Head of the Class

May 15, 2012
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Kyrie Irving
You could say that Kyrie Irving’s journey from a teenager who’d played 11 college games to the NBA’s Rookie of the Year began the night the Cavaliers took him with the No. 1 pick in June or when he first reported to Training Camp. Or maybe when he scored 14 points in the first half of his first preseason game as a pro in Detroit.

But as Irving accepted the award on Tuesday morning at Cleveland Clinic Courts in Independence – becoming just the second Cavalier in franchise history to do so – he pinpointed another moment in his freshman campaign.

“For me, it would be the third game, when we were in Indiana,” explained Irving. “Going into the huddle, all of a sudden Coach (Scott) called a high pick-and-roll for me. And it was really surprising for me, because we kind of knew each other – (I didn’t really know the bald-headed man) – but I just knew when he told me it was a high screen-and-roll, I was like: ‘I’m going to my best to get to the basket.’”

“And his confidence in me from that point on – although I missed it and we lost in overtime – it was a stepping stone for me. Whether I missed it, or even if I made it, it was a learning experience, and I needed it.”

In that game – at that moment – it was abundantly clear that the fearless freshman was well worth the top pick. And there was still so much more to come.

When his first season in Cleveland wrapped up, Irving had turned in one of the greatest rookie seasons in league history – leading all first-year players in scoring (18.5 ppg) and shooting (.469 from the field, .872 from the stripe) and finishing second in assists (5.4 apg). The now-20-year-old joined Oscar Robinson, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and LeBron James as the only No. 1 overall picks to average at least 18.0 points and 5.0 assists.

But Irving’s rookie numbers only explain so much. The statistic that might have defined him in his inaugural campaign was that he averaged 6.4 points in the fourth quarter – good for fourth in the league among all players.

Irving’s late-game exploits earned him the nickname – as Fred McLeod introduced him on Tuesday: “Mr. Fourth Quarter.”

In the fourth quarter, Irving refused to act his age and, after his baptism by fire in Indiana, was unequivocally the club’s best player in the clutch.

He laid in the game-winner against Boston at the Garden with 2.6 to play in January, scored on a reverse layup with 15 seconds to play to knock off the World Champion Mavericks in February and scored the team’s last six points for a road win over New Jersey in March. In a home loss to the Nets, Irving scored 21 points in the final six minutes of the game.

If the missed layup against the Pacers was his baptism, his dramatic bucket in Beantown was his coming-out party. After hitting that shot, Irving pointed at his father, Drederick, who looked on proudly that night in Boston and again on Tuesday morning in Independence as his only son accepted the award.

“I played at Boston U and I was there with some of my colleagues,” recalled the elder Irving. “I grew up watching those guys – Bird, McHale. For him to beat those guys with a last-second shot was surreal for me.”

In his acceptance speech, Kyrie gladly reciprocated.

“This (award) means a lot,” said Kyrie, addressing his dad. “We’ve talked about it since you coached me in fifth grade. You told me anything is possible, and I’m living my dream. And without you, I don’t know where I’d be. You’re my worst critic and my biggest fan.”

“You told me what I had to do and you always laid out the steps. You had the confidence in me to go out there and complete it.”

Kyrie also made sure to thank his late mother, Elizabeth: (“I know she’s looking down on me. I wish she could be here to accept this award with me, but I know she’s right here in my heart.”) He also thanked his group of five friends from New Jersey that he’s still extremely tight with: (“Without those guys I don’t think I’d be the same. They kept me normal, they keep me humble and they keep me grounded.”)

Grounded is a word that’s often used to describe the young man from Northern New Jersey. Case in point: Kyrie is donating the Kia Sorento CUV to his former AAU team, the New Jersey Roadrunners.

That off-the-court awareness – along with his amazing on-court exploits – is one of the reasons Cavaliers management fell in love with Irving one year ago.

“When we selected Kyrie a short time ago, obviously his on-court ability dazzled everyone,” praised GM Chris Grant. “But it was what he was made of off the court – from a character standpoint, for the work ethic, for his willingness to overcome adversity, his toughness and his vision that got us excited. There was no question, when we made the decision to draft him with the No. 1 overall pick last year, he was clearly the guy for us.”

Coach Byron Scott – who Kyrie compared to his father (especially when they furrow their brow in anger) – was also effusive in his praise of the precocious point guard.

“From a coaching standpoint, (he’s) one of the easiest guys I’ve ever had to deal with,” said Scott. “A pleasure to coach, a guy who’ll do anything you ask from a coaching standpoint and more. (He’s) a guy who takes his job very seriously, who takes getting better very seriously (and) understands what he can become in this league with hard work.”

The multi-talented Irving – who studied drama at Duke and plays the saxophone and slide trombone – started 51 games for the Wine and Gold this season. He topped the 20-point plateau 24 times, the same amount of occasions that he led the team in scoring. Kyrie led the squad in assists 31 times and in steals on 17 occasions. He even led the Cavs in rebounding three times and in blocked shots for four games.

At All-Star Weekend in Orlando, Irving wowed the crowd at the BVAA Rising Stars Challenge – winning MVP honors by leading both clubs with 34 points, going 8-for-8 from beyond the arc in the process.

By that point in the season, Irving was already nearly a lock for the Rookie of the Year award. In fact, one of the only surprises on Tuesday was that Irving’s honor wasn’t unanimous. Denver’s Kenneth Faried, New York’s Iman Shumpert and San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard also received first place votes. But in the end, Kyrie tripled the next total vote-getter, Ricky Rubio (592 to 170).

Irving didn’t come to Cleveland with the fanfare of the Cavaliers’ previous No. 1 overall selection, and that’s always seemed to sit will with him. “Being the No. 1 pick, I’m glad I didn’t get treated like one,” he said.

As the summer moves on, Kyrie will eventually join his teammates back at Cleveland Clinic Courts – where it all started for him as a Cavalier. Irving looked back on those pre-Draft days, and looked ahead to a long future with the Wine and Gold.

“I remember when I was here for my first workout,” recalled Irving, speaking to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. “It was the most nerve-wracking experience and seeing you on the sidelines and seeing how much you’ve done to this place – it’s such a first-class facility – made me want to be a part of it that much more.”

“I know what we’re building here is something special. And we’re here for the long haul.”