Within the realm of professional sports, we tend to fall into the trap of Next. We have long searched for The Next Michael Jordan, be he Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Player to Be Named Later. Same can be said for Dirk Nowitzki, largely credited with taking dynamite to the floodgates of foreign-born NBA combatants. Who is the next European player with flowing blonde hair who can tower over most of his competition yet provide a wrist-flick that could be featured in The Louvre?
At each year’s end, we create lists of what out versus what’s in and publish magazines where the young and spry don sashes which declare them conqueror of all things future.
But when the upper echelon is not enough of a shoes-to-be-filled narrative, the newspaper ink cascades on down upon the rest of the league. Even in instances where said comparisons would be good enough to potentially crack an All-Star roster let alone the Hall of Fame, we attempt to categorize players of similar position or skill set, measurables or intangibles, coming to all-to-premature conclusions that New Player of Choice is most comparable to Arbitrary Older Player.
When Kyrie Irving was being considered for the top overall selection in the 2011 NBA Draft, we demanded that the Duke point guard be compared to a player who had already walked the walk; we must know exactly who and what we are using this first-overall pick on, after all. Irving drew comparisons to Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul due to being the best point guard in his class as well as being one who undoubtedly makes his teammates better, but does so without All-World speed or athleticism instead relying on the ever-important Basketball IQ.
Then came the John Wall comparisons. If merely rooted in draft position and one-and-done collegiate careers, this juxtaposition appears fair. At least until one compares 40-yard dash time and introductory flexed-arm dances (advantage, Wall), efficiency, decision-making, ball handling and shooting (advantage, Irving).
When we posted the video of the Cavaliers’ first-overall pick whisping through the lane as if a teenager was controlling him in a game of NBA 2K12, feverishly tapping the spin button, the comments immediately turned into who Irving most emulated. It was Derrick Rose – also a first-overall, one-and-done selection, then it was Allen Iverson and Chris Paul. And, with a bit of a way-back machine-like twist, it was Pistons great Isiah Thomas.
Where Rose can drive to the lane as if he’s perpetually fitted with shoulder pads, Irving does not possess such strength at this stage. Also, where Rose amassed 16 three-point field goals in each of his first two seasons, shooting at what was a 25 percent clip from long-range, Irving already has 10 made threes and is hitting 37 percent of his attempts. Irving’s effective field goal percentage through his first 10 contests is sitting at a comfortable .507. Rose’s MVP season provided his career-best effective field goal mark of .500.
Iverson’s game was largely predicated on reckless abandon and complete domination of the ball. Thomas’s hay day assist totals are presently demolishing what Irving has compiled thus far, but the respective supporting casts could not be more different. Paul continues to be one of the best backcourt defenders in the game where Irving tends to lean into screens instead of getting through them, and does not exactly have Zeke or Paul’s nose for the passing lanes just yet.
Prior to Thursday night’s contest, Stepien Rules’ Brendan provided comparisons to Paul while providing even more Hall-of-Fame calibur names in Steve Nash, a two-time MVP, and John Stockton, the game’s career leader in assists – two men whose respective games are rooted largely in fundamentals, efficiency and All-Creation power forwards.
In said contest, Irving matched up against Nash in a matchup the rookie would later call “fun” and “a little surreal.” Irving not only provided the waiting world with a career high in scoring, rattling off 12-straight points at one point in the second quarter, but led his team to a victory on the road while adding yet another highlight drive to his resume – this time, at the expense of Suns center Marcin Gortat who Irving had so off balance he looked as if he was infused with a local distillery’s finest.
After watching Irving take on one of his idols, and thinking back to the abuse of Al Jefferson as well as the way he broke out a cross-over move that juked not one but three different Charlotte Bobcats en route to an and-one a handful of games earlier, the epiphany hit.
Irving possesses the ability to get down the floor with underestimated speed, showing the ability to control his acceleration and deceleration at an ever-improving rate. His hands - while the media and league fans alike prefer to fawn over the emergence of Ricky Rubio - are some of the best a Cleveland backcourt has seen in nearly a decade as he dribbles through traffic and finds teammates through the slightest of windows. His shot selection, while occasionally emulating that of a rookie, could be classified best as opportune; he utilizes the glass with his mid-range jumper, driving to the lane more often than not, but taking three-point field goals when left open. His defense still leaves a little to be desired, but he has a head coach who has had the chance to mold players like Paul as well as Jason Kidd (who mysteriously doesn’t get his name lofted into the Next discussion). While not as reckless as some of his predecessors, Irving already shows top-flight competitiveness and confidence. He runs Mikan Drills with his dad, helping improve his ability to not only use both of his hands, but provide just the right spin on lay-up attempts when guarded by men of considerably larger stature.
Irving is a 19-year old kid tasked with placing a franchise on his still-developing shoulders. His game, despite being modeled after countless idols, is his own. Speed won’t be tought; he won’t sprout to 6-foot-5 or be outfitted with a Blake Griffin-like being any time soon.
Kyrie Irving is not the next Paul or Rose. He’s not the next Iverson, Zeke or Wall. He’s not even the next Nash or Stockton or Kidd.
Kyrie Irving is The Next Kyrie Irving. And this may wind up being the best news of all.