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Steve Nash sees athleticism in the NBA through a different lens ... and Kyrie Irving

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Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Steve Nash has raved about Kyrie Irving from his first opportunity, often using the word, “amazing” to describe his play. When asked what’s surprised him most about his point guard, Nash has on more than one occasion said it was his athleticism ... and on Monday that led Nash to wax on about just what athleticism means in today’s NBA.

It was an instructive moment.

“I always knew Ky was a great athlete, incredibly mobile, and such a gifted mover but he is actually more explosive than I thought, which is really impressive.

“I don’t remember him being quite as athletic or explosive as he has been,” Nash said about Irving. “I knew he was a good athlete for sure but he’s been really impressive in his ability to close distances, create space, exploding into gaps - so he looks incredible and he is fun to watch and fun to coach.”

Was Nash projecting? When you look back on Steve Nash’s legacy as a player, “athletic” was never an adjective assigned to the Canadian. He may have been MVP twice, an all-star eight times, but he was never viewed through the NBA prism of athleticism. Instead, he was seen as skilled, crafty, hard-working and known for his impeccable basketball IQ, ending his 18-year career as one of the best point guards to ever step on NBA hardwood.

His lack of traditional athleticism, in fact, was a bit of a joke during his playing days. When he was at his peak, Nash won “Athlete of the Year” in Canada. As recounted in Jack McCallum’s “Seven Seconds or Less” his then head coach on the Suns (and now his offensive coordinator with the Nets) joked, “That’s a great honor, Steve. Did you beat out one of those curling guys who sweep the ice?”

So, for Nash, there are other elements that characterize athleticism in the NBA ... not just explosiveness, things like max vertical and speed. He admitted in McCallum’s book that those were things he was “painfully bad” at.

“I think in our game, we pigeon hole athleticism to often than explosiveness,” Nash said talking about Irving Monday ... but also no doubt about himself as well. “Being a great athlete can be hand-eye coordination, could be balance, mobility, agility, coordination - it doesn’t have to be explosiveness. In the NBA, we tend to call athleticism a code name for explosiveness.”

He sees a lot of those qualities (as well as explosiveness) in his starting point guard. Asked specifically about what he saw in Irving Sunday night, Nash said athleticism, expanding the definition to include mobility and movement.

“That one was the one that stood out the most,” Nash said about Irving’s athleticism. “I was like ‘wow - he is a little more explosive than I thought he was.’ I do not want that to come off the wrong way. I thought he was an excellent athlete but more so excellent with his mobility and how dynamic a mover and he is an amazing mover.”

One day after Irving capped off his first game in 316 days with an impressive 18 points, four assists, and one rebound in 17 minutes of play, Nash is glad he does not need to play his point guard on the hardwood. He views it as an honor to coach the gifted point guard.

“Kyrie is much easier to coach than play against,” Nash joked. “He is so gifted, intelligent, creative, and his skill level is off the chart. He is an incredible ball-handler and shot maker as we all know.”