I still remember the first time I saw Kyrie Irving. Duke was playing a pretty good Marquette team with at least three future NBA players -- Jimmy Butler, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder -- in an early-season non-conference game. Under Buzz Williams, the Golden Eagles pride themselves on their defense; they went to the Sweet 16 that season. None of that mattered against Irving: he was playing on a whole different level. He could drain open three-pointers, blow by anyone who pressed him and see the entire floor.
That’s what makes the start of the college basketball season so exciting. We’ve seen Kobe Bryant and LeBron James play thousands of basketball games; at this point, we have a pretty good idea of what they are all about. So while the level of play in the NBA is much higher, you never know what you are going to get in the NCAA. You might just stumble upon the next big thing; then again, you might not.
I still remember the first time I saw Quincy Miller. Baylor was playing a non-conference game against what turned out to be a pretty good San Diego State team. Miller was the centerpiece of their offense, a smooth 6’10 small forward who could effortlessly drain step-back three-pointers and get into the lane. He had 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting in 25 minutes; the buckets were coming so easy, he probably could have went for 40. But, as the year went on, Perry Jones III came back from a suspension and the Bears offense shifted away from Miller, which seemingly took a toll on his confidence.
He might end up becoming a second round steal for the Nuggets, but he’s currently playing in the D-League, far away from the heights he was once projected to reach. The conventional wisdom is that college basketball games don’t “matter” until March. Tell that to anyone who played Kentucky last year, who knew they could have a career-defining performance in front of dozens of NBA scouts. Many front offices can get caught into the hype surrounding March Madness, but the smart ones start work on finding the next “market inefficiencies” in the months of November-February.
Since the NBA’s best teams are judged almost exclusively by their performances in the playoffs, the regular season is really about the rebuilding franchises, the ones trying to develop young players for the future. Yet, for the vast majority of them, what happens in the college basketball season will have an impact just as big, if not greater, than anything that happens on the professional level. The best way to build a title contender, especially in a smaller market, is piece-by-piece through the draft. That’s a function of properly scouting the best players in the NCAA and figuring out which ones fit with the core already in place.
The Cavaliers are a good example. With Kyrie Irving out for a month, any real chance of contending for the playoffs is over. Dion Waiters has been a pleasant surprise, but long-term, Cleveland still needs a frontcourt star to complement their backcourt of the future. That’s the whole ballgame: if Cleveland messes up their lottery pick this year, there aren’t going to many more chances to build a title contender around Irving.
Who should that player be? Right now, two weeks into the NCAA season, we really don’t know. While Anthony Davis had the inside track on the No. 1 overall pick from the moment he arrived in Lexington, none of the class of 2012 came into their freshman year with an overwhelming amount of hype. Shabazz Muhammad was the consensus No. 1 player, but since he isn’t an overwhelming athlete at 6’6 220, it’s way too soon to know whether he can live up to that.
Regardless, the first time you watch UCLA, your eyes will eventually start to drift from Shabazz to Kyle Anderson. I don’t know if he’s a good enough athlete, shooter or scorer, but Anderson is a legitimate PG at 6’9 235. In their loss to Georgetown, one of the season’s early surprises, he had seven rebounds, six assists and three steals, but also 0 points on 0-6 shooting. It was a very Rondo-esque performance, kind of stunning for a player of Anderson’s size.
In terms of a size-skill combination, there’s no one comparable to Baylor’s Isaiah Austin, the nephew of 11-year NBA veteran Ike Austin. The Bears first game this season was against Lehigh, a scrappy Patriot League team coming off a first round upset of Duke in last season's tournament, but lacking the personnel to match up with a 7’1 225 monster with a 7’5 wingspan. Austin scored 22 points on 10-for-12 shooting in only 17 minutes of action; he was out there draining three-pointers like it was nothing.
And as impressive as Austin’s performance was, perhaps the best debut came from Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart. The Cowboys were facing an absolutely loaded NC State team, with at least 4-5 future NBA players, in the championship game of a tournament in Puerto Rico. He was matched-up against Lorenzo Brown, a sure-fire future NBA PG at 6’5 185. Smart, a chiseled 6’4 200 athlete, undressed the All-ACC guard, with 20 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, four blocks and four steals. He was running point, volleyball spiking shots at the rim and draining heat-check 30-footers.
In and of themselves, none of these games necessarily foretell greatness. Maybe the freshman seasons of Austin, Anderson and Smart play out more like Quincy Miller’s than Kyrie Irving’s. That’s the beauty of college basketball: we really don’t know. Right now, I can sit here and make a lot of fairly easy predictions about the NBA season, but I couldn’t possibly tell you who is going to make the Final Four. It should be a wild ride; NBA fans who don’t follow along are going to be missing out.