LAS VEGAS – Kyrie Irving, 20, has a politician’s poise and polish, and he left USA Basketball’s pre-Olympics summer training camp with every endorsement that mattered.
“Kyrie always impresses me,” USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “This week, he’s been who I think he is, which is one of the top guards anywhere.”
Make no mistake: this wasn’t just Duke’s legendary coach glowing about one of his former Blue Devils. When it comes to judging the next generation of USA Basketball talent, the program’s top management and current stars agreed, Irving is the clear star in waiting.
“For me, Kyrie Irving has definitely stood out more than anyone,” LeBron James told CBSSports.com. “He’s a great talent. I see him in a couple years being one of the best point guards that we have in this league. He has all the abilities that all the great point guards have in our league. Ball-handling, quickness, shooting abilty, his mind is really smart too.”
Irving spent the last week facing off against James and the rest of USA’s national team as they prepare for the 2012 London Olympics. The Cleveland Cavaliers point guard was one of 13 players named to the USA Select team, a junior varsity squad tasked with helping the national team prepare for its trip abroad. Those preparations included six days or training camp in Las Vegas.
USA’s practices and scrimmages were supposed to be closed to the media, but Irving’s play proved too good to blackout. One highlight video that made it online showed him breaking a full court press by dribbling through Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and James Harden as if they were orange cones. It has been viewed nearly one million times in five days.
“I’ve always had that in my game,” Irving said of his handle. “We’re just not as nationally televised as everybody else… It’s always been a part of my game. Just nobody has had the chance to see it.”
For those who have been paying attention, Irving’s breakout summer isn’t coming from left field. He was the 2011 NBA Draft’s No. 1 pick and he is NBA’s reigning Rookie of the Year. Still, the rave reviews kept coming and coming this week, unusual for their volume and because they came in an environment where everything is assessed in a clear pecking order context. Youngsters like Irving simply don’t often merit such attention and praise.
Perhaps the strongest words came from USA Basketball’s head man in charge, chairman Jerry Colangelo, when he admitted late in the week that there really wasn’t anything separating Irving and the players on the national team.
“Kyrie Irving is a player that literally you could move from one court to the other court,” Colangelo said. “He’s that far advanced in his talent. He’s had a good showing in here, he had a terrific rookie season in the NBA and certainly he’ll be one of the leading candidates going forward.”
Colangelo clearly likes the person just as much as the player, and who wouldn’t? Irving began one interview session this week by shaking hands individually with three Cleveland beat members. He gave thorough, thoughtful responses to every question posed, made eye contact throughout and talked at greater lengths than most of his teammates.
In that sense, Irving represents one of Colangelo’s chief goals when he took over USA Basketball in 2005.
“I wasn’t happy about how people looked at us as Americans, as athletes and as basketball people,” Colangelo said. “How do you [change] it? You show respect to the rest of the world basketball community and you’ll get respect back. If we do it together, it will be a fantastic experience. [The players] bought in… As long as you keep the system going, just keep cranking it out, that’s the job we have to do.”
Over the last two years, Irving has emerged as a 5-tool point guard: He can pass, he can defend, he can shoot, he can create off the dribble and, most importantly, he can run a team. Irving averaged 18.5 points, 5.4 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.1 steals during his rookie season, shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 39.9 percent from deep. He finished his first season in the NBA with a top-5 player efficiency rating at his position and he was briefly in the discussion for an All-Star selection, despite still being a teenager.
“He can play,” Russell Westbrook said. “He’s not the Rookie of the Year for nothing.”
“His ball-handling is very good, his passing, his court vision, he can shoot the ball,” James Harden said. “I would compare him to Chris Paul.”
The Paul comparisons have loomed since before Irving was drafted, and they are really inevitable. In addition to their comparable all-around games, the two are similarly sized, have similar easy-going off-court demeanors and they share a mean streak. It’s Irving’s bulldog desire to win that stood out most to Paul this week.
“Kyrie was probably the most aggressive guy on the Select Team,” he said. “That’s just how he plays. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, as he should. Kyrie is really good.”
Informed that Irving was going to be competing for the Cavaliers in this month’s Las Vegas Summer League, facing off against the NBA’s other young talent, Paul just shook his head.
“Oh, he’s going to kill out there,” he said.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a sportswriter to realize that one day, possibly soon, the Team USA reigns will be handed off from Paul to Irving. And it will be an effortless transition of power, despite the high stakes.
This week, though, Irving saw Paul only as an opponent and a measuring stick.
“You’re playing against somebody who is on the team you want to be on,” he said. “You’re going to go as hard as you can to actually show them why you were picked to be on the Select team.”
A student of the game with an advanced basketball IQ, Irving clearly understood his role during the camp. He also seemed to flat out enjoy sharing the same court with such high-level competition.
“When you’re playing against a whole bunch of All-Stars, it’s like a video game,” he said. “There’s so much talent on the floor at once.”
But this wasn’t a wide-eyed, happy-to-be-here outlook. Playing against Team USA might have been like a video game, but Irving was mashing his controller as best he could, trying to beat the game.
His Paul-like ferocity showed up in another video that leaked out of the camp, which caught him challenging Team USA’s elder statesman, Kobe Bryant, to a game of one-on-one. Bryant, never one to back down from a jawing match, cracked jokes at Irving’s youth, before eventually joining the chorus singing his praises.
“He can play a little bit,” Bryant deadpanned. “For a high school kid.”
If this week proved anything, it’s that Irving the freshman is officially “in” with the seniors.
“He can learn being around us,” James said. “We’re a group of guys that work hard and try to get better, and I know that he’s one of those guys too that likes to get better.”
The hungry and humble approach that defined the 2008 Beijing gold medal team, back when James, Paul and company were still in their early-20s, could be seen in Irving. Born in Melbourne, Irving passed up the opportunity to play for the Australian national team so that he could be a part of the USA program going forward.
“I made a decision a couple months ago and I’m sticking with it 100 percent,” Irving said this week. “USA is going to be in my future.”
And the USA’s basketball future is going to be in his capable hands.