Promising Rookies Key to Cavs’ Future
Despite a disappointing March, which has resulted in the Cavs falling out of the playoff picture, the future in Cleveland remains quite bright thanks in large part to a pair of lottery picks that have energized the franchise.
Last June, the Cavs became the first team in nearly 30 years to have two selections in the top four picks – since the Houston Rockets in 1983. Top overall selection Kyrie Irving, who will be the runaway winner in this year’s Rookie of the Year voting, is establishing himself as one of the league’s premier young point guards. Irving is clearly now the face of the franchise. However, the continued development of big man Tristan Thompson, whom the Cavs selected #4 overall, is also crucial to Cleveland’s success.
Nonetheless, when discussing Cleveland’s young guns, we must begin with Irving. Coming out college, Kyrie was obviously highly touted, but he played just 11 games for the Duke Blue Devils. Thus, there was some certainly plenty of question marks surrounding his game. However, any trepidation and/or concern Cavs fans might have had was quickly put to rest. Simply stated, Irving has crafted one of the more impressive rookie seasons by a point guard in recent NBA history.
Speaking to HOOPSWORLD on Saturday night, Cavalier Head Coach Byron Scott was effusive with his praise for the prized rookie, but explained he wasn’t shocked at the success Kyrie has experienced. “I’m not really all that surprised, but I am obviously very happy with Kyrie,” said Coach Scott. “I think his development has been tremendous. He has definitely established himself at a very young age, in a very crazy season, as a point guard of the future in this league. I am very happy with the way he has played.”
Kyrie has certainly given his coach plenty to get excited about. Irving stormed out the gates and immediately established himself as the top rookie in his class. Irving was named the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for games played in December and January – leading Eastern Conference rooks in scoring, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and assists. Irving scored 20 or more points in 10 of his first 19 games and shot at least .500 from the field 12 times during that stretch. Irving backed this up by being named Rookie of the month in February as well. Kyrie shot 41-43 (95.3%) from the free-throw stripe in February, and ended the month by making 31 consecutive freebies. His .953 free-throw percentage was the highest by a rookie since March of 1998.
On the season, Irving currently is averaging 18.9 points per game, which is the most of any rookie this season. His 5.7 assists is the second most among rookies. When put into a historical perspective, those numbers are that much more impressive. Irving is on pace to join Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Allen Iverson, and LeBron James as the only #1 overall draft picks in NBA history to average 18+ points and five assists.
Kyrie is also shooting over 47% from the field and averaging 1.0 steal per game. If he finishes the season with these totals, he will be one of just six rookies in NBA history (regardless of draft position) to average 18.0 ppg, 5.0 assists, 1.0 steals, while shooting over 45% from the floor (the other five are Magic, Jordan, Alvin Adams, Grant Hill, and Tyreke Evans).
Not only has Kyrie been incredibly productive, he’s also been remarkably efficient. As noted above, he is shooting 47.1% from the field. In addition, he is knocking down over 87% of his free-throws and shooting a blistering 42% from three-point territory. (Larry Bird is the only other rookie to finish his debut season with a point-per-game average about 18 while shooting 40% from behind-the-arc.)
Arguably the most impressive aspect of Irving’s rookie campaign has been his production in crunch time. Since Feb. 29 (14 games), Irving is averaging 7.6 points per fourth quarter, which ranks second in the league during that stretch (min. 10 games), while shooting .578 from the field and .893 from the stripe. For the season,Irving is averaging 3.3 points in the last three minutes of games, which ranks first in the NBA, while shooting .519 from the field, .533 from three-point range and .907 from the stripe.
Although Irving has obviously achieved far more early on, the Cavalier franchise also has high hopes for forward/center Tristan Thompson as well. And though he obviously hasn’t matched Irving’s numbers, Thompson has posted some solid stats himself recently. For instance, on March 19th, in just his second NBA start, he poured in 27 points and grabbed 12 boards in win over the Nets. In that same contest, Irving tallied 26 points. Per Elias Sports Bureau, Thompson and Irving became the first pair of rookie teammates to score at least 26 points in the same game since Kevin Durant (42 points) and Jeff Green (27 points) accomplished the feat for the Seattle SuperSonics against Golden State on Apr. 16, 2008. The last Cavalier rookie teammates to reach at least 26 points apiece in the same game was Dajuan Wagner (29 points) and Carlos Boozer (26 points), who did it against the Chicago Bulls on Dec. 4, 2002.
On the season, Thompson is averaging 3.3 offensive rebounds and 6.3 total rebounds, which each rank first among all qualifying rookies. And his 1.1 blocks per game ranks second among qualified first-year pros. Prior to a dud against New York on Saturday night, he had been averaging 12.9 points on .506 shooting, 8.6 rebounds, 5.0 offensive rebounds and 1.0 block over his previous eight contests, all starts.
Byron Scott explained that although Thompson has struggled here and there, the Cavs coaching staff is clearly content with the progress the young big man has shown. “I’m very happy with the way Tristan has developed as well, even though he has been more like most rookies. He has had his ups and downs, but he’s had more ups than downs. He is definitely starting to play much better. I think with Tristan the biggest thing is he is just starting to get more comfortable. His confidence level is starting to rise and I think for him it is just a matter of repetitions and him just getting out there,” said Scott.
Although Irving missed the Knicks game Friday night due to a sore shoulder (Scott later admitted that Irving wanted to play, but the coaching staff decided it would be prudent to give him an extra day of rest) and Thompson struggled in the limited minutes he saw versus New York, Scott described how beneficial it has been for his two youngsters to have shared the floor so often this month. “I think it is important for Tristan and Kyrie to be out there at the same time. They are getting a lot chances to be on the floor at the same time and a lot of opportunities to play together, which is important for both of them right now,” stated Scott
Speaking specifically about Thompson, Scott added: “I think his development is coming along nicely but like I have said before with him, going into the summer, this summer is going to be important for him. There are a lot of little things that we are going to need to work on. But, that said, I know him; he is going to put the work in. It is just a matter getting it done and hopefully it comes just as quick as we hope it does.”
Despite not delivering a solid performance against the Knicks, Thompson told HOOPSWORLD what he hopes to bring to the table each night. “I want to make sure I come out with high energy and play hard and be active on the glass. The key is to keep playing hard and make sure I come with that intensity every night,” said Thompson.
As far as his short-term goals are concerned, Thompson said he just hopes to “keep getting better every game and learn from that and make improvements.”
As noted above, Coach Scott believes this summer will be crucial to Thompson’s development as a pro. Tristan wholeheartedly agreed.
“Learning the game,” Thompson said of his summer improvement plan. “Offensively I need to develop a package, including being able to knock down the 15-foot jumper. I also need to get stronger. And just learn the game of basketball, this whole NBA game is a lot of thinking, so I just need to continue studying film and learning.”
When asked if Thompson projects as center or a power forward, Coach Scott had replied, “I see him as a natural power forward, but I think he can definitely play center in this league because there are so few true centers in this league.”
Thompson concurred, but explained what mattered most to him was just being out there on the court.
“I’m a basketball player. I’ll let the coach decide what position I play but in terms of preference, I could play either position. I can play power forward or I can play center, as long I am out there on the court, helping my team win, that’s what’s most important.”
With both Thompson and Irving now in the fold, the future looks bright in Cleveland, and there should be plenty of wins on the way.