Re-Evaluating Kyrie Irving's NBA Future

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Re-Evaluating Kyrie Irving's NBA Future
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A year ago, the name Kyrie Irving ushered in thoughts of devastating crossovers and spins, relentless assaults on the scoreboard and tremendous amounts of untapped potential. 

The Cleveland Cavaliers landed a stud in the 2011 NBA draft, and this wasn't any normal point guard. This was a surefire superstar, a player who would undoubtedly rise to the top of the ranks at his position. And even though he was just a precocious teenager, it was going to happen sooner rather than later. 

Well, that paragraph reads a bit funny in 2014. 

Irving's growth has stagnated after two stellar seasons to start his professional career, and the untapped potential is now joined by quite a few concerns. From his porous defense to his shocking lack of leadership for a struggling Cleveland squad, there's been a lot to question during the 2013-14 season. 

Even though we're only nearing the end of his third go-round calling The Q home, it's already time to re-evaluate Irving's NBA future and see if he's still the can't-miss prospect he was once made out to be. 

 

The Past

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

As soon as he left Duke and was drafted No. 1 by the Cavaliers, Irving was going to be a superstar. 

There was no doubt present in most basketball minds, and the question revolving around his future status as the No. 1 point guard in the Association was more a matter of "when" than "if."

With just a few days left in 2012, ESPN ran a series of questions about which players would be best when 2015 rolled around. Unsurprisingly, the point guard section belonged to Uncle Drew, as the five writers universally gave Irving the title, or at least mentioned him.

Kevin Arnovitz picked Chris Paul, but he did call Irving the upstart among the ranks of Paul and Derrick Rose. Hardwood Paroxysm's Noam Schiller also rolled with CP3, but he conceded, "I wanted to be the guy who said Kyrie Irving, but not in 2015, when Paul just turns 30."

The other three all went with the Cleveland standout.

Graydon Gordian of 48 Minutes of Hell and Red94's Michael Pina both had nothing but praise for Irving, but Darius Soriano, who writes for Forum Blue and Gold, was by far the most effusive:

Kyrie Irving. Point guard is such a stacked position -- especially with young players -- that projecting who will rule the league is difficult. But Irving is already very productive, amazingly skilled and playing with a poise beyond his years. As he continues his ascent as a player, I don't see any point guard who has both the foundation of an elite game today and so much room to grow and refine his skill. Him reaching his incredibly high ceiling isn't a question, it's just a matter of time.

It wasn't just ESPN who was riding the Irving hype train, though.  

Dan Lippitt/Getty Images

In September of 2011, Tom Ziller and the NBA team at SBNation.com ran through their top 99 players for 2015. Irving landed at No. 26, and this was before he'd ever suited up for the Cavaliers, mind you. 

Only seven floor generals were ahead of him—Rajon Rondo (No. 17), Austin Rivers (No. 14...yikes), Russell Westbrook (No. 13), John Wall (No. 11), Deron Williams (No. 7), Chris Paul (No. 6) and Derrick Rose (No. 5). 

Again, this was before the start of his rookie season.

That's hype. 

Two years later, Ziller and Co. revisited their predictions and said this about the young point guard: "He landed about 15 spots too low." 

Heading into the 2013 season, Irving was still viewed as a future top-10 player in the NBA, and the feeling that he would become a top point guard remained nearly omnipresent. I certainly thought he'd be one, especially since he was coming off a season in which he averaged 22.5 points and 5.9 assists per game with a 21.4 player efficiency rating, per Basketball-Reference.

But reputations are fickle beasts in the NBA. 

All it took for Irving to change his own was a couple of struggle-filled months. 

 

The Present 

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

21.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 6.5 assists per contest while shooting 43 percent from the field, 37 percent beyond the arc and 86.5 percent at the charity stripe. 

Those are pretty great numbers, but they still don't meet the expectations that Irving had set for himself. He has the standout nature of his rookie and sophomore campaigns to thank for that. 

Not only has Irving's overall game taken a slight step in the wrong direction—which is even worse than just a failure to continue improving on the developmental curve so many assumed he'd follow—but there has been nothing but trouble in Cleveland. 

The Cavaliers went through some serious rough patches during the early portion of the 2013-14 campaign, and they're still struggling to claw their way back into postseason contention. Heading into their showdown with the Charlotte Bobcats, they were sitting at 24-38 on the season, 2.5 games shy of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. 

Now the blame for this shouldn't rest squarely on Irving's shoulders. 

That would be nonsensical, seeing as his play is one of the few things that kept this team even moderately afloat. The supporting cast—and the front office, which assembled the lackluster collection of talent—should be held more responsible for the failure. 

However, Irving's attitude and lack of leadership have cast him in a rather negative light during all the struggles. 

Throwing aside the incessant rumors that he wants out of Cleveland, we still have a pair of reports from Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal

"Two opposing general managers this season have told me they think Irving is pouting. Over what is anyone's guess," Lloyd reported two months ago, back when Cleveland was consistently unable to turn around their mid-season slump.

Shortly after that, it got even worse:

The rumbles within the Cavaliers locker room have been growing louder for weeks. Players who initially didn’t want to talk about what is plaguing this team are beginning to open up, and most of the issues are pointing back to guards Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, along with an unhappiness with Mike Brown and his staff.

