CLEVELAND — A smile creased Kevin Durant's face at the mere mention of the second-year star.
It's not often that happens when Durant discusses opponents.
But that's the level of admiration the three-time scoring champion has for Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving, the reigning Rookie of the Year who Durant already deems a top-five talent at his position and a player he says he'd pay to see play.
“Everybody can see how exciting he is to watch,” Durant said. “His handle, his jump shot, his savvy, his poise, he's just a big-game player.”
Durant will lead the Thunder into Cleveland to face Irving and the Cavs on Saturday night inside Quicken Loans Arena. It'll be the second and final meeting between the two teams. The Thunder pummeled Cleveland by 15 points in the first matchup back in Oklahoma City. Irving scored 20 points with four rebounds and five assists in that contest.
On the season, Irving ranks sixth in the league in scoring with a 23.9-point average. He's added 3.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.8 steals.
What's made it even more impressive for Durant is that Irving can't even legally buy an adult beverage until March 23.
“I like young guys, because I was one of those guys, 20 years old trying to establish yourself,” Durant said. “And to be an All-Star in your second year, that's stuff that doesn't happen on the regular so I've got a lot of praise for him.”
Irving is the sixth-youngest player (20 years, 331 days) in league history to be named to an All-Star team. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he's one of only seven players in NBA history to be selected before turning 21.
Kobe Bryant (19 years, 169 days) is the youngest All-Star of all time, followed by LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Kevin Garnett and Isaiah Thomas.
The maturity with which Irving plays has forced Durant to take notice.
“He hit a game-winner the other night,” Durant said, referring to Irving's dagger at Toronto last Saturday. “Down two on the road and pull up for a 3, you've got to have some (guts) to do that one. But he's just such a great player to watch, and he's going to be one of the best point guards in this league for years to come.”
Irving, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, memorably introduced himself to the Thunder by captaining the Cavs to a six-point win inside Chesapeake Energy Arena last season. Cleveland's victory snapped the Thunder's 14-game home winning streak. Irving controlled the game, at the start and down the stretch, like a 10-year veteran. In reality, he was just a 19-year-old pup who had played only 11 career college games because of a torn ligament in his toe.
He finished that game — the only meeting between the two teams last year because of the lockout-shortened season — with nine points, six rebounds, 12 assists and three steals. But that stat line doesn't tell the full story of how Irving picked apart the Thunder, using his ball-handling and pinpoint passing to make every one of his teammates threats.
“I'm from the east coast and I'm all about dribbling moves and creating your own shot. And that's what he does to the T,” Durant said. “He's got one of the best handles in the league; on the run, cross between the legs, spin, left-hand layup. He's one of the best finishers.
“To be a 6-3 guard and so strong and athletic, it's rare. It's only a few. Him, (Derrick) Rose, Russell (Westbrook), it's only a few of those guys like that. And to be a 20-year-old guy trying to lead an organization, I really like that and they're moving in the right direction.”