Can Canadian Youngsters Be Cleveland Cavaliers' Long-Term Core?

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistJune 28, 2014

Solving the riddle of the Cleveland Cavaliers begins with one very obvious precept: Kyrie Irving needs help.

So it is that the franchise has imported the very best Canada has to offer in a bid to assemble a core that can reach the postseason and make some noise while there. The latest of those pieces is 2014 No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, an athletic specimen who already defends at an NBA level.

A prospect who's already showing off some serious ambition.

"I want to come in and create an impact off the bat, offensively and defensively, be a good teammate, be a good part of the organization," Wiggins said, according to Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy. "I want to be on the All-Defensive team, be Rookie of the Year, make the All-Star team."

As good as Wiggins can be individually—at least in time—Cleveland has the potential to be far more than a two-man show.

That's where Wiggins' Canadian cohorts enter. The incoming rookie explained his relationship with his new teammates and fellow countrymen, per Basketball Insiders

...I’m just looking to playing it for my fellow Canadians, A.B. [Anthony Bennett] and Tristan [Thompson]. ... I played with Tristan for a summer AAU, and I played with Anthony for a while on the AAU circuit and the national level, too. So I’m just excited. You know, the chemistry is already there with those guys. I played with them already. So I think big things are to come.

When the luster of the reunion tour wears off, it should be readily apparent to all involved that some serious work remains to be done. New head coach David Blatt wouldn't have it any other way. His arrival theoretically signals the organization's commitment to creating some stability, creating a foundation upon which Irving and Co. can thrive.

Irving has and will continue to do his part. 

And even if Wiggins' offensive game is raw from the outset, he'll make important contributions. The rest of his game will have some time to grow thanks to Dion Waiters' presence on the wing.

Early on, Wiggins will be a defensive force on the perimeter, using his length and quickness to frustrate ball-handlers and intrude on passing lanes. Later on, the sky is the limit for the 19-year-old out of Kansas.

As general manager David Griffin admitted, per Michael Beaven of the Akron Beacon Journal, "All of our scouts felt like he had the most upside."

Beaven notes that "Griffin praised Wiggins for his solid defensive skills during a television interview with ESPN, and compared him to Shawn Marion. Others have compared him to Tracy McGrady, as an athletic player with elite leaping ability."

Whether more Marion or McGrady, the safe bet is that Wiggins will be an integral part of the Cavs' plans going forward. It's unlikely he'll be a bust, even if he falls oh-so-short of becoming a legitimate superstar. The tools are all there, and so too is a commensurate attitude—a drive to be exceptional.

And for his part, Wiggins has high hopes for his new teammates, saying, per Beaven, "They’re young, they like to run and they are athletic. They are all aggressive and I think we will all get along."

Hopefully Wiggins' faith is well-founded.

Though the optimism isn't entirely without basis, nor is it perfectly consistent with reality on the ground.

There have been intimations, for example, that Irving and Waiters don't get along especially well. ESPN's Chris Broussard reported back in November that, "Waiters, whom the Cavaliers drafted with the No. 4 pick in 2012, has a contentious relationship with several teammates, including star point guard Kyrie Irving, and sources say he is open to being traded." 

Broussard also shared specifics of one incident within the Cavs locker room:

Irving called the meeting after the game, and every player spoke. When Waiters was given the floor, he criticized Thompson and Irving, accusing them of playing 'buddy ball' and often refusing to pass to him. Thompson took umbrage with Waiters' words and went back at him verbally. The two confronted each other, but teammates intervened before it could escalate into a fight.

Irving and Waiters have subsequently attempted to assuage any concerns that their relationship is anything other than peachy.

From the outside, it's difficult to decipher the truth from fictions and exaggerations. But it's safe to say Wiggins may be walking into a situation that's slightly more complicated than meets the eye. Despite his belief that the Cavs will "all get along," according Beaven there's "at least some evidence to the contrary."

Maybe that means Waiters' days are numbered. Maybe the tensions were overstated and all will fall into place.

But this much is certain: The Cavaliers aren't yet a well-oiled machine with a clearly defined culture. It's a young squad that's suffered through a revolving door of coaches, a discombobulated club that will attempt to discover its identity under Blatt.

Important as Waiters and Irving are to the equation, this team isn't going anywhere without big contributions from Wiggins' fellow Canadians, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett.

In a perfect world, the presence of all three will have a synergistic effect. Between their prior experience with one another and eagerness to play together, the Cavs may have ready-made chemistry for years to come.

In the best of scenarios, that chemistry could even elicit better play from Thompson and Bennett.

The 23-year-old Thompson has been remarkably consistent through his second and third season. In 2013-14, he averaged 11.7 points and 9.2 rebounds, showing the kind of energy on the glass that made him the fourth overall pick in 2011.

The big question for Thompson is whether he can diversify his offensive game, developing a consistent 15-footer that would help the Cavs space the floor a bit. That need for spacing was the primary impetus behind acquiring Spencer Hawes last season, but Thompson's evolution would mitigate the need for a stretch 5 like Hawes.

Here's a look at where Thompson did most of his damage last season.

Meanwhile, Bennett remains Cleveland's principal source of uncertainty. More than any other Cavalier, he stands to benefit from the infusion of another familiar face.

The 2013 No. 1 overall pick didn't exactly shine as a rookie. The 21-year-old was limited to just 12.8 minutes per contest in 52 games, and seemed to admit after the season that he wasn't as NBA-ready as some might have hoped.

While injuries and conditioning played a role in Bennett's slow start, there have been precious few indications that he has the makings of a star in this league. If there's one reason to doubt the Canadian trio at the heart of Cleveland's plans, it's Bennett.

It's too soon to officially declare the UNLV product a bust, but it's also pretty hard to get excited about what he'll bring to the table down the road. It's sure to be an improvement upon the 4.2 points he averaged this season, but just how much of an improvement is anyone's guess.

In turn, Cleveland's future is still something of a mystery. If 2013-14 wasn't a turnaround year, there's little guaranteeing 2014-15's results will be much better. 

It remains unclear how Blatt will put the pieces together, but things are at least beginning to take shape. Wiggins reasons to become a second star around which to build. Thompson should be the team's power forward of the future. Bennett will either start at the 3-spot or come off the bench as a versatile sixth man.

Given the sheer talent on this roster, it's worth waiting things out another season or two. Perhaps Wiggins was the missing ingredient. Perhaps Bennett is a late bloomer.

Perhaps this Canadian core is all Kyrie Irving will ever need.


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