Stat: Kyrie Irving leads all players in points per 48 minutes of crunch time with a mark of 56.4, almost a full six points ahead of second place Kevin Durant.
Take: Irving’s dominance as a rookie in 2012 has been one of the game’s most overlooked aspects since Cleveland’s early season novelty wore off, and it’s a real shame. We haven’t seen a first-year player with this combination of physical talent, poise, understanding, and overall effectiveness in a long, long time. Looking at how he’s played just this season without the bias of projecting his future, a valid argument can be made that Irving’s been the best rookie since Tim Duncan took the league by storm in 1997. He’s been that good.
And that way beyond-his-years combination of traits above is most illustrated in what Irving does when his team needs him most.
Some of the league’s best players struggle well into their careers to find their proverbial niche in crunch time. LeBron James, obviously, is the most well-known – if not most apt – example, but even noted “closers” like Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, and Derrick Rose have seen their effectiveness down the stretch limited by defenses adjusting to their shot-happy tendencies, and only sometimes do they adjust accordingly to their team’s benefit. Chris Paul, for instance, was chronicled here just last week for his changing game-ending style of play in his first season with the Clippers. Point being: a player’s crunch time effectiveness is something that’s fluid on a game-to-game and season-to-season basis and takes real experience to hone.
Unless you’re Kyrie Irving. He not only leads the league in points per 48 minutes of crunch time but also in free throw attempts, all while shooting a staggering 54.4% from the field and even better 66.7% from the free throw line. These are numbers no player in the NBA come close to matching despite Irving’s low number of baskets assisted on, poor supporting cast, and status as the opposition’s clear biggest threat. And he’s only 20 years old.
Irving’s supreme crunch time play is just more proof supporting the almost consensus belief that Cleveland has a real franchise player on their hands here, even though they’re just two years removed from the whole LeBron debacle. Of course, whether he’ll live up to that billing has much to do with how Dan Gilbert and the rest of the front office improve the roster around him. But, if they do and the Cavaliers find themselves in a meaningful late Spring game in coming seasons, they’ll be led by a player that established himself his rookie season as an even greater force to be reckoned with in the clutch.