Kyrie Irving brings questions as NBA draft's probable No. 1 pick
Three hundred and three minutes spanning only 11 games make up Kyrie Irving's collegiate résumé. Just 72 minutes of that led the 19-year-old point guard to leave Duke after his freshman year and turn professional.
Despite the shortage of playing time, the Cleveland Cavaliers are expected to select Irving with the first pick in Thursday's NBA draft (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Irving would be among the least experienced players chosen in the draft since 2005, the last time players could jump from high school to the NBA.
Whomever takes Irving has decided he showed enough in his short time at Duke to be a franchise player. But is he a risk?
"He's got holes, but he's a very safe pick, whether you take him one or two," said ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla, who added teams would "rather make a mistake on a kid that five years from now, you could say, 'Heck, the kid was practically an All-American at Duke.' "
Unlike recent drafts, there is no far and away No. 1 player this year, no LeBron James-, Derrick Rose- or John Wall-caliber prospect.
Some of that might have to do with the NBA's labor situation. With the league's collective bargaining agreement set to expire a week from Thursday, and a lockout looming, some talented players who might have entered the draft stayed in school.
That leaves the Cavaliers, who also have the fourth pick, with questions as they rebuild after James' well-documented departure last summer resulted in an Eastern Conference-worst 19-63 season.
Also making a case to be picked first is Arizona forward Derrick Williams, whose 32-point, 13-rebound performance ironically enough helped end Duke's season. Williams, 6-8, 241, averaged 19.5 points and 8.3 rebounds for the Wildcats as a sophomore last season.
For the 6-2 Irving, a right toe injury in his eighth game kept him out more than three months. He was on a roll before the injury, averaging 17.4 points, coming off a 31-point game against No. 6 Michigan State and a 21-point effort against Butler to help No. 1 Duke go 8-0.
"At that point in time, he was the best player in college basketball," Duke associate head coach Chris Collins said.
The injury forced Irving to sit and watch as the Blue Devils went 30-4, won the ACC Tournament and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. He returned in mid-March and came off the bench to help the Blue Devils advance to the Sweet 16 before the loss to Arizona, in which he scored 28 points.
"I don't think it takes a whole lot of games to understand if somebody has the total package," said Irving's godfather, former NBA guard Rod Strickland, whom Irving calls his uncle. "I don't think it takes 30 games to look at Kyrie and say that he has a chance to be special. I think you can see that after the first game he plays."
Irving averaged 17.7 points in 24 minutes of the three NCAA Tournament games, proving to himself he was ready for the next level.
"It was just the entire NCAA Tournament and me being able to play," Irving said of entering the draft. "That was the deciding factor."
Is he the next in a line of elite point guards that includes the Chicago Bulls' Rose, New Orleans Hornets' Chris Paul and New Jersey Nets' Deron Williams? Or is he merely the best in what has been described as a weak draft class?
ESPN draft expert Chad Ford said Irving does just about everything well, but there isn't one aspect of his game that sets him apart.
"I don't think he's as good a prospect as Chris Paul. I don't think he's quite as good a prospect as Deron Williams or Derrick Rose or (the Oklahoma City Thunder's) Russell Westbrook or even (the Washington Wizards') John Wall," Ford said. "That's somewhat reflective in this draft."
Lessons from Dad
Irving arrived in Durham, N.C., with a lot of hype.
A McDonald's All-American and the New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year, Irving was one of the top four incoming freshmen rated by scout.com, rivals.com and ESPNU 100. He joined a Blue Devils squad fresh off a national championship.
Collins, who helped recruit Irving out of basketball power St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, N.J., describes Irving as humble, lovable — and coachable. Collins remembers a preseason practice in October when Irving didn't play his best. The coaches got on him in the next film session.
"It was kind of the first test to see what he was all about," Collins said. "I just remember how good he was and afterwards him coming up to (Coach Mike Krzyzewski) and us and saying, 'You'll never have to say that to me again, that I'm not doing what I'm supposed to be doing or not being the leader that I need to be out on the court.' "
That displayed an attitude most likely instilled by his father. Drederick Irving challenged his son from a young age to be great. The elder Irving starred in basketball at Boston University and played professionally in Melbourne, Australia, where his son was born. He was left to take care of his son and his older daughter, Asia, when his wife, Elizabeth, died. Irving was only 4.
"It's always hard when you lose a loved one. But his father was there," Strickland said. "His father was a constant and he took care of them. He was Moms and Pops to both his kids."
Irving's father, who lives in West Orange, N.J., holds a special bond with his son on and off the court.
"He just taught me how to approach the game," Irving said of his dad. " 'Every time you step on that court, it's going to be a battle, and now it's going to be a battle every single night in the NBA.'
"Everything he's told me has prepared me for every level I've played at, and now I just have to translate that to the NBA level."
On the path to greatness?
In two of the last three drafts, a point guard has been selected first. Rose, in 2008, and Wall last year had impressive rookie seasons, and Rose went on to become the league's MVP this past season.
"The NBA game's a whole lot different than the college game, to get adjusted to the calls and how to run pick and rolls and how teams are gonna guard you," Wall said. "But you just take time and learn by each game."
Irving, after finishing Duke's spring semester, spent about a month working out with veteran NBA trainer Robin Pound in Miami, then was criticized for not fully participating in the NBA Draft Combine and working out only for the Cavaliers.
"It's going to be a learning process," Wall said of Irving's path. "It's just like you're coming into college. You take your bumps and bruises at first and get adjusted to it."