Posted Oct 16, 2012 11:25 AM
CHICAGO -- Number one was the moment he tugged on that Cleveland Cavaliers cap and shook commissioner David Stern's hand.
Two came after everything that followed, from a summer lost to the NBA's labor lockout to the whirlwind camp and preseason. From the tests he got literally on a nightly basis to the losing, two games for every one that went the Cavaliers' way.
Three was coming out of it better than when he went in -- in fact, best of his class as the league's Rookie of the Year for 2011-12.
What about number four? That's now, or at least it can be if he takes strides similar to last season. Numbers five, six and seven are somewhere in the distance, hardly guaranteed. Beyond that ... nah, no need to go there yet because Kyrie Irving isn't going there for a while.
"Let's go from 1 to 10, 10 being a Hall of Famer and 7 being a perennial All-Star," Cleveland coach Byron Scott said the other night, before a tuneup game against Chicago in Champaign, Ill. "Kyrie's probably at a 3. He still has a ways to go.
"He took a couple steps last season. You don't win Rookie of the Year by not taking a step or two. But if you look at where he started from his first game until his last game, he's gotten much better."
Where Irving was, as an NBA newbie who had played just 11 college games, wasn't bad: 18.5 points per game, 5.4 assists and a 46.9 field-goal percentage, including 39.9 from 3-point range. He struggled some, he learned much, he survived.
The education of an NBA rookie is over. The education of an NBA soph? Just beginning.
"The two biggest differences," Scott said of his most valuable Cav, "now he's got a knowledge of what's going on. And comfortability. Being in a system for a year, being under a coach for a year and now knowing exactly how I am and exactly what I want from him. ... The comfort part brings along the leadership part as well. Because he has a good idea of what's going on, he can help Dion [Waiters] big time. He can help Tyler [Zeller]."
That's the point guard thing, the foundation of Irving's job description, where it's less about him than it is for players at the other spots. As Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said: "You're not only responsible for yourself, you're responsible for your entire team. You have to know what your matchups are, who has a hot hand, what's going well, what your opponent is trying to do. You have to lead. And in order to do your job, the first part of that is knowing what your job is."
People forget how young Irving was last season (he turned 20 with only a month left in 2011-12). They forget that Ramon Sessions was there at the start as an option for Scott, to release some of the pressure. They forget the Cavs' 2-14 mark in Irving's final 16 starts and that he hasn't even squared up against Chris Paul (unbalanced lockout scheduled) or Derrick Rose (injuries) yet.
People also look at his ROY award, at Waiters' up-and-down preseason and forget that Irving didn't spring fully formed from Duke, any more than he's fully formed now.
"If people remember his first game [2-of-12, six points], he didn't set the world on fire against Toronto," Scott said. "It took him a little while to get going, too. First picks, fourth picks, it really doesn't matter. As long as you're a rookie, it's going to take you some time to adjust to the NBA style of basketball."
Or as forward Tristan Thompson, another 2011-12 rookie, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "The NBA is a marathon, not a 100-meter race. We're not Usain Bolt."
Against Chicago on Oct. 12, Irving posted the sort of stats line (2-of-15, eight points, no assists, two turnovers) that might have been tough to shrug off last winter. He shot 3-of-13 the next night against Washington, pushing his October oh-fer from the arc to six misses. As he did for much of last season, and as he shall throughout 2012-13, he faced double teams and all sorts of game-planning as the key threat on a limited team.
"I definitely got out of myself tonight, just out of character," Irving said after the Cavs narrowly averted a collapse against the Bulls. "I was sped up a little bit and got out of control. The shots I normally make just weren't falling, especially those pressure situations where the game was on the line. When you have a defense that is designed to stop you ... So just learn, go back to Cleveland, review the film and try to get better."
At Cincinnati on Monday, in an overtime game vs. Orlando, he did: 5-of-8, 11-of-11 from the line, 22 points. He has been trusting his instincts again, avoiding some of the overthinking that got him in trouble last season. Scott has been using the 6-foot-3, 191-pound Irving off the ball, too, to thwart foes.
Irving has learned another valuable lesson: Stay away from walls. His summer league time ended abruptly when he slapped a padded wall and broke his right hand in Las Vegas in July. He's fine now. And getting better.
"I'm not worried about that young man," Scott told reporters after the Magic game. "This is about the right time -- with a couple of preseason games to go and the season a couple of weeks away from starting -- to start finding his rhythm."
Said Irving: "Last year, we were just thrown into the fire. We didn't have a real training camp. We'll definitely have better familiarity with each other and continuity. [I] have to take the game that much more serious. ... Being in my sophomore year, I have to slow my game down and be more efficient."
Scott has seen players on similar career arcs. So has Thibodeau, who worked with Rose, Rajon Rondo and Yao Ming in their formative years.
"The one common trait with all of those guys," Thibodeau said, "was not only their talent but their drive and their intelligence and their mental toughness. It's funny -- when you look back, there wasn't just one day where you walked in and said, 'Wow. They're so much better.' It was incremental, where it was a little bit each day and then you look back and you realize, 'Wow, they're a lot better than what they were a year ago.' "
Another year has begun. Irving is still a three, but he's heading for what he and the Cavaliers hope is a seven, and dreaming of double digits.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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