Why We Were All Wrong About Kyrie Irving

I first saw Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving a couple years ago on one of those YouTube highlight mixtapes. While I could obviously tell that he was talented, I was somewhat underwhelmed, especially when comparing his highlights to those of guys like Derrick Rose, John Wall, and (to a lesser extent) Tyreke Evans --- point guard phenoms whose flashy and athletically dominant games produced “Wow!!!” clips.

Still, I kept Irving on my radar, and when coming across both the Jordan Classic and the Nike Hoop Summit in the next couple of weeks, I paid special attention to him as he repeatedly made fools out of whoever was matched up against him. His combination of balance, ambidexterity, And-1 caliber handle, and shooting ability had them on “skates” ---  a basketball colloquialism that means there was nothing they could do to stay in front of him.

(I get the feeling my skates analogy isn’t making much sense, so let me make an analogy within the analogy. Imagine trying to catch a housecat that got loose and is running around outside. Hard, right? Now, try to imagine doing this while you’re wearing roller skates. This is how people looked when trying to guard Kyrie.)

I was soon touting Irving as one of the most complete point guard prospects I’d ever seen. His first several games at Duke didn’t disappoint. He averaged over 17 points and 6 assists a game while drawing praise from coaches, pundits, and opposing players alike. But, towards the end of his 8th college game, he planted awkwardly while executing a move and severely sprained a ligament in his toe --- an injury that would derail him for two months. He returned in time for March Madness, and was healthy enough to drop 28 when the Blue Devils were knocked out of the tourney by Arizona --- his last game as a collegian (he put his name in the NBA draft soon after).

Yet, despite the fact that Irving was still considered to be a high lottery pick, a strange thing began to happen. Recency biases caused his stock to drop. Recency biases themselves aren’t strange --- we all have a tendency to give more weight to what we just saw as opposed to what we saw three weeks ago --- but in Irving’s case, the strangeness comes with the way the recency bias hurt him in two ways:

Irving did eventually become the number one pick, but most still considered him to be a rather underwhelming prospect.

  1. Despite the fact that everything about him screamed “Poor Man’s Mike Beasley,” Derrick Williams --- the star on the Arizona team that beat Duke in the tournament --- raced past Kyrie on the buzz meter and entered the conversation as the possible number one pick. Why? It’s simple. America saw him play at a high level more recent than they saw Kyrie play at a high level.
  2. Those who hadn’t seen Irving play much in college had to rely on his college highlights. And, while definitely impressive, they didn’t hold a candle to the otherworldly things Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and John Wall were doing on a daily basis in the NBA. This also caused many to underrate Irving. Basically, they did exactly what I had done a year earlier.
Irving did eventually become the number one pick, but most still considered him to be a rather underwhelming prospect; a guy who might average 15 and 6 in his prime but would never make an All-Star team.

Now, if you follow the NBA, you know that Irving has surpassed all expectations. And, even if you don’t follow the NBA, you probably guessed a couple hundred words ago that, since I’m writing about him and using terms like biases and lowered expectations, Irving must be playing pretty well now.

This doesn’t surprise me. But, as I read and listen to comments from people spellbound by the success he’s having, I’ve begun to realize that this recency bias goes a bit deeper than I assumed.

The recent success of guys like Rose, Westbrook, and Wall have made many assume that you need to be an amazing athlete to be a top-notch point guard today; a thought process that strangely also caused these same people to somehow forget that none of the top point guards in NBA history --- not Magic, not Isiah, not Stockton, not Payton, not Cousy, and not even Chris Paul, Deron Williams, or Steve Nash --- were thought of as amazing natural athletes. This isn’t to say that you can’t be an amazing athlete and an amazing point guard, but the former isn’t a necessary trait for the latter.

That the recency bias was so strong that it made some very smart people considerably dumber also isn’t surprising, as the temporary idiocy caused by recency biases affects each of us in one way or another. It hits us when we go shopping while hungry and fill our carts with