The first twinkle in the rookie’s star came in his first moment of failure. In his third game as a pro at Indiana, Kyrie Irving had a chance to win it for the Cavaliers in the final seconds, but his driving layup clanked off the rim and bounced out.
It was surprising to see a team of veterans defer the final shot to a teenager. Even more surprising was how he handled the failure.
Irving will be introduced as the NBA’s Rookie of the Year this morning at Cleveland Clinic Courts, the Cavaliers’ practice facility. He had this race won by the time he made all eight of his 3-pointers in the Rising Stars game during All-Star weekend. The only lingering drama today is by how wide of a margin and whether he’s the unanimous choice.
Only three players in NBA history have been unanimous choices for Rookie of the Year — the Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin last season, the San Antonio Spurs’ David Robinson in 1990 and the Houston Rockets’ Ralph Sampson in 1984.
Irving, a relative unknown for being the top overall pick in last summer’s draft, has a great chance at becoming the fourth.
“The progression of Kyrie from Game 1 to Game 50 probably exceeded everyone’s expectations,” Cavs coach Byron Scott said after the season. “I don’t think anyone expected him to do what he did this season.”
His progression after the third game, when he missed the shot at Indiana, showed his poise and ability to shake off failure. A crowd of about 15 reporters gathered around him while he dressed following the game when Irving made eye contact with an Indianapolis radio reporter who bluntly blurted out, “You OK after missing that shot?”
Irving simply smiled and said, “I’m doing well, how ’bout yourself?”
One month later, with his father sitting courtside in Boston, Irving was presented with the same opportunity. This time, he dribbled around a screen, split two defenders and flipped in a similar shot to become the third-youngest player (19 years, 312 days) since the 2002-03 season to make a game-winner.
He later added another game-winning basket to beat the Denver Nuggets and two free throws to beat the Sacramento Kings. He ranked among the league leaders in fourth-quarter scoring much of the season, showed an immediate fearlessness to step into the moment and an uncanny ability to move on — win or lose — to the next game.
“He is just a fantastic kid,” said Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who eagerly exalted Irving’s performances throughout the season on Twitter. “He’s got a great heart. He’s genuine. He loves basketball. He loves people. People love being around him. He’s humble. He’s a great guy.”
Irving led all rookies, and the Cavs, in scoring (18.5 points) and was second among rookies with 5.4 assists. That made him one of six players to average at least 18 points and 5 assists during his rookie season, joining a short list that also includes Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. He also ranked first or second among qualifying rookies in field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and 3-point percentage.
The Cavs have made it clear they aren’t rebuilding this team around Irving, but doing it with him instead. It might sound like semantics, but it’s an organizational shift after the previous era was built solely around LeBron James.
Given the position Irving plays, it’s a little easier for a team to build “with” a point guard since they are typically counted on to facilitate more than score. Scott reiterated throughout the season that as Irving progresses and the talent on the roster improves, he expects Irving’s point totals to decrease while his assist totals increase.
“He’s only going to get better,” Scott said.
It’s easy to draw comparisons between Irving and James, particularly since they are top overall picks and the only two Cavs to ever win the Rookie of the Year award. James came in with the fanfare of Sports Illustrated covers and shoe contracts. Irving was an unknown because his college career spanned just 11 games.
It wasn’t until about a month left in the season when Irving said he noticed defenses scheming to stop him. By then, he had already established himself as arguably one of the top five point guards in the league.
“He’s taking Cleveland where they were a few years ago before LeBron left,” Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce said during the All-Star break. “It’s a big void to fill, but he’s doing a great job.”
The night before Pierce said that, Irving scored 34 points and dazzled the crowd with his 3-point shooting. After winning the Most Valuable Player award in the Rising Stars game, Irving was whisked to a makeshift photo studio behind the arena floor.
As he was posing with the crystal MVP trophy, Irving lowered it a few inches and told the photographer, “Make sure you get the Cleveland” in reference to his jersey.
“That wasn’t a publicity stunt at all,” Irving said two weeks ago. “I just wanted to make sure they got the Cleveland uniform in it. We’re not as publicized as everybody else.”
Armed with the Rookie of the Year and another top draft pick this summer, that could slowly start to change.
Gilbert joked on his Twitter account Monday that he wanted to invite the 20-year-old Irving to opening night of the new Horseshoe Casino in downtown Cleveland, but he couldn’t because “the young fella is not old enough to get in.”
But he is most certainly old enough to win in the NBA, which is why the Cavaliers are gambling on their future with Irving leading the way.
Cavs assistant coach Nate Tibbetts interviewed with the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday for their head coaching vacancy, a league source confirmed.
Tibbetts’ rise has been meteoric considering this was his first year on staff. Previously, he spent two seasons coaching in the Development League and also coached Team USA in the 2011 Pan American Games.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.