LAS VEGAS — Kyrie Irving‘s skills have never been in question.
Two injury-plagued seasons in the NBA cannot overshadow the obvious where he is concerned.
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ All-Star point guard quickly established himself as a force to be reckoned with at his position, and is one of the headliners of a young crop of talented floor leaders on site for USA Basketball’s Men’s National Team mini-camp. He’s done that much and more in just 110 regular season NBA games.
It’s the other stuff, the leadership role and the maturity it takes to go from hot young prospect to true leader of a playoff team, that Irving has been most focused on since you saw last saw him in action. Those traits, along with his transcendent talent at the deepest and perhaps the most crucial position in the game right now, have new Cavs coach Mike Brown smiling about the progress Irving is making.
It was Irving who organized the Cavaliers’ informal workouts and team gatherings before and during the Las Vegas Summer League. It’s Irving who has stepped into the leadership void for the Cavaliers as they make yet another transition, from Byron Scott to Brown. And it’s most definitely Irving who will have to lead the Cavaliers in the right direction at this crossroads in franchise history.
They’ve piled up three straight years of lottery picks, including two No. 1 overall picks in Irving in 2011 and Anthony Bennett last month, since LeBron James left for Miami. General manager Chris Grant has made a number of moves (adding free agents Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and Andrew Bynum this summer) to position this team to challenge for a playoff spot now instead of spending another year in lottery land. They should have more than enough of the human resources required to chase one of those final three spots in the wave pool that is the bottom half of the Eastern Conference chase.
“I don’t think [we have it], I know we have what it takes to be that team,” Irving said. “We have the pieces in place now to become that type of team. But we have to put the work in. We have to take the steps necessary to be the team we know we have the potential to be. And it starts with me and the other leaders on this team setting the right tone.”
That would explain why Irving showed up here a week earlier than anyone expected with his summer plan in hand. As much as this summer has been about getting and staying healthy and about reintroducing himself to the USA Basketball brass, which includes coach Mike Krzyzewski, Irving’s college coach at Duke, it’s also provided Irving an opportunity to continue what he started last summer during the pre-Olympics training camp he was a part of.
He’s one of 10 players — along with Indiana’s Paul George, Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, Utah’s Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward, Golden State’s Klay Thompson and Washington’s John Wall — making a second straight appearance here.
Krzyzewski said after practice Monday that he won’t spend his time assessing any individual player during their time here this week, and without a competition this summer, there really is no need. All of these guys are getting a chance to impress so they can come back next summer and compete with another loaded group for a spot on the team that compete in the 2014 FIBA World Basketball Cup in Spain.
But he doesn’t have to say a word about Irving. The Cavaliers’ young leader is doing all of the talking these days, about not only his future but the future of his Cavaliers.
“I’m excited, I’m really excited about these pieces,” Irving said. “It’s fun.”
It’s also absolutely imperative that he take a hands on role in shaping that future himself. All of those impressive moves in free agency don’t mean a thing if Irving isn’t ready to lead that team this season.
“From an approach standpoint, there are certain things I had to figure out for myself [the past few years],” he said. “I had a lot of growing up to do. My approach to the game and taking care of my body in the summer and doing the right things as a pro, and just learning from the older guys in this league. I’m trying to be a great player and you have to put in hard work to be a great player … I feel like this is the year it all comes together for us.”