Kyrie Irving's Superstar Career Arc Is Officially Back on Track

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterNovember 23, 2016

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 29:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket against the Orlando Magic on October 29, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — Kyrie Irving failed to make the Eastern Conference All-Star team last February, which marked the first time since his rookie season (2011-12) the former No. 1 overall pick was left off the squad.

His scoring, assist and shooting numbers were also among the lowest of his young career, a combination of recovering from a severe knee injury suffered in the 2015 NBA Finals and switching head coaches halfway through the 2015-16 season.

What's transpired since that All-Star snub has been the ascension of one of the NBA's best offensive players and the resuming of a potential Hall of Fame career that has yet to scratch the surface of its incredible upside.

Irving is already a three-time All-Star, NBA champion and Olympic gold-medal winner. At 24 years of age, he may just be getting warmed up.


Not Your Traditional Point Guard

Irving's career has been anything but conventional. From stepping into the shadow of LeBron James to sharing a court with the four-time MVP, Irving has gone from franchise savior to premier sidekick.

"It is my sixth year in the league," Irving told Bleacher Report. "I've been through, I would say, the wringer—probably more than guys go through in their whole entire career.

"As far as dealing with being a 19-year-old kid trying to lead a franchise, or saying I wanted to be the best player in the league and not being ready for it, to just the journey itself, getting hurt in the Finals and coming back—I've been through a lot of things that have really put me in different places mentally. I just try to come out from it even stronger, show people what I can do and just have confidence in myself."

Much of his journey has wavered between what he is and what most believe a traditional point guard should be. His lifetime averages of 20.9 points and 5.5 assists don't scream "floor general," a la Chris Paul or Magic Johnson.

Instead, Irving is best described as a combo guard, even if the lineup card says differently.

"He's not Jason Kidd or [Rajon] Rondo, who can dominate the game with his passing," Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue said. "He's an elite scorer. By him being aggressive, attacking the basket, turning the corner, that opens up everything for his passing."

Assists have been a hot topic in the past for Irving. After a 102-100 loss to the Utah Jazz on Nov. 5, 2014, James encouraged/threatened him to pass more after his zero-assist night, Irving told Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group in March 2015 (h/t King James Gospel).

Since Lue took over last January, he's put less stress on Irving. Score 30 with two assists? That's fine, as long as he's still being aggressive. How about 12 points with 10 helpers? All right as well, given that Irving stays locked in.

Big assist numbers may never come regularly, and that's OK. It's how Irving attacks a defense and makes the best play at the time that matters to Lue.


Improved Mindset and Maturity

For Irving, it's also not about his stats, but rather his mindset when on the floor.

"It's all part of the growth process—finding what really fits with this team [and] what role you kind of feel comfortable with going into every single night," he said.

"Right now, I'm just trying to find that consistency, and I feel like I'm able to attack anytime, whether it's for a basket or to get other guys involved," Irving continued. "Getting into the lane, I'm fairly good at, so coming downhill and bigs are coming at me and they're attacking me. If I see a layup, if I see a jump shot, I take it. If I see an opportunity for a teammate to get a great shot, I'm going to hit them. It's just more or less just playing in the game, being physically loose and mentally tight."

Irving hasn't always stayed mentally tight. He's flashed more than his fair share of poor body language, most of it coming on his previous lottery-bound Cavs iterations for coaches who no longer hold NBA lead jobs.

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 14: Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers cheer on their teammates from the bench during the second half against the Milwaukee Bucks at Quicken Loans Arena on October 14, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Caval
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Flash forward to the present, and watch Irving get benched for the entire fourth quarter during a 100-93 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Nov. 13 as Lue rode the hot hands already in the game.

Despite the temporary demotion, Irving was among the most vocal supporters on the bench. He jumped, cheered, clapped and supported backup point guard Jordan McRae and the rest of the Cavaliers who secured the win—a display the Cleveland media noticed.

"I don't know," Irving said after the game when asked if he would have reacted the same way to a benching years ago. "I had different coaches back then. Different relationships and different teammates. Not that they are to blame, but I don't know what my reaction would have been earlier."

Of course, the easy answer to this would have been, "Heck yeah, absolutely I would have reacted perfectly." This, of course, would likely have been a lie. It was a refreshing moment—not just his reaction to becoming a cheerleader, but his ready honesty when fielding the question.

We often forget just how young Irving is. These types of situations show how much he's grown.


Elite Company

Irving's fantastic start to the 2016-17 season has not only gotten his career back on track, but it has sparked comparisons to some of the game's greatest guards as well.

He is on pace to become the first player in NBA history to average better than 24 points and five assists while shooting at least 40 percent from three at age 24 or younger. Only Michael Jordan, James, Larry Bird and Stephen Curry have accomplished this feat at any age in a career.

Here's how Irving stacks up against other legendary guards at the same age:

Although still early in the campaign, Irving is scoring more frequently than some of the best to ever play the position at the same age. He's also outscoring James, something none of the King's teammates have ever done in 13-plus seasons.

His offensive game continues to be ever-developing.

"Kyrie's terrific obviously in transition, his pick-and-roll game, he can shoot, he can make all the passes," Hornets head coach Steve Clifford said. "[He can finish with] both hands. The thing he does, too, he has a mid-range game, so if you go under, he'll make the three. He has a mid-range game, he has a pull-up game, he has a step-back game. He's a great, great offensive player."

While Irving doesn't yet have James' overall playmaking skills, both could enter the MVP conversation at some point.

"Why not?" James asked in early November, per Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. "His ability to lead a team and his ability to score and get guys involved, we're going to continue to improve as a team, we're going to be right up there with the league leaders in wins, so why not?

"I think the sky's the limit for the kid. He's only [24] years old. ... He hasn't even gotten to his prime yet."


Cavs' Insider Notebook

James Jr. Jamming?

Highlight tapes of James' oldest son, LeBron James Jr., are already popping up. James Jr., 12, is currently a sixth-grader who plays on the AAU circuit for the Gulf Coast Blue Chips.

While it's clear from the tapes he can pass, shoot and handle the ball like his dad, what about the almighty dunk?

"Two years," James guessed, meaning he'll be able to throw down in eighth grade. "Same as me."


Frye Island

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 16: Channing Frye #8 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots the ball during the game against the Indiana Pacers on November 16, 2016 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

Channing Frye has become the Cavaliers' best reserve, averaging 11.0 points on 46.7 percent shooting from deep. His outside success is good for sixth overall in the NBA and first among centers.

"For me, it's just a thing that helps our team when you have guys like Kyrie and LeBron and Kevin [Love] who demand double-teams on the block or going to the hole," Frye told B/R. "It opens up situations for me, and I got an attitude like, 'I do this better than everybody in the league, so might as well keep doing it.'"


Defensive Surge

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 8:  Dwight Howard #8 of the Atlanta Hawks boxes out Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers on November 8, 2016 at The Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

While the offense has largely powered the Cavaliers to a 10-2 start, the defense has started to tighten up as well.

Through Cleveland's first seven games, opponents scored 104.4 points on 44.7 percent shooting from the field. Over the past five contests, the Cavs are allowing just 97.6 points on 42.0 percent shooting.

One major reason? Tristan Thompson has begun to protect the rim.

His four blocks against the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 18 raised his season average to 1.7—a career high. He's also pulling down 10.3 boards and shooting a personal-best 61.2 percent from the field this season.


Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @CavsGregBR.

Stats via Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and are accurate as of November 22. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.