Kind of an interesting counterfactual scenario to mull over here: Had Kyrie Irving not returned from a toe injury that sidelined him for much of his much-lauded freshman season -- and had he not played so well in his three NCAA tournament games doing so -- then he would still be on Duke's campus next to Austin Rivers scaring the living daylights out of every backcourt in college basketball.
Instead, Irving did play well in his return. That was the difference in his decision to leave school and enter the NBA draft as a likely No. 1 overall pick this summer. Irving told Fox Sports Ohio as much Tuesday:
Irving insisted his toe is now “100 percent healthy.” That’s a lot different than the NCAA tournament in March, when he estimated it was only about 70 percent.
Had Irving not been able to play in the tournament, he said he would have returned to Duke for his sophomore season.
“Those eight games (before the injury) just weren’t enough,” he said. “But playing in the tournament gave me a chance to prove something to all the naysayers about my durability.”
First, well, sorry, Duke fans. Three games away! So close! Really, can you imagine that Irving-Rivers backcourt? Actually, don't. That sort of mental masochism can't be healthy.
Second of all, there's a different point here, one that our friend at CBS, Matt Norlander, insightfully caught Tuesday evening. As Matt writes:
Remember how Irving, his father, Duke, Coach K -- they were all insistent Irving wouldn't play against last season unless he was completely healthy? I don't know if anyone ever bought into that, even when he dressed for the tournament, but 70 percent is still far from all the way back. Was Irving nudged back into playing? If so, by who?
Yep, if you read Irving's quote again, you'll notice he says the injury was actually at 70 percent. That wasn't really the company line throughout Irving's recovery. Then again, 70 percent may not be 100 percent, but as long as the toe wasn't going to be re-injured, then Irving, Coach K, and the rest of the Duke training staff probably felt comfortable letting Irving get back out there during the most important time of the season.
Or -- or! -- Irving is engaging in a handy bit of draft gamesmanship, hinting that his 28-point performance in Duke's Sweet Sixteen loss to Arizona was merely the tip of the iceberg. That would be savvy.
Was Irving's return a good idea? All signs point to yes. The point guard played brilliantly (albeit in a loss), solidifying his spot at the top of the draft in the process.
Everything worked out. Except, you know, for Duke fans. But come on, guys. You can't win them all.