BARCELONA — A hard fall late in a September game a year ago would have been just a part of the deal for Kyrie Irving, nothing out of the norm for an NBA player getting ready for the upcoming season.
But this summer has been anything but normal for the Cleveland Cavaliers star. From the moment LeBron James announced he was coming home until the day the Kevin Love trade was finally completed, things have been completely abnormal for Irving.
So he wasn’t surprised at the intense scrutiny that followed that hard fall in the U.S. National Team’s final pool play game last week against the Ukraine. Irving was back on the practice floor Friday and in the starting lineup for Saturday’s Round of 16 win over Mexico. But that didn’t stop Cavaliers Nation from worrying.
“We’ve got a few more followers now,” he said, laughing sarcastically as he spoke the truth. “I realize that everything that I do now interests a lot more people, even something like this.”
Irving’s work here, as the starting point guard on a team that boasts a former MVP in Derrick Rose and an All-Star in Steph Curry (who is also in the starting lineup but not as a point guard like he is for the Golden State Warriors) speaks volumes about Irving’s still evolving game.
It speaks the trust U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff have in Irving and the belief his teammates have in his abilities and leadership skills. This competition is the ideal place for Irving to hone those leadership skills. He’s directing traffic for a group of stars, All-Stars really, with the world watching.
It’s the same sort of thing he’ll have to do from now on in Cleveland, albeit with the biggest star in the game on his side.
Normal got flipped overnight.
Expectations changed in an instant, the moment LeBron said he was coming home. And that’s what makes this summer crash course in accelerated leadership the perfect preparation for Irving.
“This is awesome for me,” Irving said. “It’s one of the greatest experiences I’ve had up to this point in my career. This is one of the biggest things I’ve played for at this point in my career, so I’m just looking forward to the challenge.”
There’s never been any question about Irving’s talent. When healthy, he’s proven himself to be among the NBA’s truly elite point guards. A two-time All-Star before he’s ever tasted the intensity of playoff competition, this is his first time competing and running a team on a stage like this. And he admitted that it’s been an eye-opener in many ways.
“We all come from different organizations and we all have different roles on our teams,” Irving said of the leadership style on this U.S. National Team. “So it’s not more or less about picking and choosing when to say something. We all have respect for one another and tell each other the truth and look each other in the eye. That’s how we’ve come together as a group thus far. And that’s why we’re as close as we are after a month and a half together, because we have respect for each other’s games. Obviously, I’m a fan of all these guys games. And it’s a great opportunity to play with all of these other great players.”
The best part in the USA Basketball environment is that everything is earned. Irving was so good in training camp that even if Rose was 100 percent healthy, Irving would still have been the right fit with the first unit.
Either way, he’s learning a lesson in how to handle things from Rose, who has experience in this realm that Irving is just now seeing in the flesh.
“You have players like me, Klay [Thompson] and the rest of the starting five, almost all the players on our team, you have to sacrifice coming off the bench,” Rose said. “With me in the second unit, I believe there is no second unit that can stick with me when I’m on the floor, and that’s vice versa with Kyrie if he was to come off the bench, no one could stick him. That’s what makes us unique.”
How much of this translates to the NBA season and what Irving will be asked to do with LeBron and Love in the mix, remains to be seen. Roles will have to be adjusted. Chemistry will have to be developed. Sacrifices will have to be made.
But if it’s a choice between winning at the highest level and having to sacrifice a few of the comforts he’d grown accustomed to in Cleveland the past few seasons, it’s not even a debate.
“I’m all about winning, winning gold here and winning at the highest level in everything I do,” Irving said. “That’s the ultimate challenge for any of us, to find out if you have what it takes inside to win like that.”
Before he decided to return home to Cleveland, James was already a fan of Irving’s. A well-versed “student of the game” as he likes to call himself, he’d had an eye on the kid going all the way back to Irving’s high school days.
Playing against him while in Miami and alongside him during the All-Star Game, proved what he already knew about Irving.
“Kyrie’s special,” James said after watching Irving earn All-Star MVP honors in February. “It’s just that simple. Very special basketball player, very smart basketball player — his ability to shoot the ball, get into the lane, make shots around the rim. He has the total package. I’ve always known that, always witnessed that ever since he was in high school.”
What they’ll do together, with Love as the third member of the latest Big 3, could be special, too.
All those folks and new followers in Cleveland and around the world are counting on it.