Kyrie Irving is much better off than he was this time last year. The Cavaliers are now better off than they were in June.
The 24-year old is a champion twice over, five years removed from college and six removed from high school.
He is also now the fourth player to ever win a Larry O’Brien trophy and an Olympic gold medal in the same year, joining LeBron (2012), Scottie Pippen (1992/96) and Michael Jordan (92).
For some reason, many are quick to dismiss accomplishments in international basketball because of the apparent difference in talent between the Team USA and the rest of the world. But for Kyrie, that’s almost the point.
In 2016, Irving has now won hardware beside the best player in the world, and won gold while leading 11 of the top 25 or so players on the planet. He is the second-youngest player on Team USA.
The difference between Irving’s professional gold and his international gold is that he was the unquestioned leader of his team in Rio.
Irving caught some flack for saying that a gold medal would mean about the same as winning an NBA Championship. While the magnitude of each can be debated, what cannot be questioned is that it supplements Irving’s growth and is therefore invaluable to Cleveland basketball.
While Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson did the lion’s share of the scoring during the US run, playing point guard at the international level carries a much larger emphasis on leadership over pure scoring.
This, to some degree, dismisses the narrative that Irving cannot survive as a pass-first point guard. He had to be, and he succeeded.
When you put all of these things together, you can see what Kyrie Irving is becoming, and it is LeBron James.
Irving is not becoming James in the sense that he is all of a sudden a 6-foot-8 freak of nature, but rather in the sense that he has become a multi-faceted player who understands how to work within a championship team.
Irving has become an NBA Champion three years before James (albeit with the latter’s help) and an Olympic gold medalist at the same age.
Most of all, like James, Irving has become a leader of men. There is a reason outside of patriotism that James often touts his gold medals with an equal, if not heightened, sense of pride. That is because it helped him grow as a leader and a basketball player.
There will come a day when LeBron’s star begins to fade, and Irving will need to be the top gun for the Cavaliers. He is now prepared for that task.
As Irving’s trophy-case grows, so does his reputation, and as his reputation grows, so does his influence. When the time does come that Irving needs more help outside of James and Kevin Love, the time spent among the world’s best could help position his team for the addition of another talent.