“He’s acting like he doesn’t care,” one Cavs player said of Irving.

That wasn't it.

"Irving’s behavior has also irritated teammates and other members of the organization," Lloyd continued later on in the second article, "But the Cavs are expected to offer him a max contract extension this summer and aren’t believed to be considering trading him."

Between the inability to pull his team out of the dumps, the declining nature of his game—All-Star MVP notwithstanding—and the complete lack of leadership, Irving's reputation took a handful of serious blows. 

In fact, it got to the point that some started wondering about his status as an elite floor general. 

Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

Bleacher Report's Sean Hojnacki questioned whether the 21-year-old was even a top-10 player at his position, and he made no effort to delay the conclusion. Below you can find the second paragraph of his piece:

There is no denying that Irving was on almost everyone's list of top-10 point guards—and plenty of top-five lists—before this season started, but what a difference a year makes! We examine Irving's recent play and also consider his disgruntled attitude regarding the Cavs' losing ways. After delineating the league's best point guards into three tiers, it is clear that Irving has indeed fallen out of the top 10 despite his potent stats.  

Let's see. 

Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Mike Conley, Ty Lawson, Russell Westbrook, Goran Dragic, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker and John Wall certainly deserve to be ahead of him right now, and you could make cases for Isaiah Thomas and Kyle Lowry as well. Plus there's Derrick Rose, who remains an enigma after his latest knee injury.

Basically he's right on the fringe of the top 10, at least in my book, acknowledging that these debates are inherently subjective. 

At the very least, Irving certainly doesn't belong in the top-five discussion anymore.

As Hojnacki opined, oh what a difference a year can make. 

 

The Future

David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Does this season actually matter in the grand scheme of things? 

Irving could very easily turn this into a one-year aberration, a single go-round that serves as a plateau in his development. He could easily waltz on by it, showcasing quite a few improved skills when the 2014-15 campaign rolls around. 

It's not exactly breaking news to reveal that many young players have hit roadblocks in the past. Show me one who hasn't, and I'll doubt your ability to remember that player's entire career. Maybe their roadblock wasn't as long as a whole season, but one certainly still existed. 

Lest it be forgotten or overlooked, Irving is only 21 years old.

He's had less than one calendar year to consume adult beverages, and he's still not old enough to rent a car from most agencies without paying the underage fee. 

Even though he's taken a step in the wrong direction, he's light years ahead of where most players were at 21. In fact, let's take a look at how a few of the NBA's current standouts fared when they were still blessed by such youth: 

NBA Point Guards at 21
Player PPG APG TS% PER
Kyrie Irving 21.5 6.3 53.5 20.3
Chris Paul 17.3 8.9 53.7 22.0
Russell Westbrook 16.1 8.0 49.1 17.8
Stephen Curry 17.5 5.9 56.8 16.3
John Wall 16.3 8.0 50.2 17.7
Rajon Rondo 10.6 5.1 51.5 15.6

Basketball-Reference

And those are some of the best point guards the Association has to offer. Imagine comparing him to lower-level players.

Additionally, the leadership concerns seem to be falling by the wayside as the season progresses. Earlier in his career—hell, earlier this season even—Irving was unlikely to take responsibility for the Cavaliers failures, but he's done exactly that when discussing early miscommunication with Spencer Hawes. 

"For me, it’s frustrating from a point guard standpoint because I keep messing up our pick-and-roll," he recently told Scott Sargent of WaitingForNextYear.com. "He taps himself on the chest saying it’s his fault, but mainly it’s my fault. Getting used to that pick-and-roll with him—I know he’s a pick-and-pop big. We’re going to get on the same page."

That's a nice development, even if you'd rather no one has to take responsibility for shortcomings because those failures don't actually exist. 

The expectations have already been tempered for Irving, but they shouldn't just fall off the face of the earth. Irving still appears likely to become a multi-year All-Star starter, and he could still challenge the top of the position within the next few years. 

2015 might be a bit soon, but 2016 sure seems possible. 

The Duke product hasn't shown much development in 2013-14, but the marketable skills are already there.

Few players are better at handling the ball, and you could make a serious case that Irving is already the best of the bunch thanks to his combination of shifty dribbling skills and Houdini-esque body control. His shooting is sublime when his stroke looks consistent and comfortable, and he's shown flashes of elite court vision and distribution skills. 

Plus, things have been looking up lately. 

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Over his last five games heading into the matchup with Kemba Walker, Irving averaged 25.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 7.8 assists per contest, and he shot 49.5 percent from the field, 41.4 percent beyond the arc and 96.2 percent from the free-throw line. Those are the numbers we've been expecting to see, and there's no reason he can't put them up on a more consistent basis when he has even more experience under his belt. 

Will Kyrie Irving ever be the best point guard in the NBA?

Submit Vote vote to see results

Defense is always going to be problematic, but it's not like he ever resembled a lockdown player on the less glamorous end of the court. 

If you want to re-evaluate Irving's future as an NBA superstar, it's really not that hard. The expectations shouldn't have shifted much during the 2013-14 campaign; they just have to be moved back by a year or two. 

You might not want to use a pen anymore, but you can still pencil in Irving as one of the NBA's most promising players. 

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