• John-Paul Duphiney

Kyrie Irving Is the Most Skilled Basketball Player of All Time (Here’s Why & How He Got There)

It was July 2006 at Newark Academy High School Summer Varsity League in Jersey, where an eight-grader named Kyrie Irving caught my eye. With the ball looking like it had a string attached to his hand, Kyrie was an absolute blur, hitting these varsity players with in/out crossovers that left them embarrassed and confused about how they were supposed to contain this budding star. I saw Montclair Kimberly Academy (MKA) Coach Tony Jones across the court and went up to him and said, “Who the heck is that?” I’ve never seen a bigger smile come to his face than when he said, “That’s my 8th grade gem. You watch, he’s special, he’s gonna be a good one. He eats, sleeps and breathes basketball, there's no harder worker. He’s constantly in the gym working on his handle and his game." With Tony and I coaching in the same HS conference, I had the unfortunate assignment of attempting to put together a defensive game plan to try and slow Kyrie’s flow his first 2 years at MKA. Kyrie averaged 20 with 3 guys guarding him.

Kyrie Irving is the most offensively skilled player ever. From his handle, breakdown moves, footwork and finish. He has the highest skillset I’ve ever seen with the ball in his hands. Specifically, he has a gift that allows him to attack differently than anyone I’ve ever seen play the game of basketball. He has this unique superpower ability upon penetration, to rely on his instincts that detects the defensive players body positioning. He is then able to instantly/unconsciously react and utilize the most appropriate move in his supreme arsenal that counters their body positioning and is therefore able to maneuver past them.

When other players attack a defender, their move is often already predetermined in hopes it works to penetrate by the defender and get to the rim. Kyrie? He often doesn't think about or know what move he is going to make. He attacks and then based off how the defense moves to guard that, relies on his instincts and reactions to unleash a barrage of unconscious freestyle ultra-skilled moves to get to the bucket or get where he wants to go. In addition, he will sometimes initially bait the defender with a simple hesitation, between the legs, cross etc, to try and get his man to bite or just shift his weight or turn just a little. Without hesitation, Kyrie instinctively counters this by taking what the defender is giving him to get by. Sure, other NBA players also do this, but no one has an infinite amount of moves in their game that are done lightning quick, relying on instincts and reactions quite like Kyrie.

Here is an example:

I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to work closely with Kyrie to better understand how he achieved greatness. It was the summer of 2009 at Five Star Basketball “Sixers” invite-only camp. I was coaching at a station called “Game Conditioning Dribbling Drills”, teaching a group of about 12 star studded future division 1 players, including Kyrie. After instructions when the drill began, I noticed all the players displaying the classic ‘too cool to work hard in front of my peers' attitude. I was very disappointed as I watched all of the players going half speed, giving minimal effort, except for.... you guessed it-Kyrie. I’ve never seen a player so focused, going hard, head up, low as can be, grunting through the moves, pounding the ball. He didn’t care a lick what others thought of him and didn’t waste any time interacting or talking with others. His focus on the attention to details of what was being taught was second to none, super impressive. He took advantage of the opportunity to work hard on his game regardless of how others viewed him and now looking back helps me understand why Kyrie is where he is. Kyrie was a star among stars that day and there is no mistaking that the great ones practice just as hard as they play.

Kyrie’s hard work, passion and love for the game all contribute to his overall greatness but there’s an attribute that has been the engine behind his success. The summer before his junior year when he transferred to St. Pat’s, his reputation as an ankle breaker blew up nationally and climbed the rankings quickly. Most teenagers do not handle this publicity and fame very well, but because of Kyrie’s great family, coaches and mentors around him, he was able to stay humble & hungry; a staple that Kyrie continues to live by.

Drederick Irving is an incredible father who taught and guided Kyrie through his basketball journey. They found a recipe for greatness when they paired up with one of Jersey's most respected AAU programs, Roadrunners led by Coach/trainer Sandy Pyonin. Make no mistake about it, Kyrie didn’t become a star overnight, it took dedication with thousands and thousands of hours in a dimly lit hot gym in the off seasons when nobody was watching, earning the right to be a star under the big lights with all eyes on him. His confidence attacking the rim comes from all the time and effort he put into the drill work since these youth days.

Back to the court, there's no disputing that Kyrie has the best handle of all time. If you don't believe me, ask his peers; Allen Iverson, Richard Jefferson, Jason Williams and Tim Hardaway are among a long list of people who stake this claim. To go along with this GOAT handle status, he is an elite finisher at all levels on the court: at the rim, mid-range and beyond the 3-point line. He proved that this past 2020-21 season by being only the 4th player in NBA history to finish the year shooting at least 50% from the field, 40% from the 3-point line and 90% from the free throw line, while averaging at least 25 points per game. He has an incredible back to the basket package, deceiving side steps, is a master at navigating a ball screen, floaters off 1 or 2 feet, stride stop change of directions, catch and shoot, off the dribble, variety of shot fakes and a triple threat jab that will have you backpedaling to yesterday. He uses the glass better than Duncan and creates more space on a step back than Kemba in a Big East tourney chip. Seeing these moves being executed by one of the fastest players in the league makes it completely debilitating to defenses. Especially when his shiftiness of changing those speeds will get players off balance and you can forget about staying in front of him in the open court.

If you were looking for a weakness in Kyrie’s game (with the ball), the search might end after seeing him shot fake at the elbow into an up and under lefty floater swish from 15 feet away. His ability to finish with his left hand is equally if not better than his ability finishing with his right, making him even more difficult and unpredictable to defend. The list of skills in Kyrie's arsenal are limitless; here’s a fun highlight clip from this past year to get a small sample of what’s in Kyrie’s bag:

I love watching Kyrie Irving play basketball. The only frustrating part while writing this piece about him is realizing there aren’t enough words in the dictionary to fully illustrate how infinitely skilled Kyrie Irving is. As Kyrie's Uncle Drew said it best: “Basketball is an art form. You master the fundamentals so that you can IMPROVISE."