After USA Basketball practice on Thursday, Kyrie Irving went up to assistant coach Archie Griffin and asked to feed him the ball while he got up some shots . Kyrie was the only player on the floor still shooting. Determined to get better, at around 50 shots in, Kyrie went on a bad streak of finding the iron on the rim. The anger on his face was evident, as he screamed “What is going on?!” By the look on his face and his drive to make shot after shot, you can tell how good he really wants to be. He calmly settled down and made the next five shots.
Kyrie understands that this upcoming World Cup and NBA season is going be very crucial for him, as he will have to take on new challenges he’s never had to at the professional level. While you can make the case for every single player on the U.S roster about their own challenges going into next season such as Derrick Rose returning from injury, James Harden getting over the hump, or Anthony Davis becoming the superstar we have all labeled him to be, there might not be another player with more to prove than Irving.
Things in Cleveland for Kyrie changed from night to day in a span of hours. A day after signing a lucrative contract extension to stay with the Cavs and not knowing the possible future of the team, LeBron James announced his return back to Cleveland. He did not just announce his return, he stated: “My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys. I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league.”
LeBron’s statement makes me think about when Shaquille O’Neal came to Miami and decided to take a blossoming Dwyane Wade under his wing. Before Shaq went to South Beach, Wade was an All-Star during the 2004-05 season averaging 24.1 points per game, 6.8 assists, and 5.7 boards. But Miami was not a complete team until Shaq came aboard the next season and helped earn them a ring. O’Neal told reporters,
“I knew when I came here that I had to take this young fella to the next level… I knew that I’d be drawing double and triple teams and he’d make them pay… I knew that I didn’t have to carry us all the time… Just remember, I could have been a prick about this whole thing, but I willingly took a backseat to this guy so we could win the title.”
While I don’t expect LeBron in his prime to take the same step back as Shaq and let Kyrie run the show, the mentoring aspect is fairly similar. Teams are going to come after LeBron such as pre-Miami days in Cleveland and it is for Kyrie to take it himself to be ready to take on that extra leverage to help LeBron in those type of situations.
When it comes to pressure, Irving he will tell you he is used to it. From switching high schools from Montclair (N.J.) Kimberley Academy to the legendary St. Patrick High School, Irving went from an unknown prep basketball player to a star. At St. Patrick’s he was groomed to be the heir apparent to former Villanova guard Corey Fisher. He succeeded, having every college coach knock on his door and winning many accolades such as being named a McDonalds All-American.
In the ESPN “NEXT” issue back in 2012, the magazine did a feature on “The Making of Kyrie Irving” which followed his story from an unheralded recruit to getting the attention from the likes of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. It was pretty evident early on that Kyrie had what it took to succeed no matter what kind of obstacle was in his way. He did not need a ranking site to fuel his fire after being labeled at times the fourth best point guard in his recruiting class behind Brandon Knight, Kendall Marshall and Josh Selby, or the bantering from critics on social media sites, the only thing that added fuel to his fire was himself and his cell phone where he sent himself motivational notes before games.
Irving wrote this in December 2008, upon transferring to St. Patrick High in Elizabeth, NJ: “The lights are on, baby. Time to show the world what you’re really about and who the best is in the country.” This was from June 2009, amid a pivotal AAU summer: “I’m going to make it, even if I have to run through a ton of walls … F– being friends. I’m going to destroy these dudes.” More recently, in November 2012: “Unleash everything you have and never look back. You are the best point guard in this league, so act like it. Let’s go.”
When Kyrie decided to attend Duke, the pressure grew. Coach K never had a point guard with the ability of Irving. No one knew what to expect, but after getting the ball from day one, Kyrie became the obvious number one selection in the NBA draft despite only playing 11 games for the Blue Devils after suffering a toe injury.
Cleveland had the number one pick in the draft a year after LeBron surprised the league in announcing that he will leave his hometown team for South Beach. The city of Cleveland was left in a black hole. The expectations for the new number one pick were beyond reach. Kyrie still won rookie of the year and became a fan favorite throughout his three years in the NBA, displaying a serious crossover and an outstanding layup package which is pretty Houdini-esque. He became a marketing star over the time appearing in commercials for Nike, Pepsi, Jeep.
