The leap, that magical time in an NBA athlete's career when his skills and stats improve dramatically, is never guaranteed.
So many factors come into play. A solid talent base on which to build is key. So is opportunity. Work ethic, complementary teammates, supportive coaching, looming contract realities and personal life can all have an effect.
Already in his fifth season, 23-year-old Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving's career trajectory has been difficult to anticipate. He broke into the league as a dazzling 19-year-old on an awful Cleveland team. His mesmerizing talent lies in plain sight, but multiple coaching changes and various injuries have interrupted his growth.
With his comfort level, confidence and health all finally blending together, is now the time?
"Absolutely He Can Be One of the Greats"
Irving's fast start began under head coach Byron Scott, who spent time tutoring Jason Kidd and Chris Paul earlier in his coaching career. Scott has always been quick to praise his youngest disciple, Irving.
"Kyrie, offensively, there was no weaknesses, and I haven't seen that in a 19-year-old since," Scott said. "And he's probably the first. He was more prepared from an offensive standpoint than Chris Paul was his rookie year. Kyrie was just so much more advanced—on the defensive end was a different story—but offensively, he's just gifted. Very mature, very smart."
Like Paul, Irving took home Rookie of the Year honors. He's since been named an All-Star three times, once as a starter. Only two players in NBA history have ever averaged 20-plus points and five-plus assists while making an All-Star team before age 21. One is LeBron James. The other is Irving.
Skills are only part of the equation to making the leap. Drive can be the difference between good and great.
"He has a killer mentality," said Kobe Bryant. "He can shoot the long ball. His mid-range game is excellent. And he can finish at the rim. So, he has all the tools there. It's just a matter of continuing to work and get into rhythm where he can start doing that on a consistent basis."
Bryant wasn't named a regular starter until his third season in the league, and didn't crack 20 points per game until his fourth. After that, of course, came a career filled with championships and accolades.
"I think what he has to do is just focus on being himself," Bryant said. "I think it's very hard because you're always trying to balance group dynamics with LeBron and Kevin (Love) and it's important for them to figure out how all three of them can play at their highest level of potential. Absolutely he can be one of the greats."
"It's the Focus I Haven't Seen From Him in a Long Time"
One of the more prominent leaps we've witnessed over the past few years has been that of Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry. Like Irving, Curry battled injuries early in his career and wasn't considered a true passing point guard.
Curry's jump came in his fifth season when he posted then career-highs of 24.0 points and 8.5 assists. While many pegged Curry, now in his seventh year, as a future star, few could have imagined he would make the jump to MVP and the possibly the NBA's best player this quickly.
Here's how Irving and Curry stack up when adding together three all-important statistics: points and per 36 minutes and PER.
While Curry started slowly and has now begun a monumental climb, his Cleveland counterpart could be on a similar path.
Who's to say Irving, with sustained health, couldn't make a similar leap?
Irving's role as a point guard and playmaker has varied extensively in his five years. Asked to do nearly everything the first three years in Cleveland's system, Irving's shooting and assist percentage took a hit while his usage fluctuated.
We've seen a steady improvement in his stats, minus a slump in Year 3. That season was Irving's lone campaign being coached by Mike Brown, who ran no identifiable offense, and instead relied on his point guard to take many low-percentage, last-second shots.
There was also a major adjustment from Year 3 to Year 4, when Irving was placed between LeBron James and Kevin Love. While we saw a climb from Years 1 to 2 under Scott, that same improvement is now happening in Years 4 and 5 under David Blatt and Tyronn Lue.
When given the role of supporting cast member and not do-it-all-star, we've seen a revival in his field-goal percentage and passing numbers. The one constant has been Irving's increased ability to take care of the ball.
What's truly set him apart from previous seasons is his mid-range game. Irving has shown significant spikes from all areas across the board, particularly on long twos, something basketball analysts have grown to hate.
"When you talk about the analytics of the game, he wipes it all away. He wipes it all away," James said of Irving.
"You give up the mid-range shot, that's the least, he is not a part of that analytic conversation. His ability to make shots off pick-and-rolls, mid-range and also get into the lane and finish over whoever. I hate more than anything for him that he has to get a (All-Star) break because he is in such a great groove right now. He's just laser sharp right now. It's more than just his game. It's the focus, I haven't seen from him in a long time."
The Leap Outlook
There's no single point guard in the league to whom we can compare Irving.
He's got Curry's ball-handling ability, but without the outside stroke. He has a more complete offensive game than Paul, but without the passing and defense. One historical comparison would be that of Isiah Thomas, who demonstrated the same quickness and flashy skill set but was a far better defender.
Here's how Irving compares to all three during the first five seasons of their respective careers.
Despite being the youngest member of this group, Irving's numbers compare very favorably. He's in a prime position now on a perennial contender in the Cavaliers to keep his turnovers low and efficiency high. Already putting up incredible mid-range numbers, he should comfortably reach 40.0 percent or higher from beyond the arc for the next 10 years. Add in an ever-decreasing turnover rate, and his prime leap season could look something like this:
|Kyrie Irving's Best Projected Leap Season|
With Irving just 23 years old and locked into a stable environment, health is the only thing holding him back. His leap should be coming soon, and it could be one of the best offensive increases we've ever seen from someone of his position.
At his current rate, look for Irving to begin his ascent this season and take the next step to superstardom in 2016-17.
Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @CavsGregBR.
All quotes obtained firsthand. Stats via Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of Feb. 16 unless otherwise noted.
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