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Checking in on the Cavs Core

Fast forward to next year and nights like Monday, hopefully, will be unacceptable.

As for right now, a loss to a hobbled and reeling Minnesota Timberwolves is one that can be taken, reluctantly, with a grain of salt. Chalk it up to the growing pains of a young and inexperienced basketball team.

It's hard to tell if that eases the pain or enhances it–that the Cavs have seemingly turned a corner in 2013 and have mixed in some pretty exciting nights amongst some puzzling efforts–much like last nightʼs loss to Minnesota.

Over the last 24 games, the Cavs have put together a respectable, while not earth shattering, 11-13 record. The best thing along the way is that itʼs been the young core doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

Kyrie Irving has been incredible.

Frankly, its to a point where he has to play pretty unbelievably for the Cavs to win games and that he has. For those concerned about a sophomore slump you can breathe easy.

All Irving has done is exceed expectations for his 2nd year while catapulting himself into some pretty impressive debates regarding where he stands among the current rank and file of superstars in the NBA.

With Kyrie having proven himself to be a more known commodity, the real story is the development of his fellow rising stars.

The first being fellow sophomore Tristan Thompson.

Thompson's meteoric rise in approval rating is soaring as he continues to demonstrate a legit NBA offensive game. Heʼs facing people up and beating defenders off the dribble from time-to-time. Heʼs playing tougher. Heʼs rebounding. He also has 12 more assists over this 24-game stretch than he had in ALL 60 games last season. 

More importantly, Thompson is giving plenty of reason to believe that he can be much more than a career garbage man, as many tabbed him to be in November.  

Thompson's shooting 54 percent in this timeframe and has improved his free throw shooting enough to be trusted on the court in late game situations. The best example of Tristanʼs offensive development could be seen down the stretch of the Cavs win against OKC. 

With Kyrie Irving in NBA Live Mode, they were trapping Irving on the pick and roll. Two separate times Kyrie lofted the ball over the trapping defenders hands to Tristan who had space to himself near the free throw line. Once he took a hard dribble into the lane before kicking it out to CJ Miles for a game tying three. The other he took a dribble and knocked down one of his now consistent right-handed floaters.

It seemed a sequence like that was years away in November–if it ever came at all. He still hasnʼt scratched the surface when it comes to defensive rebounding, and being an interior presence on defense, but it looks like weʼre back to the sky being Tristan's only limitation. At 21 years-old, heʼs averaged around 15 and 11 for better than a quarter of the season and is now a double-double threat in any game he suits up.

As for the rookies, there are a bit more ups-and-downs to speak of which is to be expected. After watching Dion Waiters for the first half of the season, two things are becoming clear: He has a ton of talent and his development is going to be more mental than anything.

Unlike Thompson, who needed help with technique, footwork, and where to stand at the FT line, Dion needs to adjust to the mental side of the NBA.

From day one heʼs shown the ability to get past defenders and into the lane. He has an elite first step and when he explodes to the basket heʼs tough to stop. Of course, what he found out was that in the NBA the next few steps were a bit tougher. He had a tough time finishing and drawing fouls. So he stopped himself.

Looking back at the Clippers game in Staples Center, while it was one of the highs of the season so far, it may have stunted Dionʼs growth a bit. He was unconscious from the perimeter and spent the better part of the next two months trying to find that same hot hand. Having shown that ability to take over a game with his jump shot and combining that with his difficulties converting in the lane it made it easy to settle.

This is the one issue that Iʼve really held Byron Scottʼs feet to the fire about. If this season isnʼt about wins and losses then it better be about developing the youth. I felt that it took too long to bring Dionʼs shot selection to task. But over the course of time it seems Scott has gotten his point across and itʼs yielded much better results.

In the Cavs first 30 games Dion shot 36 percent. In the last 24 heʼs shooting 43 percent. Heʼs been attacking more and taking two-to-three less three pointers a game as well. Heʼs averaging 15 ppg and has also shown playmaking ability for his teammates.

He, much like Kyrie, needs to improve his defense before this team can take the next step but Dion showing the ability to adjust his game and listen to coaching is very reassuring. If Scott and the Cavs can maximize his talent theyʼll have the best young backcourt in the NBA.

Last but not least, well, last is Tyler Zeller. Tyler has certainly had a rough go of it so far this season but in fairness he shouldnʼt have the lofty expectations that came along with high lottery picks like his fellow BBVA Rising Stars.

When Andy went down he was forced into action as a starting center in the NBA much before he was ready. If he ever is ready for such a role.

When Cleveland drafted Zeller, I was excited about the possibility of a polished big man who could pull opposing bigs out of the lane for Dion Waiters and Kyrie. I also envisioned an eventual pick-and-pop player that would make it that much more difficult to guard the Cavs.

Instead, Tyler got his face busted up early, has been pushed around lately, and that jumper I was looking forward to him unleashing after Roy Williams kept it locked up for four years is converting only a third of the time.

Yes, heʼs shooting 33 percent from 10 feet and out. While his ability to run the floor has been as advertised, it hasnʼt mattered all that much because of his inability to help protect the rim or lock up defensive rebounds.

Again, Zeller was the 17th pick so nobody should have been expecting a franchise big but his debut so far has lead to more questions than answers at the 5 spot. Anyone whose ever read anything Iʼve written before should know Iʼm not going to end it on a sour note so Iʼll say this:

Tyler Zeller does have a history of being an incredibly hard worker. He also has a big Lithuanian who was never the strongest or the fastest on the court to mentor him. Lord knows heʼs done wonders for Tristan already. I do believe that with an NBA offseason in the weight room and big Z helping him improve.

Tyler Zeller will be a part of the Cavs' bigs rotation for years to come and will probably make a fortune in the NBA. So as we head to the All-Star break, weʼll get to watch all four of the Cavs Rising Stars in action against their peers.

Donʼt think the league and itʼs future free agents havenʼt noticed the rare amount of teammates in that game either. We have plenty of ways to add talent in the future but priority one remains to get the most out of these four players.

I love the returns from 2011, obviously, and can see a bright future from our 2012 haul. In the meantime, the Cavaliers' primary focus on developing them–as opposed to bringing in higher priced veterans–is probably serving to improve our options in 2013.

Stay tuned Cavs fans. The future is bright.

Brendan Bowers

About Brendan Bowers

I am the founding editor of StepienRules.com. I am also a content strategist and social media manager with Electronic Merchant Systems in Cleveland. My work has been published in SLAM Magazine, KICKS Magazine, The Locker Room Magazine, Cleveland.com, BleacherReport.com, InsideFacebook.com and elsewhere. I've also written a lot of articles that have been published here.

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