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All grown up now, Irving ready to be the man for Cleveland

Irving ready to etch his name at top of league's greats

POSTED: Oct 16, 2013 8:15 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner,


Kyrie Irving is ready to make the jump from All-Star to playoff contender in his third season.

First Kyrie Irving was a godsend, a potential star who was good enough to get some Cleveland Cavaliers fans' minds off the guy who left.

Cavaliers Preview: Kyrie Irving

Then Irving became precocious, racing along his learning curve after just one quickie college season at Duke to reach all sorts of milestones before some heavy NBA legends had.

For some, Irving morphed next into a tease, the 110 games he played in his first two NBA seasons undercut by the 38 he did not due to various injuries. It's hard to lead a team anywhere from the treatment table.

Now Irving, the Cavaliers' budding young point guard, truly is a man (he turned 21 in March, thus beginning 2013-14 fully legal). More than that, he's eager and allegedly ready to be the man.

"It's my third year in Cleveland. I feel like I've grown from a little guy, a 19-year-old, into a young man here," Irving said on the team's Media Day. "It starts with me. I only want to accomplish what we can accomplish as a group."

Cavs coach Mike Brown called Irving "the Pied Piper" of the Cavs, as in the player others want to follow and play alongside. Plenty of people consider him the LeBron Solution, the basketball gods' payback for the hurt and anger of LeBron James' 2010 decision to leave Cleveland for Miami.

But within the Cavs' locker room and the confines of the front office, Irving supposedly craves only to max out his potential and build a reputation for winning, which should be plenty.

Cleveland, in trying to make good on its promise to fans of a postseason berth by next spring, added significant help. Guard Jarrett Jack and forward Earl Clark were the sort of surgical strikes more often reserved for contending teams. The Cavs drafted aggressively, rounding up Anthony Bennett, Sergey Karasev and Carrick Felix as rookie help. The Andrew Bynum experiment is underway, if still off the court, in a low-risk, potentially high-reward move that stoked expectations.

Cavaliers Preview: Bennett's Impact

There was talent on hand last year, through the losing (24-58), with key pieces getting a little older, a little wiser and hungrier rather than bruised for their experiences. "You have a team that has a lot of guys who are a year older," backup guard C.J. Miles said. "Kyrie's a year older, Dion [Waiters], Ty [Zeller], Tristan [Thompson]. That makes us better alone."

Brown is back to patch holes defensively, which gets easier the longer Anderson Varejao stays healthy.

Still, the Cavs' greatest improvement will be embodied by Irving, who has been working on his game, working on his frame and pushing himself into the alpha-dog role that will define both his team and Irving's eventual legacy.

Since so much around the Cavs is counted in LeBron time -- before vs. after, whether his arrival in 2003 or his departure seven years later -- we can make this comparison: James was named Rookie of the Year in his first season, became an All-Star in his second and had Cleveland in the playoffs by the end of his third. The MVP trophy came for the first time three years later, six seasons in.

Irving is on pace with the ROY award and the All-Star honor. He talks now of driving himself to be the best player in the league, but real measure will be made in postseason berths. It's time.

"A lot of winning, a lot of consistency," was Irving's answer when asked how he'd earn the status as the NBA's best player. "Great players are on great teams."

The 6-foot-3, 180-pound point guard's days of gaining acclaim as the "youngest" to do this or that are ending. He'll need to take on all comers of any size to crack the game's super-elite level.

Cavaliers Preview: Best/Worst Case

And as talent around him in Cleveland improves, the need to do it through coaching, in a team framework, will grow. Freelancing is fine for the so-called stars on teams that lost 50 or 60 games, but sublimating his own game for the good of teammates is where some of them get exposed.

Irving said he made it a priority this summer to work out with other Cavs, spending a good chunk of time in the market. "I love being here and I love being here with my teammates," he said. "We had work and play, and met each other everywhere, and we built a brotherhood here.

"We've all been working hard. Just building new chemistry and starting to focus in, it starts with me. A lot of the changes I did, I did it for my teammates coming into the season."

How much better? Miles was a teammate of Brooklyn's Deron Williams, another All-Star point guard, when the two were in Utah. He already sees similarities (and truth be told, a lot of NBA insiders would opt for Irving right now over the Nets' guard).

"I saw Deron at the same stage where Kyrie is now," Miles told reporters, "and he's just about to really explode into just really learning to take over. [Where] he can do what he wants to on a basketball court. It's scary when a guy reaches that."

Irving is reach, all right, and so far he hasn't exceeded his grasp.

Three Points

1. October isn't the time yet, but there will come a point in 2013-14 when center Andrew Bynum will need to be on the floor, helping Cleveland win games, or the roll-of-the-dice transaction to sign him will be written off as a flop. When is that point, to get specific? Take your pick: Either the All-Star break or the day after Anderson Varejao suffers an injury serious enough to put him out for weeks rather than days.

Cavaliers Preview: Coach's Corner

2. Dion Waiters showed up for camp looking leaner and stronger, and is said to have devoted as much time and effort to studying his game as he did honing his physique. There was no particular progression in his stats last season as his rookie year played out; the No. 4 pick in the 2012 Draft just felt he was playing catch-up all season. He's more confident now, so we'll see how that translates.

3. There's no immediate pressure on Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 draft pick from UNLV. Tristan Thompson continues to man the power forward spot -- in fact, Thompson is an interesting story, switching his shooting hand in mid-career from his left to his right. Bennett still is only 20, missed the summer league with a shoulder injury and, despite speculation, won't be dropped into the small forward spot as his introduction to the NBA (he's more comfortable at PF). His defensive coming in from UNLV isn't Mike Brown-worthy, either.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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