Hopefully, people will spend the extra bit of effort to move their eyes to Cleveland's new star, Kyrie Irving, or they'll miss out on just how special a rookie season he is truly having.
Last week, Irving was announced as the Eastern Conference Rookie of The Month, and I talked a little bit about how rare a season like his was. It got me thinking about LeBron in his rookie year, the team around him, and the press that the forward from Akron got coming out of high school and even in his first game for the hometown Wine & Gold.
ESPN was all over LeBron from day one. He was the perfect story wrapped up nicely for the Worldwide Leader - he was the best high school player and the number one pick in the draft, playing for a team just a half hour from his home. He had overcome so much, had the right combination of swagger and talent, and his ceiling was unprecedented. There were Oscar Robertson comparisons, Magic Johnson mentions, even talk about LeBron being the next Michael Jordan.
And in his first game, LBJ blew everyone away with a 25-point, nine assist, six rebound night on 12-20 shooting in a loss to the Sacramento Kings. He would go on to average 20.9 points, 5.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds in his first season in the NBA, winning Rookie of the Year and helping the Cavs to a 35-47 record, 18 more wins than the year before.
Pretty good, right?
What if I told you Kyrie Irving has been even better?
LeBron James had a PER of 18.3, with an eFG% of .438 in 39.5 minutes per game. James showed gifted passing and strong rebounding numbers, but was aided in the team's turnaround by his strong post players, Carlos Boozer and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Teams couldn't just target the physical hybrid forward who also played like a point guard, or he would get the ball to his bigs. Boozer had a stellar sophomore campaign that year, averaging 15.5 points and 11.4 rebounds, while Ilgauskas averaged 15.3 and 8.1.
What the Cavs lacked was another scoring threat, a wing to pair with LeBron. The Cavs got some of that from Dajuan Wagner when he was healthy, some bright spots from Darius Miles and Ricky Davis (who was later traded to Boston) and okay point guard play from Jeff McInnis at times, but LeBron never had a star guard. He could have thrived so much more with a player like Kyrie Irving (and now has a different kind of superstar to play with in Dwyane Wade), and while the Cavs would search and search, they were never able to give LeBron another strong guard before he left for Miami.
With Kyrie Irving, it's almost the opposite. While he has brought Anderson Varejao to new heights at age 29, a lot of that is in drawing attention away from Varejao and to Irving. The rookie's ability to attack the rim is funneling defenders his way, and Andy is unmarked. Free from being boxed out, Varejao can do what he does best: rebound. Per 36 minutes, Varejao is averaging 12.2 points and 13.4 rebounds, by far his best career output. His 18.8 PER is also a career high by far (he had a 17.0 PER in his rookie season in 2004-05). But Varejao is nothing close to the offensive threat that either Boozer or Ilgauskas were in LeBron's first year in the league.
Irving has volume scorer Antawn Jamison (PER 15.5, eFG% .442), Ramon Sessions (PER 15.00, eFG% .368) providing depth, a decent shooter in Daniel Gibson, improved play out of Alonzo Gee and the occasional highlight from fellow rookie Tristan Thompson. But the only Cavs player who can be consistently counted on is Irving.
Kyrie is averaging just 29.6 minutes per game, which is by design, as Byron Scott tries to keep his young point guard from getting burnt out in extended minutes. Irving has never played in as grueling a schedule as the NBA, even in a shortened season, and this has helped to keep the rookie fresh a year removed from playing just 11 games at Duke.
LeBron won Rookie of The Year, and Kyrie is in the conversation to win it as well, but the two couldn't be more different in how they are advertised. LeBron grabbed headlines with regularity. He was the guy, no one doubted him as the number one pick. He was on national TV all the time. Cameras followed LeBron wherever he went.
Kyrie was picked, and many questioned whether he even deserved it. Some said the Cavs should have tried to trade the first overall pick. He was a "nice start." A "good player." A solid NBA point guard who "wouldn't be a star." The league's quietest number one pick in years was going to be on national television exactly zero times. And yet, he has gotten stronger as the game goes on, with fourth quarter quickly becoming #IrvingTime. His efficiency is off the charts. He averages 18 points and five assists (22 points and 6.1 assists per 36) and he has a PER of 22.1, with a true shooting percentage of .582 (eFG% .539). While Kyrie has a long way to go to come close to the dominance of LeBron James, his first year is better than LBJ's, and the rookie will only get better as the team around him improves.
We have yet to see the type of passing Irving is capable of; he has simply been taking over games and scoring because that's what he needs to do to win. When he gets a second scorer, we might see just how big of a superstar Kyrie Irving can really be.
So while LeBron deservedly will steal the lights and the show again when the Cavs play the Heat - and throughout the rest of the year - Kyrie will continue to play the calm and quiet game he is quickly becoming known for. And that's just fine.
Fans already have plenty of reasons to watch him. Hopefully, those outside of Cleveland will finally get more opportunities to see him soon enough.