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Who Has the Edge Between Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, John Wall?

Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

In the golden age of point guards, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and John Wall look to usher in the new generation of floor generals. All are supremely talented, and despite the varied playing styles, the three superstars share a lot in common. Have any one of the three separated themselves from the pack enough to warrant consideration into the top-tier of point guards (Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook)? 

The very best NBA players have multiple elite skills. Irving is known for his elite ball-handling and his ability to finish around the rim, Wall has elite athletic ability that he uses to push the tempo and create spectacular defensive plays, and Lillard is an elite shooter who’s carved himself a reputation for performing in the clutch.

So, let’s example multiple key aspects of the game and compare these three stud point guards.

Shooting

First we’ll look at the skill fundamental to success in the NBA: shooting. The game still revolves around putting the ball in the basket, and players who can shoot will always have a spot on a team: 

[infogram id=”shooting_percentages”]

As you can see, the shooting percentages are incredibly close. One thing to note is playing style – Wall only shoots at 30.5 percent from deep, but does so sparingly, preferring rather to step in a couple feet for a mid-range if he cannot drive.

*Wall likes to penetrate (about 30 percent of his shot attempts are in the paint) or shoot easy mid-range jump shots (another 30 percent of his shot attempts are between 16 feet and 22 feet), and only shoots threes when wide open or forced (only 14 percent of his attempts are from three)*

Another thing to note is the burden of being the lone superstar on a team, as Irving was for his first three seasons and as Lillard is about to be. Being the first (and sometimes only) option on a team means facing the best defender and having an entire game plan designed to limit scoring opportunities. This results in tougher shots being taken and having to bail out the team on a regular occasion.

Despite that, Kyrie has always been a fantastic shooter, and last season playing with LeBron James really allowed him to showcase his talent. Given the best looks of his career, Irving capitalized on his opportunities and made 41.5 percent of his 378 long-range attempts. While Irving is known for his incredible finishes at the rim, he doesn’t truly separate himself in that department. Wall finishes at a career 62.3 percent at the rim, Lillard (after tremendous strides last season) finishes at 56.4 percent and Irving is in between at a career 59.5 percent.

Of course, the percentages don’t tell the whole tale – Wall gets more than his share of breakout dunks and uses his speed to get in the paint before a shot blocker can contest, helping boost his interior shooting percentage, while Irving is often contorting his body among many defenders to find angles to finish at.

So who do we give the shooting advantage to? Irving. Early in his career, Irving was knocking down many tough shots and was still shooting high percentages. His touch around the rim showcases his feel for the basket, and sharing the floor with LeBron just gave Cleveland a taste of how good of a shooter Irving truly is.

Ball-Handling Ability

The next thing to consider is ball-handling ability. This is a tough aspect of the game to judge from statistics or analytics, as it could never do justice to who has the better handles. However, there are two things to consider – pure ball-handling and athletic ball-handling. Wall and Lillard both possess athletic ball-handling while Irving is more of a pure ball-handler.

Let me explain. Athletic ball-handling is creating space using elite athleticism. When defenses have to preemptively step over a screen just to prevent a ball-handler from getting their shoulder past them, it’s easier for said ball-handler to use a crossover and leave the defender hanging over the screen while they go the opposite way.

It’s no knock on the ball-handling ability of Wall, Lillard or any other uber-athletic ball-handler; it’s just the way of the game. Both Wall and Lillard use different aspects of their athleticism to keep the defense on its heels and create. Wall has elite straight-line speed that defenses need to respect; if he gets his shoulder past the defense, the defender has to stop sliding and turn and run to beat Wall to the spot, becoming vulnerable to him changing direction or crossing back over. Lillard has cat-like quickness and can stop on a dime, which he often does once he gets the defense leaning just a little to the wrong side.

Irving, while athletic, doesn’t possess the athletic gifts that Wall and Lillard do. Yet, he has defenses rocking on their heels every game. With a combination of trickery and feel for the ball, Irving has made ball-handling into a science. He knows just how to stop and go, how to change pace to push a defender’s momentum the wrong way, and he has the ball skills to take advantage of the scrambling defender. Irving is the purest ball-handler, and his litany of victims can attest that he’s the best ball-handler out of the three.

Clutch Play

In an age full of advanced statics, widely available data and an obsession with ranking, defining what makes a player clutch is still an imperfect science. How does one measure clutchness? Scoring in the fourth quarter? The last minute? The last possession? What about players who make things happen in crunch time? 

