The fruits of being the top pick in the Draft have paid immediate dividends for penthouse-loving Kyrie Irving, who is already giving the Cavaliers a massive boost.
by Abe Schwadron | @abe_squad
When Kyrie Irving tells you he’s always dreamed about being at the top, you’re probably not understanding him. Sure, he wanted to be a standout college player, wanted to go No. 1 in the NBA Draft, wants to win Rookie of the Year and has goals for his pro career that would land him among the top players of all time. But when Irving says top, he literally means living at the highest possible point.
A rookie point guard with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Irving recently moved into a penthouse in the heart of Cleveland, just over the Hope Memorial Bridge, with a sprawling view of Progressive Field, Browns Stadium and Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavs’ home court, out his window. Now that’s Irving’s top-floor dream fulfilled.
“I’m downtown, staying in my little penthouse that I’ve been dreaming of since I was probably 12 years old,” the West Orange, NJ, product says. (Kyrie was actually born in Australia while his father was playing his pro ball Down Under.) “Driving through New York, with my father coaching me, and being with my AAU teammates, every building that I passed, every apartment, I always looked to the top floor. Looking at those penthouses passing through New York, and everywhere I went, I always looked at the top floor. So having the blessing that God’s given me to have my own penthouse now, it’s kind of fun.”
And Irving’s not the only one praising a higher power. A season ago, after losing the most prized free agent in the history of the game in publicly humiliating fashion—as LeBron James took his talents to South Beach—the Cavs finished with an Eastern Conference-worst 19 wins. That same year, the team set an NBA record with 26 consecutive losses, matching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the late 1970s for the longest losing streak in American professional team sports.
With a roster in disarray and a front office in panic mode, the Cavs were, to put it bluntly, screwed. That is, until the Basketball Gods landed them the top pick in the ’11 Draft and the new face of the franchise in Irving, a heady point guard with a devastating first step, rare vision, strong handles and an even stronger confidence in his own abilities.
Despite playing less than a dozen games at the collegiate level, Irving did enough over his high school career at Montclair (NJ) Kimberley and later at the famed St. Patrick in Elizabeth, and in his limited time at Duke—including a 28-point performance in his final game as a Blue Devil, a Sweet 16 loss to eventual No. 2 pick Derrick Williams and Arizona—to earn the attention of NBA scouts. As for those who graded his college returns with only partial credit due to some “incompletes,” Irving can’t wait for his “I told you so” moment.
“I was showing my whole arsenal in the biggest games. If anybody couldn’t respect that, regardless of how many games I played, that’s their attitude,” Kyrie says. “What I was looking forward to coming into the season is proving to everybody why I was the No. 1 pick. Basically, I was coming out of high school, only played 11 games [at Duke], I just wanted to be as prepared as possible and prove everybody wrong.”
So far, so good. In those 11 games at Duke, Irving posted per-game averages of 17.5 points and 4.3 assists while shooting 53 percent from the floor, all with a severe toe injury. Through his first 11 NBA games, the 6-3, 191-pound rook held steady, averaging 17 and 5 to help Cleveland flirt with a .500 record. In an early season matchup with the Suns, Irving outdueled two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash, scoring 26 points and dishing out 6 assists to lead the Cavs to a 101-90 win in Phoenix. By mid-January, Kyrie had already played in more pro games than college ones and at press time had started to find his groove, scoring 20+ points in five straight games to end a West Coast road trip.
After Cleveland thumped the Bobcats 115-101 just after the New Year, even Paul Silas, former Cavs head coach and current head man with Charlotte, couldn’t help but be impressed with “that little point guard,” telling Fox Sports Ohio, “He can really push the basketball. He can shoot better than I thought he could. I think, in time, he could be a heck of a player. He’s not fast, but he’s quick. He has a good feel for the game. I think he’s going to be a real good player in this League.”
Even with a hot start to his rookie campaign, handing over the keys of an NBA franchise to a kid who won’t celebrate his 20th birthday until a month after the All-Star break is sure to come with growing pains. And while Irving admits to getting the rookie treatment “every day I wake up,” he says the Cavs’ veterans have taken him under their wing and shown him the ropes.
