It was a throwaway quote tossed off by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski in the middle of making a more expansive point after the Blue Devils' NCAA Tournament game against Michigan last March, but it spoke volumes.
"If he plays the whole year," Krzyzewski said, referring to freshman point guard Kyrie Irving, who was limited to 11 games after suffering a freak toe injury, "he might be the best player in college basketball. The kid is that good. He's that good."
Of course, anyone who follows Duke basketball already knew how good Krzyzewski and his assistant coaches thought Irving could become. They changed their entire offense -- remember that Duke was coming off the national championship in 2010 -- to take advantage of his skills. And in eight games at the beginning of the season, during which Irving averaged 17.3 points and 5.1 assists and shot .532 from the field, .483 from three-point range and .895 from the free-throw line, he more than justified his coaches' faith in him.
Then came the toe injury, suffered against Butler, 28 games on the sidelines, and a return for the NCAA Tournament, where Irving again provided tantalizing glimpses of what could have been.
We'll never know if Irving would have become the college player of the year. But the future No. 1 pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers is going to have plenty of time to prove his worth in the NBA. And how good can he become?
How about Chris Paul good?
Irving caused a brief stir earlier this week when he chose not to participate in the on-court drills at the NBA combine in Chicago. But Irving doesn't need to flex his measurables. No, he's not freaky athletic/explosive in the mold of Derrick Rose or John Wall. But he's more than athletic enough to excel in the NBA.
Consider Michigan Staten coach Tom Izzo's first reaction after Irving torched the Spartans for 31 points in an early December game: "His speed most impressed me," Izzo said. "I mean he can shoot it, but the way he can handle the ball and get inside out, you've got to corral him."
That speed is why the Duke coaches changed their offense.
"Everything was tailored toward giving him the spacing and the ability to do what he does," Duke associate head coach Chris Collins said this week. "Make plays or let other players play off him. That's why for us it was such a tough adjustment [after Irving was injured]. Our whole season was predicated around having him be the guy. That's how we trained. When he went down, we had to reinvent our whole system."
Some pundits think the Cavs shouldn't take Irving No. 1, that because Baron Davis is already on the roster, Arizona forward Derrick Williams would be a more prudent choice. But this is one of those deals where drafting for need would be a mistake. Taking the best player available is the ticket. Irving is the best player available, and his particular skills have become increasingly valuable in a league where point guards control so much with penetration and decision-making.
"You look at the NBA right now," Collins said. "It's a point guard driven league. The teams that are still alive have dynamic point guards."
"In today's NBA, Kyrie Irving is a coveted commodity," said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. "You just can't find point guards at that level in free agency. You get them in the draft."
Collins has no doubt Irving will take his place among the NBA's elite point guards.
"He's really good at the pick and roll," Collins said. "That's something we do a lot of. If he plays off the ball, he can make shots. And he can play off others as well. It makes him very dangerous, not only when he has the ball, but when he's off the ball. You have to be accountable for where he's at all the time."
Also armed with the No. 4 pick in the draft, the Cavs have a chance to pair Irving with a young, talented inside player. The consensus choice of all the mock NBA drafts compiled by NBA.com says that would be 6-11 Enes Kanter. Like Irving, he's 19 years old. Unlike Irving, Kanter had no chance to showcase his skills at the collegiate level. The NCAA ruled him permanently ineligible after determining he had taken excessive benefits from a pro team in his native Turkey, so Kanter was reduced to a practice player at Kentucky this season.
Kanter did take part in on-court work at the Chicago combine, and he impressed with his combination of size and mobility. That didn't surprise me after some conversations I had with the Kentucky staff and other college coaches who recruited Kanter.
Washington assistant coach Raphael Chillious remembers his first impressions of the big man while conducting a clinic for Nike in Greece. Kanter was 16 years old.
"Two things stood out right away," Chillious said. "He's got unbelievably soft hands; he caught everything. And he reminded me of a Moses Malone-type rebounder. I saw him go out of bounds on one side of the basket [to claim a rebound] and come back inbounds on the other. Moses was like that. This kid is just a high, high, high level, instinctive rebounder."
Can two 19-year-olds put Cleveland back on the playoff track? Irving and Kanter won't make anyone forget about King James, but add them to a nucleus that includes J.J. Hickson, maybe nab Cleveland native and former Ohio State star David Lighty -- who by some accounts is another Bruce Bowen -- in the second round of the draft, and Cav fans can start to get excited again.