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Rookie Spotlight: Kyrie Irving

Justin Phan
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Kyrie Irving (Getty Images)

Kyrie Irving — PG, 19 years old; 6-3, 191

ORtg: 113.1 (269), Usg: 30.9% (28), Pace: 69.3 (52)

Pace-adjusted, per-40 stats: 24.1 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.7 rpg, 2.0 spg, 0.8 bpg, 2.3 threes

Efficiency: 70% TS, 57% on twos, 46% on threes, 1.17 points per possession, 17.1% TO

If there's a future star to be had in this draft, Irving is it. The most complete player in this class, he possesses the court vision, awareness, and intelligence needed to lead a proficient NBA offense. Irving has a keen sense of where his teammates are in both transition and half-court sets, and his body control and quick first step afford him the added threat to break defenses down off the dribble-drive. His ability to finish with his left hand at the rim is second to none (.720), and his knack for drawing fouls almost at will (9.4 free throw attempts per 40 minutes) ensures a steady stream of easy points. More than 30 percent of Irving's points came at the line, and his free-throw rate of 68 percent ranked third amongst drafted prospects.

What's most impressive about Irving though is his remarkable shooting efficiency, marks unparalleled for his age and position. To shed some perspective, only five NBA guards posted a 60+ true shooting percentage last season, the highest being Arron Afflalo at 62 percent. Though there's legitimate reason for reserved optimism given the small sample size from which we have to work with (11 games), it's at least promising that there wasn't much of a drop-off pre- (.708) and post- (.681) injury. His six international games for Team USA (including the 2010 Nike Hoop Summit) tell a similar story (.602). Add those totals to his college numbers and you get a 17-game sample where Irving shot 58 percent on twos and 41 percent on threes for a true shooting mark of 67 percent.

Those numbers didn't come against inferior competition either. Of the 11 teams he squared off against at Duke, only two (Miami [OH], Colgate) were below-average defensively. Eight of those 11 teams ranked in the top-100 in defensive efficiency, and another (Hampton) barely missed the cut at 102.

It's hard to blame Irving for shooting so much given his incredible shot-making acumen, but he will need to be a more willing and able passer as he transitions to the NBA, especially out of the pick-and-roll. For all the talk about how he's more of a "pure point guard" compared to Kemba Walker, Walker actually posted a substantially higher pure point rating (1.84 to 1.33). Irving's PPR also trails Derrick Rose's mark at Memphis (1.52), but does match up favorably to those of Russell Westbrook (1.08), Jrue Holiday (1.07), John Wall (0.78), and Stephen Curry (-0.11).

The two most common knocks on Irving are that he doesn't possess elite athleticism or size and isn't dominant at one particular thing, criticisms which aren't totally unfounded. Perhaps he isn't the transcendent talent that Rose is, and doesn't possess the elite athleticism and quickness of Westbrook. But keep in mind that these are the same supposed limitations that were placed on Chris Paul back in 2005.

"Negatives: Size does matter in the NBA and Paul just barely cracks 6 feet, the bare minimum for point guards in the league. Allen Iverson is the last player under 6-foot-8 to go No. 1. Teams wish Paul was stronger, but given his age they believe that will come."

The point isn't so much to compare Irving to Paul, or suggest that he will achieve the same level of success Paul has enjoyed. It's that to belabor these points not only punishes Irving for being the rule rather than the exception, but also drastically understates the numerous areas where he excels. It also imposes what are largely arbitrary standards, positional molds we continually feel the need to redefine in order to punish those who are audacious enough to defy them.

The strong intangible leadership qualities are there, and Irving already plays with the confidence and sure-headed demeanor of a player beyond his years. He rarely ever loses control, and is able to transition seamlessly from full throttle to coasting speed. His remarkable tournament play highlights how he is able to take over games — not with straight-line drives and jaw-dropping speed, but with methodical precision. He doesn't blow past defenders like Rose or Wall; rather, he keeps defenders on a string with a series of hesitation and stutter-step moves to get them off-balance, and then pounces. It's because he doesn't rely solely on his athleticism and speed that Irving looked like a player who had missed just three weeks, not three months, leading into the NCAA tournament.

Irving's shot mechanics are sound, and indicate that he'll excel from mid-range and will be at least average from three-point range. Throw in the potential to be a lockdown defender and there really isn't much not to like about Irving, and for good reason. If there are any major flaws to his game on either side of the ball, we've yet to see them. We're looking at a franchise point guard here, the type of player that any struggling team would love to rebuild around.

Team fit: Cleveland is in no position to let positional needs dictate their personnel decisions, though they clearly suffered from a shortage of talent on the wings last season. With Baron Davis now off the books via the amnesty clause and Antawn Jamison's soon-to-be expiring contract, that's a little over $29 million the Cavs are looking at in cap space next summer. Their goal, above all else, should be to preserve that cap space and accumulate as much talent as possible without spending. And they did just that in the draft with Irving and Tristan Thompson.

Speaking of Davis, his departure removes any doubt as to who the starting point guard will be moving forward. Had he stayed on it would've made for a curious fit, one that came without the promise the two could coexist in the same backcourt, and one that would've needed to be addressed (and resolved) at some point during the season. The amnesty clause makes for a clean split, and allows for Irving to get acclimated to his expanded role early on in what is a highly condensed off-season.

It certainly doesn't hurt that Byron Scott has an excellent track record running his offenses (albeit inefficient ones) through competent, ball-dominant point guards either — Jason Kidd in New Jersey, Chris Paul in New Orleans. Even with the additions of Irving, fourth overall pick Tristan Thompson, and combo forward Omri Casspi, this looks to remain an anemic offense that will struggle to score efficiently. Davis was the only player on the roster with a usage rate above 15 percent to post an effective field goal percentage of 50 percent or better, and he's gone. In other words, all bets are on for Irving, and you can expect a team very much in need of direction (and offense) to run through him.

Scott's track record isn't exactly favorable towards rookies (see: 2009 stint with the Hornets), but the great equalizer here is that he's first and foremost a defensive-minded coach. Efficiency-wise, his defenses have outperformed his offenses all but once in 10 seasons. Given that, and the fact his only other option at point guard is Ramon Sessions, should ensure Irving gets upwards of 36 minutes per game.

According to Synergy Sports Technology, Sessions graded out as the worst defensive point guard in the league, and by a wide margin. Those wondering why he's been so criminally undervalued and underutilized in the past? That's why. As productive as he is offensively, he gives all of that back and then some on the other end of the floor. So for those hoping Sessions will push Irving for minutes and/or the starting job? Forget about it.

What to expect: Irving is more than capable of contributing right away, and with a clear path to a starting spot and a heavy dose of minutes, will be an instant-impact player and the prohibitive favorite to take home Rookie of the Year honors. Think Derrick Rose's rookie line but with plus-efficiency.

Projection: 34.5 mpg, 14.6 ppg, 5.2 apg, 3.3 rpg, 1.4 spg, 1.2 threes, 47% FG, 88% FT, 3.4 turnovers

Draft range: 6th-7th round

Justin Phan on twitter @jphanned | Matt Buser on twitter @busersports

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