- Wednesday, December 8, 2010 2:28 PM
- Written By: Jordan Schultz
In front of a nationally televised audience in the most highly anticipated early season match-up in recent memory, Duke point guard Kyrie Irving absolutely lit up All-American Kalin Lucas and his No. 6 ranked Michigan State Spartans in an impressive 84-79 win.
While everyone knew the Blue Devils would be back with vengeance this season, perhaps nobody figured just how dynamic their young point guard would become this early on.
To put it mildly, the 6-2 Irving is a revelation. His ability to run a team this talented with star upperclassmen at such a young age is remarkable. As a result, it can’t help garner comparisons to lead guards of the past three years, all stellar freshmen – Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans and John Wall.
The great thing about Irving is that while he is aptly quick and gifted as a scorer, he does so in such a decisive fashion that it’s hard to fathom this was just his seventh collegiate game.
Against a superb college point guard and senior with two Final Fours under his belt, Irving took what was supposed to be either a Spartans advantage or at least a draw and made it into a convincing Duke advantage.
Where Irving stands out and is most impressive is the pace and control he plays with.
Most young point guards have no problem in the open floor. The transition game is something they’ve been doing forever: Pushing tempo and finishing on the break or finding a teammate. And make no mistake, Irving made every right decision in the open floor against Michigan State.
Irving separates himself from Wall (whom we’re using as a comparison because he was the No.1 pick in the draft and arguably better than Evans and Rose in college,) by how he is running his team in the halfcourt set.
While Irving is a dynamite scorer – 31 points against MSU – it’s his understanding of the game and willingness to dictate the offense that makes him so special. On any great basketball team, the point guard is the heartbeat of the team, the extension of the coach on the floor. Against Sparty, Irving patiently dictated the offense to a tee.
When Kyle Singler, who struggled for much of the affair, called for the ball on the right wing late in the game, Irving had the trust and understanding to find him on the wing for a crucial three. When proven senior Nolan Smith wanted the ball at crucial moments down the stretch, Irving obliged, and Smith in turn, iced the game with a three.
Simply put, these are winning basketball plays. Nothing that makes you say “wow,” but ultimately, what leads to victories. Irving, despite his youth, seems to possess a natural feel and perception of
how to find guys at the right times. He also knows when to attack the paint, how to change direction, when to pull up, how to avoid the charge and finish with the left and when to just slow things down.
If you remember, these are just the types of things that inhibited Wall during the NCAA tournament last season. After a dominant regular season, Wall had Kentucky flying high – quite literally – with his infusion of alley-oops and acrobatics. But as we know, the tournament, similar to the NBA playoffs, is less about flair and more about steak and potatoes. More specifically, can you execute in the halfcourt?
When Wall and the Wildcats matched up against a disciplined and well-coached West Virginia team in the Elite Eight, they were not allowed to get up and down the floor at the type of warp-speed pace they had been doing all year long. West Virginia slowed down the game and forced Wall to beat it by actually running an offense. Against both zone and man-to-man, the normally cruise-controlled freshman was clearly perplexed and frustrated.
His inability to get into the gaps and create for others became evident as he made one poor decision after another. Perhaps more importantly, his failure to knock down open shots from the perimeter led to a loss. While he did manage to put up 19 points and 5 assists, he shot just 1-5 from three and 4-8 from the line, and had 5 turnovers. Now part of that blame is put on John Calipari’s refusal to abandon the dribble-drive offense even against the zone, but much of it is on Wall, who, for the first time in his life, couldn’t get to where he wanted on the floor. Once again, let’s not forget that Wall was a great college player. That said, Irving is already better.
The two biggest reasons why? 1) Irving can really shoot and 2) He is excellent in the pick-and-roll -- two strengths that will serve him very well at the next level.
Irving’s compact jumper, a quiet, well orchestrated stroke, is consistent in look and execution. He has a knack for finding space to shoot and while he is remarkably quick and explosive, he has the rare ability to slow it down when he stops on the dime to shoot, something Wall continues to struggle with in his early NBA career.
With the pick-and-roll, the two biggest keys are timing and understanding. You don’t have to be super quick or shifty to run it, just smart and steady like Steve Nash. The guy has made a Hall of Fame career by being the single best at running it for the past decade. John Stockton is another example.
Irving, although not the sheer athlete that Wall is, has an exceptional first step. He doesn’t however, do what most young guards do when a screener comes to set a pick. Instead of speeding up and going too early, he calmly waits for the screener to get set, and then begins to make his move. This does two things: It virtually ensures his teammate won’t get called for a moving screen (hugely important considering Duke's lack of depth on its frontline), and it allows Irving to read the defense and decide how he wants to attack. He also knows when to attack the paint, how to change direction, when to pull up,
how to avoid the charge and finish with the left and when to just slow things down.
Lastly, when he does, he continues to make one correct decision after another. One play, he comes off hard left and pops from 12 feet, the next he accelerates to the basket and finishes with either hand amidst contact, then he goes right, scares the defense and draws two defenders, and finds Mason Plumlee for the dunk, and finally, out of nowhere he zips a beeline pass to the corner to a teammate whose defender vacated him on his rotational duties.
These things may seem simple, and in truth they are, but basketball is a simple game. Such a skillset is highly unusual for a point guard as young and talented as Irving is. He didn’t get quite the fanfare entering college as Wall did, but this kid is really special. If the NBA goes through with the lockout, he could very likely stay for his sophomore year and become even more seasoned.
He hasn’t even played an ACC game yet, so it is a little early to fully buy into Irving, but it’s just so hard not to. Even against Kansas State and its senior All-American point guard Jacob Pullen, Irving looked to be the seasoned vet. While we haven’t even mentioned his defensive prowess, it is worth noting that like Lucas, Pullen struggled mightily with Irving’s hounding defense. In the loss, Pullen finished the game with a measly 4 points, 4 turnovers and just one assists while shooting 1-12 from the floor. Irving, meanwhile, tallied 17 points and 6 assists in the win.
Was Wall a good defender in college? Yes, he was, especially on paper. But Wall, with his near 2 steals per game last season, gambled in the passing lanes far too often, leaving his team in helpless 5-4 situations. Irving in a sense is much more of a true lockdown defender. He moves his feet well, hardly ever reaching, and actually seems to enjoy guarding his man 25 feet from the basket. In the Mike Krzyzewski system, he will only improve, both as an on-ball defender and as a helper.
Sometimes statistics can be misleading, but Irving’s show the efficiency and effectiveness of how he operates a team. He is averaging a team-high 17.4 points, 5.1 assists (second), 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals (first), and is shooting an insane 53.2 percent from the floor and 89.6 percent from the line. Wow. Throw in 45.2 percent from three and all of Irving’s shooting numbers are far better than where Wall finished his freshman campaign.
Not only is Irving already the best player in college basketball, he is already better than John Wall was at any point during last season.
Follow me on Twitter @206Child