Backup PG Ramon Sessions says Kyrie definitely has what it takes: “He’s shown that he came in willing to learn some things and that goes a long way, because after a while you have to think the game. He’s a guy that’s going to go out there and do his work on the court.”
This season, more than any other, mental toughness will be key. With a condensed 66-game schedule, the rookie wall will hit harder than ever, and the challenge of staying fresh for the whole year is not lost on Irving. “I’m just going to have to push through it. I don’t think it will be a physical wall, it’ll be a mental wall,” he says. “Coach [Byron] Scott tells me every single day, that when you feel it, you just have to push through it. And that’s kind of the attitude I’ve had throughout my whole life—whenever I’m tired, I just push through it.”
But don’t get it twisted, Irving says. Whatever advantage young players have in energy, it’s nothing compared to experiencing the grind of an NBA season. “Anybody that says that we have fresh legs, they probably don’t play. Because honestly, coming into the preseason, especially with Coach Scott, my legs were done the first day. No matter how good of shape you’re in, NBA shape is totally different than any other kind of shape anywhere.”
Navigating the rigors of an NBA season is tough on any rookie, let alone one with the added pressure of being the latest in a string of point guard phenoms to go No. 1 (Derrick Rose in ’08, John Wall in ’10) and the impossible task of rebuilding and rebranding a team from scratch. But Irving has an uncommon ability to see beyond the present and have perspective on his place—on his team, in the League, in history. Which is why instead of feeling the pressure, he welcomes it, and it’s why he knows he can’t judge himself on one game, or even one season.
“The pressure of being a No. 1 pick, especially a point guard, it’s inevitable. I can’t do anything but embrace it,” he says. “I really don’t feel any added pressure at all being the No. 1 pick. I feel like it’s the same pressure every rookie is dealing with. It’s the same, no matter what pick. I felt, once I got picked, and now that the season is here, I think all those numbers go out the window for me. It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. That’s how I look at it and how I approach every single game. Whatever happens in the future, hopefully I can look back and say I was a great No. 1 pick—that’s the attitude that I have.”
It’s crazy to think that Irving’s arrival at the top of the Draft board might never have been. If not for a series of unlikely events, from his nagging injury at Duke, to the looming lockout casting a dark cloud on the League’s future, to the return in masses of his highly touted classmates like Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones, he might be running point at Duke right now, helping Coach K to another Final Four berth.
Calling any No. 1 Draft pick “lucky” is a stretch, but in Kyrie’s case (and Cleveland’s, for that matter) the stars aligned, and he emerged as the consensus top selection. But had he not been guaranteed to go first on Draft night, Irving says he would still be a Blue Devil.
“My feeling toward it was, I wasn’t going to come out unless I was ranked No. 1 throughout all the mock drafts, all the analysts saying that I was the definitive No. 1 pick,” he says. “That’s the only way I was going to come out. If they were saying I was 3, 4, 5, I wasn’t coming out. I was going back to Duke.”
Now Irving is a Cavalier, fighting to fill the gaping hole left by LeBron on the court and in the Cleveland community. And he’s finding out that the lingering effects of The King’s reign won’t go quietly, or quickly. At every press conference, every post-game session with reporters, every radio or TV spot, he’s peppered with questions about James. His interviews are sometimes more like interrogations, and yet the youngster handles it all with class.
So, Kyrie, how tough is it trying to replace LeBron James?
“No matter how many times I’m asked that question, the answer is still going to be the same—I’m not trying to look to do anything that LeBron did, or be the same as him, or anything like that. I’m just trying to create my own path, create my own success in the NBA and that’s it,” he says. “I’m not a fortune teller or anything like that, but I do have goals that I want to accomplish, like make the All-Star team and do different things in this League that set me apart from other point guards.”
The high expectations Irving has set for himself have gotten him to where he is now—overlooking The Q from his downtown penthouse, as the League’s No. 1 Draft pick and ROY frontrunner. All that’s left is taking his team all the way to the top, too.