He won last year’s All-Star game MVP but there was still something bothering Kyrie. The Cavs were a team with no leadership. Kyrie told Real GM on Tuesday, “Everybody asks me if this is my year to be a leader… I haven’t been so far though, not at all,” Irving said. “I’ve just been a kid trying to figure it out. There’s no perfect way to be a leader, and coming in as a 19-year-old kid and having everything bearing on your shoulders, there are a lot of ups and downs.” Kyrie and teammate Dion Waiters bumped heads throughout the season about who should have the ball more in their hands while a fellow number top pick, Anthony Bennett, struggled and had one of the worst NBA seasons as a rookie. The Cavs were back to being the laughingstock of the NBA.
When talking to reporters after the USA basketball practice, Irving talked about the difficult part coming into the league in a rebuilding situation and stated, “It takes a toll on you, you know we lost a lot of games and it was tough just playing every single day and it’s a test of your will, it’s a test of your mental capacity, it is tough.”
In May, the Cavs struck gold again on gaining another first overall pick, their third in four years. It brought the attention of conspiracy theories from the NBA. The Cavs selected Canadain sensation Andrew Wiggins. Cleveland had a solid young core to work with, but it was pretty clear once LeBron came to town that the Wiggins experiment wouldn’t be long.
The Cavs traded away Wiggins and Bennett to the Wolves for Kevin Love in a three-team trade. Love was one of the biggest headlines coming into the offseason with one year left on his contract. He made it known he did not want to stay another year in Minnesota. Along with LeBron and Love, the Cavs now have two top-10 players on their roster, with another one on the brink of joining them in Kyrie. Cleveland management also brought in more veterans that can help nurture the young core of Kyrie, Tristan Thompson and Waiters with bringing on proven players Mike Miller, James Jones, and Shawn Marion.
With a championship caliber team around him now, Kyrie feels that he has no excuses this time around – he has to go out and produce.
“I am more or less excited for the pieces that we have just because when I am looking on my left and my right, we got guys that play the game the right way. Not saying we didn’t have it but we just didn’t have enough leadership, especially in our lockeroom. Now that we have LeBron and guys I can actually learn from, veterans that won championships, it will be easier for me,” Kyrie stated.
On changes he will have to make, Kyrie feels that just adding LeBron in the mix just makes things easier.
“It will be good to have another dominate piece out there playing with me. I mean it will make your game that much easier and have the opportunity to play with him is something I am looking forward to, and something I need to take advantage of because the last three years it’s been difficult. Honestly I finally get some help and I know our management has done a hell of a job getting guys this offseason. It’s an exciting time for Cleveland.”
With Kevin Durant’s departure, Team USA is still looking for that player that the team can go to down the stretch of games. With many options Kyrie will have the chance to showcase a new batch of confidence. Coach K stated in the press conference after the U.S win vs. Puerto Rico Friday night that Kyrie could be the starting point guard or possibly share the floor alongside Derrick Rose.
“We’ll determine that. That’s going to be one of the big meetings on the plane. My feeling is that Kyrie [Irving], you know we have to see how Derrick [Rose] reacts to tonight – I thought both those guys were really good, and then we played them together, too.”
Kyrie sees no problem with sharing the floor with Rose as he feels both can get the job done.
“It’s just coach’s decision. We all are talented in our own right, so we’re just trying to go out there and do whatever it takes to win. I know both of us are used to starting for our respective teams, and honestly he started and then I started, so it all depends what coach wants. Honestly, him and I could be playing together, especially in the fourth quarter like we did in Chicago and I know coach likes that look, so we’ll see what happens.”
At the end of the interview, one reporter asked, “How do you prepare mentally for what might be the most pressured situation on court?”
“There’s no right answer to that right now,” Kyrie said. “I’m here with USA basketball, that time of thinking of what’s going to happen in October and getting ready for the season that’s when I will think about when I get back to my team.”
It is pretty exciting to see a young player such as Kyrie Irving blossom into a star in this league. Every young star has had to lean on a veteran at some point of his career. Playing on a FIBA Roster full of great players and returning to a Cavs rosters primed for a breakout season, the world is in Kyrie’s hands. Let’s see what he adds in the next chapter of his journal.
What do you think?
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