.
Kyrie Irving, meanwhile, finished in a tie for 26th with 5.9 dimes. To be considered a legit NBA superstar, Irving will need to increase his assist total to at least seven per night in order to compare favorably with the elite at his position.
As opposed to hoping teammates like Luke Walton convert his assists last year, however, Irving should see his totals improve simply by passing to better, more improved players. So long as Jarrett Jack, Anthony Bennett and an improving young core featuring Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson are able to help, Irving should reach this total as a facilitator with relative ease.
Assists like this lob from half court that Irving left for Waiters during the Cavs' preseason matchup with the Orlando Magic could add up quickly throughout the year.
Play Through the Bumps and Bruises
With nothing to play for over the last two seasons, the Cavaliers were extremely cautious in keeping Irving out of the lineup based on what seemed at times to be even the remote threat of injury.
Irving was unfairly labeled by some critics who didn't understand the circumstances surrounding the time he missed as injury prone or even soft. Regardless of how warranted criticisms were then, however, Irving must prove those skeptics wrong by setting a career-high in games played this season.
While every player in the league can only hope to remain healthy throughout the course of an NBA grind, Irving can work to extend his appearances by playing through the bumps and bruises he may not have previously in Cleveland.
Figuring to be in contention for a postseason berth, the Cavs may not have the reasons they once did to ask Irving to sit on nights he could potentially play. His ability to produce under those circumstances will go a long way to establishing his place among the NBA's elite superstars.
Become a Competent Defender
Nobody is asking Kyrie Irving to evolve into the second coming of Gary Payton for the Cavaliers under coach Mike Brown. What he will need to become, though, is a competent defender who's willing to put consistent work in on that side of the ball.
For Irving, this means aligning himself in a proper defensive stance as many times as possible on a per-possession basis throughout the season. It also means that he must work to put himself in proper position in help side defense as well as pick-and-roll situations.
Irving won't have to execute flawlessly 100 percent of the time on defense, but he will need to continue the commitment and willingness he's demonstrated throughout training camp and make himself accountable defensively.
If he's able to take that step and eliminate the only real criticism about his game along the way, Irving will become a complete superstar worthy of all praise and accolades he has coming.
Work Toward Playoffs In Process
Irving doesn't have to technically secure a playoff berth during the 2013-14 campaign in order to prove himself as a legitimate superstar.
If he is able to duplicate his All-Star success by scoring in the 22-points-per-night range throughout the year while also increasing his assist total, game appearances and defensive production, he will have done all he can to help Cleveland compete in the process.
The leadership he's being asked to assume this season would be demonstrated by his desire to improve defensively. The hope in Cleveland from there would be that his young teammates follow suit by maximizing their respective roles to help Irving's brilliance lead them to the postseason.
But while a playoff trip may put Irving over the top in terms of superstardom, it won't be required just yet for the for the point guard who doesn't turn 22 until March.
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