The 2010-11 college basketball season is nearing its climax with March quickly closing in.
For the Duke Blue Devils, this has been one of the most interesting seasons in recent memory. Expectations were incredibly high at the beginning of the year with Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler returning on the heels of a national title. With super-frosh Kyrie Irving replacing Jon Scheyer at the point, Duke had one of the most talented players in the nation running the show.
Irving only played eight games before suffering a serious toe injury that has kept him sidelined ever since. There's still a chance he could return, but it's 50/50 at best.
With Irving out, Smith and Singler have carried the Blue Devils to a 24-2 record, giving them an almost sure-fire chance for a third straight 30-win season. Whether or not Duke repeats as national champions remains to be seen, but this will be a positive season for the Blue Devils regardless.
Singler and Smith have limited time left in the college game, being seniors. They will be in the NBA next year for sure. Irving could potentially come back to Duke next year depending on several factors, but he will likely be a top three pick in the NBA draft if he decides to declare.
With the end of the season in view, how well have Duke's stars showcased their NBA potential?
Irving only had eight games in a Duke uniform to showcase his talent. Most of those games came against extremely weak teams. Even big early season games against Kansas State and Michigan State look less impressive at this point in the year.
Still, Irving showed enough in those eight games to have every NBA scout salivating over the chance to add him to their roster, especially those whose teams are in need of an elite point guard.
This is an era in the NBA full of dynamic point guards. A lot of experts would go so far as to say it's a point guard's league right now, and Irving has all of the tools to be a star point guard in the NBA.
He's incredible quick, both laterally and in terms of his ability to get down the court. He is a lethal shooter, a fantastic finisher and has a solid mid-range game as well.
Irving is also just as good at creating for others as he is at creating for himself (and that's very, very good). All NBA GMs need to do is look at how much better Mason Plumlee looked for Duke with Irving on the court to see the impact he can have on rising the level of play of his teammates.
It's still unknown whether or not Irving will declare for the draft at the end of the season. As long as his injury isn't a lingering issue, you can pencil him in on an NBA All-Star roster three years after he gets to the league, whether that's next year or the following season.
If you're looking for an NBA comparison, think Chris Paul.
NBA types have always been high on Singler's skill set. He's very versatile at 6'8" and there is always a place in the NBA for tall shooters who can handle the ball and rebound.
At the same time, no one should expect Singler to be anything more than a role player at the next level. While he's good at everything, there isn't one aspect of the game where he truly separates himself as an elite player at the NBA level.
Singler has had a very solid season, but he hasn't been the NPOY candidate that he was expected to be. His shot has been streaky from the perimeter, and he hasn't been automatic close to the basket.
At the same time, NBA teams will know exactly what they're getting with Singler. He's been a great college player for his entire career. He's one of the top scorers in ACC history, and he is a solid defender and rebounder.
Singler is simply a player who hit his ceiling a few years ago, and while his ceiling isn't extremely high, his floor isn't very low.
At best, Singler is a lesser Wally Szczerbiak at the next level.
There aren't many players who have done more to help their draft status this season than Nolan Smith.
Smith is on a short list of potential NPOY candidates, and he's earned it. He leads the ACC in both scoring and assists, and he'll be the first player in ACC history to do that if he stays atop those leaderboards.
Irving's injury has allowed Smith to show that while he isn't a pure point guard, he is capable of distributing the ball without taking away from his offensive capabilities.
In terms of offense, Smith scores in every way possible. He is quick and crafty enough with the ball to create space for himself instead of relying on screens for open looks. Even though he is a bit undersized, he has proven that he can finish in the lane among the trees and with contact. His shot has gotten better every year, and he may have the best mid-range game in college basketball (his floater is a thing of beauty).
Smith is probably a lock for the first round of the NBA draft, but there are still questions. He's not a natural point guard, and he's undersized as a shooting guard. Still, there are a lot of NBA teams who would love to have another athletic, scoring guard coming off the bench.
More so than Irving and Singler (Irving because of his obvious talent and Singler because of his high floor/low ceiling), Smith is a roll of the dice in terms of his NBA potential.
In terms of an NBA comparison, a poor man's Ben Gordon might be the closest thing to Smith in the NBA.