For the majority of NBA history, being clutch has been defined more by an eye test and folklore than numbers. If you take a look at cold hard facts, Kobe Bryant has a below-average shooting percentage in crunch time (under five minutes, under a minute, last possession), while LeBron shoots and scores at a far more efficient rate. Listen to the folklore and one would think that Kobe has never missed a game-winner in his career!

With that all being said, the clutch factor is still hard to nail down. When comparing these three point guards however, one must include the clutch factor because they’ve been some of the most cold-blooded players in the entire Association.

Lillard has come into the league and built a reputation for knocking down cold-blooded shots, Irving has been making game-winners since his rookie season and Wall is slowly starting to prove that he can be counted on to take a team home.

As well as Wall played last season under pressure situations, the competition for most clutch point guard is between Lillard and Irving due simply to their resumes. Lillard’s accomplishments speak for themselves, as he’s had more than his share of game-winning shots (his most memorable being the series-clinching three to move Portland past Houston to the Western Conference Semifinals in 2014). Irving has crossed his share of teams off his list; he’s knocked down game-winning shots against seven teams (including his game-winning three against Portland last season to cap off a 55-point night).

The race for who’s the most clutch is also the most murky, and the outcome is a slight edge for Lillard.

Passing

Being a point guard means more than just scoring, and Wall will be the first to say that scoring isn’t the only way to be clutch in an NBA game. The most important thing is winning the game, no matter who gets the last shot. Wall is an expert at creating shot opportunities for others, and has mastered creating the coveted corner three.

After handing out a career-high 10 assists per game last season, Wall is the purest point guard out of the three and it’s not even close. Yes, Wall turns the ball over more than Lillard or Irving, but he garners far more assists. Take a look at the chart below.

*Note* Assists/Turnovers per game are all career averages, while assist percentage means the percentage of field goals a player assisted while he’s on the floor: 

[infogram id=”passing-086253172″]

Wall takes the crown for being the best passing point guard out of Irving and Lillard, and is a master at using his speed to get into the paint and bend the defense, kicking out to his shooters when the defense collapses.

Defense

Not only is Wall the best passer, but he’s also the best defender out of the three. Using his superior size (6-foot-4) and athleticism, Wall stays in front of the never-ending stream of talented point guards he faces. Where Wall excels is on the weak side; he can sit deeper in the paint as his speed allows him to close gaps faster than most defenders. Couple that with his ability to read the passing lanes and you get a career average of 1.6 steals a game.

Wall also loves to help down in the paint and get blocks on bigs from the weakside, helping him block 0.6 shots a game. Wall owns the edge on the defensive end, as Lillard has been all but nonexistent on the defensive end, and until last year, Irving didn’t give his full effort on that end of the court.

Conclusion

To recap, we see that Irving is the best tough shotmaker and the best shooter out of the three, as well as owning the best handle. He’s also best at finishing in traffic and is more than reliable in the clutch. While improving on the defensive end, he can be counted on and can shoulder an entire offense for a team. The biggest question for him is this: can he put together an entire season of greatness? In his four seasons, he’s yet to play the entire season and has missed a combined 72 games due to a variety of injuries.

Meanwhile, Wall is the purest point guard of the three, with an elite ability to create for his teammates as well as be a playmaker on the defensive end. He’s improved every year of his career and his once questionable jump shot is now more reliable (his three-point shot…still questionable). Wall also hasn’t played a full season, but he put in a career-best 79 games last season and looks like the next-best successor to Chris Paul as far as pure point guards go.

Lillard is just a shade behind Irving as the best shooter, and has shown that he too can carry an offense. With his ability to create for himself and others, his true skill will be put to the test now that he’s the lone option on a once formidable team. Crowned as the clutchest of the three (and perhaps the clutchest player in the league), he’s reliable down the stretch to make the right decisions and is a must have for any high-pressure situations (better known as the playoffs).

Lillard is the most consistent player of the three in terms of staying on the court, not having missed a single game in his career. His defense needs to be addressed, and the All-Star will not be a complete player without improving on that end. Still, the athletic and poised point guard is deadly almost as soon as he crosses half court, and he puts pressure on every defense he faces.

So who’s the best player out of the three? It really is close. Take a look at the chart below and see how close the competition is:

[infogram id=”per-3079649033291″]

At the end of the day, the game is about scoring the basketball, and I’m taking Kyrie Irving. He can get by any defender and can finish around the rim under any circumstance. Leave him open from anywhere and he’ll make you pay. Irving is reliable in crunch time and can create for his teammates. He’s steadily improving on the defensive end, and the only big thing for him is to stay on the court. If I have the choice between these three great point guards, I’m taking “Uncle Drew.” 

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