Kyrie Irving hasn't exactly been figured out yet. Yes, he has a max-contract and is a part of the Cleveland Cavaliers' new 'Big Three.' Yes, he's been excellent for Team USA (he was the MVP of the 2014 FIBA World Cup after all) and was the All-Star MVP last season. And he's done that before the age of 23.
But there have been some issues with Irving in his first three seasons. For how talented he is on offense, Irving often times looks lost on the defensive end. He's also missed time to injury, and there have been several reports that Irving doesn't want to be in Cleveland long-term.
Those reports, of course, came before Irving signed his max contact, LeBron James came back and the Cavaliers acquired Kevin Love. But in reality, what Irving has been is somewhere in the middle of his good and bad qualities. His offensive game has almost limitless potential, but his defense is far from developed. Some of that is because Irving is limited athletically, but some of it is an effort thing. One would expect that would change with James and the championship expectations that come with playing with the best player in the world.
As it stands, Irving is somewhere in the Damian Lillard, John Wall and Steph Curry class of point guard. This group is a shade behind Chris Paul and also a tad behind Russell Westbrook as well. If Derrick Rose is fully healthy, this group of guards also figures to be behind the former MVP.
But Irving has most upside of any of those guards, particularly on offense. He's already a very good 3-point shooter, an excellent ball handler and in the preseason, he's shown flashes of emerging into very good spot-up shooter. If he's been able to average 22.1 points per 36 minutes with true shooting percentage of 54.8 percent while playing in a Mike Brown offense and with Alonzo Gee at small forward, imagine how good Irving will be in a David Blatt offense with James at small forward.
Defensively, the best we can probably expect of Irving is be functional and play smart on that end of the floor. Irving, as talented as he is, isn't an elite athlete. This severely limits him on that end, although he can improve in terms of effort and fundaments. For instance, when defending the pick and roll, Irving could work on getting around picks to disrupt the other team's offense. Having James as a mentor of sorts should push Irving to get a lot better on that end this season, even if it doesn't show up in the stats in terms of steals.
We've already seen flashes of what Irving will do playing with elite players; his play in last year's All-Star game, with Team USA in Spain and the preseason has shown at.
His time with Team USA is particularly enlightening. Playing alongside James Harden, this was Irving's first extended time playing more off the ball as his team's second or third option. He did spend some time for the Americans as the lead option and primarily ball handler, but it's a very encouraging sign that Irving did so without having to have the ball in hands the majority of the time.
Take this clip from the FIBA World Championships for example. Here, Irving is set up by Harden in transition.
Irving gets the ball here quickly and pulls up quickly, draining the shot.
This is going to be huge for Irving this year. With James likely to handle the ball a fair amount because he's LeBron freaking James, Irving is going to have to be comfortable pulling up for quick 3-pointers in the flow of the offense. In theory, this signals he is going to be more efficient this season than in years past.
This set, where Irving takes another quick 3-pointer after taking a pass from DeMarcus Cousins, is another good example of Irving is going to get looks this season. In Minnesota, Love spent a lot of time operating out of the high post. That doesn't figure to be the case as much this year, but he still should see some touches in that area due to his shooting ability.
Cousins gets the ball in the high post here and Irving's defender sags off. Irving wisely heads behind the 3-point line.
Taking advantage of the opening, Irving quickly pulls up and drains his 3-pointer. If he shows that awareness during the season, he should get a lot of this type of look. He could also see this type of look when Anderson Varejao gets the ball on the elbow, where he was outstanding last season.
With the Cavs in the preseason, Irving has been just as electric as he was in Spain. He's showcased his handles, has gone off against both the Dallas Mavericks and Chicago Bulls and has been noticeably more active on defense. The only player to give Irving any major trouble so far has been Derrick Rose.
Offensively, Irving has meshed well with James and Love thus far and it should only get easier for Irving to find in place between the two the longer the Cavs' season goes on. The most intriguing development has been the Cavs' fast break attack, which is where James and Irving will make plays like this all season.
You could make the argument that James is a passer than Irving right now, but Kyrie is the perfect man to lead Cleveland's fastbreak attack. With Irving at the helm, James is free to find his spot and, as the Cavs' best finisher, get easy looks near the basket. If the opposing team covers up James, Irving can easily score on his own or find one of Cleveland's shooters to for open transition threes. Irving is going to be a maestro in transition this season.
If Irving can take advantage of these opportunities and continue to improve defensively, there's no reason he can't be elite. He's already an offensive nightmare for most point guards and he's shown that he's probably going to get a lot better this season with the roster overhaul. Even if the Cavaliers don't win a title this season, there shouldn't be a question that Irving is an elite player with a long, bright future in the NBA.