The Duke Blue Devils opened the NCAA Tournament with one of the most watched and speculated upon one-seed vs. 16-seed matchups ever.
This was not because of the matchup or even that Duke is one of the most loved and most hated teams in the country. It was because freshman phenom Kyrie Irving was making his unexpected return to the lineup.
Irving missed 26 games and there was some thought he would not make it back this season. He began practicing with the team leading up to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. He worked with the team all week as well before Coach Mike Krzyzewski announced Thursday that Irving would return to the Blue Devils' rotation.
Irving averaged 17.4 points, 5.1 assists and 3.8 rebounds as one of the few freshman point guards to ever start at Duke in the season’s first eight games before injuring his toe.
Irving finished with a team-high 14 points because he was able to play extensive minutes in the second half due to the big Duke lead. He entered the game in the first half and played seven minutes, scoring 2 points and looking out of rhythm. He played much more in the second half, however, and the rust started to fall off. He showed us a flash of what he can do with a steal and a driving layup in the final minutes of play.
Many people questioned if this move was the best idea for his NBA draft stock, but I think it can only help him. We already know a few things:
1. He is a "true" point guard, not a combo guard like some recent top guard prospects.
2. He makes players around him better. Duke is now 9-0 when he plays.
3. He has the size to succeed at the next level being 6'2".
4. He makes the smart pass and not the flashy pass, think Deron Williams as opposed to Brandon Jennings.
5. He can shoot the basketball. Does anyone really want to see another guy like Rajon Rondo who LeBron James can sink off of for easy steals in the playoffs?
What is it that has solidified him as a top two pick in the NBA draft this summer?
Find me one GM who doesn't want a player that is willing to come back and play through injuries and risk his own draft stock to come back and help his team compete for a championship and I will find you a man who doesn't deserve to be a GM.
I, for one, have seen enough of players who pack it in because of injuries. I mean I have seen Greg Oden cancel seasons faster than NBC cancelled Season 2 of Joey.
Here's to getting more players in the NBA willing to compete like Irving.
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