Friday, January 13, 2012

A budding star for the Cavaliers

Saw the Cavaliers knock off the Phoenix Suns the other night. First time this season and most likely the last, too, unless the Suns’ visit to Cleveland in late March is televised back to Arizona.

Some observations . . .

Kyrie Irving is a player. The kid plays the game like someone a whole lot older than his 19 years. And he’s just scratching the surface.

There are some players who have a great feel for the game. Then there are those who scratch their way along and flirt with the nuances of the game. Irving, who averages 16.6 points, 5.2 assists and 3.4 rebounds and is 88% from the line, is definitely the former.

He handles himself like a seasoned pro when directing the attack. He is the perfect floor cop for coach Byron Scott, who apparently is comfortable with letting him run the show.

He’s not a wizard with the ball . . . yet. But he soon will be. With his marvelous court vision, he sees plays being develop before they’re made, while others struggle just to see them developing. It’s a sixth sense some athletes are blessed with.

His innate ability to thread passes through a maze of defenders in bullet-like fashion for easy buckets makes you blink at times. How does he do it? you ask yourself. He makes it look so easy.

The way Irving plays – and this is based solely on one game and snippets from other Cleveland games on ESPN and TNT – gives rise to the notion that the NBA game has already slowed down for him. It appears as though he sees the game in slow motion.

And he has a flair for the spectacular. In the second quarter of the Phoenix victory, he was about 15 feet from the basket on the left wing, then used a left-to-right cross-over dribble and 360-dgree spin move from right to left to get to the bucket, where he scooped a shot under the outstretched arms of Suns center Marcin Gortat for the easy score. It was a move you can’t teach. It was all instinct.

Admittedly, I was not in favor of the Cavaliers drafting the Duke freshman, who won’t turn 20 until late March. He had played only 11 college games because of a toe injury and while he played well in those games, it was a huge risk to make him the No. 1 overall selection.

I wanted the Cavs to go after power forward Derrick Williams, having been familiar with his game after watching him play for the University of Arizona. Now I understand why Cavs General Manager Chris Grant wanted Irving.

Strong point guards do not grow on NBA trees. Rarely does someone who plays that position come into the league and have an immediate impact. And even though he’s played in just 11 games, there is a considerable buzz around league circles regarding his performance.

Another unsung part of his game is his willingness to play hard and smart on defense. Young players always want to score, driving coaches nuts. Irving has shown he delights at making plays at both ends of the floor.

If he stays healthy, the Cavaliers will do all right this fractured season and the club will have its second-ever rookie of the year, the first since He Who Shall Not Be Mentioned won it in the 2003-04 season.

Williams, a much more polished college player than Irving, is coming off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves, averaging 8.7 points and 4.6 rebounds, averaging 21 minutes in 10 games.

Other observations . . .

Anderson Varejao is a beast on the offensive boards, but should never be allowed to take a shot outside 10 feet. But you’ve got to love the big guy from Brazil, whose motor never stops, because he is one huge pain in the rear to opponents.

He never stops. His hyperactive style of play makes him difficult to defend. And his marvelous ability to block out underneath the opponent’s basket and poach for rebounds has played a large factor in Cleveland’s success this season. . . .

Tristan Thompson, taken by the Cavs with the fourth overall draft pick, has a lot of rough edges, most notably at the foul line, where he’s a 40% shooter. However, the power forward seems at home around the basket and should provide Scott with some strong rebounding as he becomes more comfortable with the NBA game. . . .

Another admission: I liked Kansas’ Markieff Morris more than Thompson as a power forward. The 6-10, 245-pounder had a stronger all-around game than the leaner Thompson and was more NBA ready. Clearly in the nature of a second guess, I would have taken Morris, who has averaged 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds as game for the Suns, averaging 20 minutes a game. And he’s 80% from the free-throw line. . . .

The Cavs have a good shot at finishing a lot more respectably than last season. They’ll compete with and knock off more than a few teams that wander in the middle and lower tiers of the NBA, and should have no trouble racking up more than the 19 victories they compiled last season. It’s the big boys who will give them trouble.

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