If he has the ball, it’s already over. Kyrie Irving is going to score. It’s just a matter of how. Everything flows from the simple fact that he can make a jumper from anywhere on the floor, whenever he wants. There’s not much anyone can do to stop him.
Each movement that occurs before he rises and fires is all just a prelude to the inevitable. It’s an act carefully constructed to open even the tiniest sliver of space, because that’s all Kyrie needs – the trigger on his jumper is almost impossibly quick.
The imperceptibility of the moment of his conversion from whatever he’s doing to actually taking the shot makes it incredibly difficult to know just when he’s going to pull. He’s dribbling, or he’s jab-stepping, or he’s lulling his defender to sleep, and then he’s just not. He’s shooting. Before anyone can even get a hand in his face, the ball is already through the net. And make no mistake, the jumper is what he wants: 162 of Irving’s 212 field goal attempts in isolation this season have been jumpers, per mySynergySports.
From a standstill or off the dribble, his jumper is going in. Playing off him doesn’t work because then you’re inviting the jumper he wants to take anyway. Playing him close doesn’t work because he can go right on by or he can force the issue by taking some exploratory dribbles into the lane and then spinning, stepping back or pulling up. Forcing him left doesn’t work because he’s just as comfortable – and maybe even more effective – going that way as he is going to his right. There isn’t anything in particular to “make him” do that results in an advantageous position for the defense. He routinely beats every kind of coverage.
Irving’s ball control is a modern marvel. Some players have the ball on a string; Irving has it on a rope. His handle is that much stronger. There’s an economy to his movement that is unrivaled in today’s NBA. Nothing is wasted. Every single motion – every jab, every shoulder dip, every dribble, is meant to accomplish something.
I think it’s safe to say that no player in the NBA uses the between the legs dribble more than Irving. It’s not just for cosmetic reasons, either. Irving uses it as a major part of his offensive plan. Whether he’s just walking the ball up the court, crossing over, or rocking a defender to sleep just outside the key, he’s using the side to side, back and forth nature of the dribble to feel out the best avenue of attack.
He’ll go between his legs sometimes upwards of five or six times on the same possession as he attempts to shake and break away from the man in front of him. Forward and back, side to side, again and again and again, until he’s got that sliver of space he needs. He’ll use it to dribble into a three or he’ll use it to get in the lane.
When he goes back and forth between his legs, it’s not a pause, but a research project. It’s as if he’s asking himself, “How does the defender react when I do this?” and then using the results to determine his next move. Drive or pull up? Cross over or keep moving in the same direction? Hesitate or turn on the jets? Sometime he stores the information for later in the game, sometimes it’s for the very next dribble.
Irving does his best work when the Cavaliers clear out the middle of the floor and just let him go to town; this is how 53.6% of his isolation possessions originate. He’s equally efficient going right or left, though he prefers going right. In these situations, he’s registered 2.0 points per play (PPP) on drives to the basket going left (on only six plays), 1.333 PPP on drives to the basket going right, 1.235 PPP on jumpers when driving right, 1.25 PPP on jumpers when driving left and 1.471 PPP on jumpers without the drive. He’s 9-for-16 on runners. Again, there is nothing you can make him do that he isn’t completely comfortable with.
With the remaining 45.6% of his isolation possessions, Irving is extremely balanced – 23.8% of them originate on the left side of the court compared to 22.6% on the right side. His scoring profile from each side is remarkably similar. On baseline drives from the left, he scores .762 PPP; from the right, it’s .733 PPP, and those numbers take a jump when he pulls up for a jumper rather than trying to finish at the rim. On middle drives from the left, he gets .933 PPP on jumpers; middle drives leading to jumpers from the right generate 1.0 PPP. On shots with no drive from the left, he’s at 1.5 PPP; from the right, that number is 1.173 PPP. There’s just no apparent weakness readily apparent weakness you can point to and say “get him to do that and we’re fine.”
Perhaps Irving’s greatest weapon is his ability to dribble, jab, pivot, or otherwise maneuver his way into an isolation three-pointer. Just over one-quarter (54 of 212) of his isolation attempts have been threes, and he’s made 46.2% of those shots for an eFG% of 69.3, an incredible number.
Amazingly, over half of Irving’s three point makes are of the unassisted variety, which makes his 40+% accuracy on the shot all the more impressive.
This is where it all comes together for Irving: all the fakes, shakes and tricks he has in his bag, the Iverson/Nash/Paul-esque tight handle, the incredibly quick-twitch release. He’ll walk it up the court and calmly step into a jumper. He’ll appear helter-skelter, twisting and turning up the floor with abandon, and all of a sudden he’s in the air for a pull-up jumper. He’ll use that ubiquitous between the legs dribble to lull his defender into a false sense of security before unleashing.
Add all this up, and Kyrie may well be the best one-on-one player in the game already, in only his second season. If he’s not, he’s certainly damn close. He’s 4th in PPP on isolation plays finished with a FGA, FTA or TO, and of the 14 players who have registered at least 177 isolation plays + passes (approximately half the number of the overall leader in isolation plays + passes, Kobe Bryant), he’s first. It’s hard to believe he’s only getting started.