Kyrie Irving: Rookie Closer
Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving is making a practice of sealing wins for his team down the stretch. In three of the past five games, he’s readily assumed the role of “closer.”
In Denver, Irving scored ten of his 18 points in the last 2:35 minutes of the game. Eight points were scored via layups; in fact, the game-winner was a cross-court layup with four seconds remaining. The Cavs beat the Nuggets, 100-99.
In Oklahoma City, he made two layups (along with a free throw, two rebounds and an assist) in the last 2:29 minutes of the game, pushing the Cavs to a 96-90 victory over the Thunder.
At home vs. the Houston Rockets, Irving scored 16 of his 21 points in the final 4:14 minutes of the game ensuring a win, 118-107.
Sounds like 6’2” Irving is establishing a trend. What does he think about the word “clutch” associated with his name?
“It’s a great honor,” Irving told HOOPSWORLD. “It just comes with the late-game situations that we’re a part of, and we’ve been a part of a few. Luckily I have the trust of my teammates to allow me to make plays down the stretch.”
“I think the biggest thing with him is he has no fear,” explains Cavaliers coach Byron Scott. “He really doesn’t. He has no fear of failing. He doesn’t even think about that as far as being a consequence. He just wants the ball in his hands. He wants an opportunity to try to make something happen.
“(He) has a unique, unbelievable, uncanny ability to make shots around that basket,” Scott continued. “For his size, to be able to get in there and twist and turn and still finish, it’s kind of weird sometimes just watching him in practice. Some of the shots he throws up…the way he can put a certain spin on the ball just to get it off the glass and to get it to sit up there like a feather and go in. But the biggest thing with him to me is that he has no fear. He loves a challenge.”
Irving’s signature late-game feats would be eye-catching for any player, but when it’s so skillfully done by a rookie – even the 2011 number-one draft pick – it eclipses just usual attention-grabbing. It approaches star-making territory.
He has just 36 NBA games under his belt and played in a grand total of 11 NCAA games (Duke). With the Cavs, he’s averaging 18.5 points, 5.4 assists, 3.7 rebounds, and his shooting percentages are impressive: .476 in field goals, .865 in free throws and .404 in three-pointers. One thing that cannot escape notice is how well he’s performed given the lack of pre-season activity normally afforded rookies. The extended lockout resulted in the summer league being canceled and a shortened training camp and pre-season schedule.
To top it off, Irving is just 19 years old. His birthday is right around the corner (March 23rd); from the sound of it, this day cannot come soon enough. He doesn’t particularly care to be referred to as a teenager.
“I’ll be glad I’ll be out of my teens,” Irving said. “The headlines won’t read ‘19-year-old rookie’ anymore, it will be 20. Big difference.”
Scott explained his views on what makes Irving so special.
“I think you’ve either got it or you don’t. I think when you start playing basketball – even in elementary school – you’ve either got that or you don’t. I always equate that to guys who lead the nation in rebounding. If you lead the nation in rebounding in college, if that’s what you do, that’s what you’re going to do in the pros. Guys who have that ability to make shots in situations like that – elementary, high school, junior high, college – it doesn’t change. That’s just something that’s very unique about Kyrie.”
Another NBA coach (and former NBA point guard), Scott Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder, chimed in with his opinion, even declaring Irving will “eventually be an All-Star.”
“He plays with a lot of poise,” began Brooks. “He’s really good in pick-and-rolls (and) he’s really good in shooting threes. He just has a great amount of confidence. For a rookie, that’s really fun to see.
“He’s crafty,” he added. “You don’t think that he has the speed to get by you, but he gets past you every time. He has good footwork. He’s strong, and he finishes at the rim. He has a knack for making big shots. He’s really good. He’s not the typical young point guard.
“He seems like he’s been in the league for six or seven years.”
Brooks definitely has a point. In talking with Irving, you can’t help but notice his old-soul maturity and confidence; both of which translate onto the court.
“It’s just developed,” Irving explained when we asked how his obvious confidence has transpired. “I just feel that this is the game I love. I’ve worked so hard to get here, in every situation that I’m being included in. I’ve been in the gym by myself, working out in all these situations. When it comes to down to coming off pick-and-rolls, I know how to read it. Just working out with my father and working out with different people.
“It’s just the influence that I’ve had throughout my journey has enabled me to be successful and have quite a confidence I have,” he added.
Irving sees his pairing with coach Scott as an ideal situation; he said Scott has “enabled me to grow as a player and as a person.”
“On this team, he allows me to make mistakes,” Irving shared. “He doesn’t take me out right away. He tells me what I need to hear. He’s always honest. He always keeps me going. We have a great relationship that we’re developing. He’s a great player/coach. You can tell him anything. It’s a relationship that makes it that much easier to go out and play for him.”
It’s hard not to think of another talented point guard Scott guided during his stint in New Orleans: Chris Paul, now with the Los Angeles Clippers. Irving says Paul’s name rarely surfaces in talks with his coach.
“Apart from reading about it and seeing it first hand, I don’t really ask him about his relationship with CP,” Irving said. “They have their own unique relationship. I’m just trying to develop my own with him. We do have similar traits that he’s brought to my attention, but I don’t really talk about his relationship.”
Recently, NBA great Magic Johnson claimed Irving is the “easy choice” for 2011-12 Rookie of the Year award, given how opposing teams must game-plan specifically for him.
“Having such a Hall of Famer saying that I should be Rookie of the Year is a great honor, and hopefully it will come to fruition” Irving told us. “I’m looking forward to continuing working and trying to get that award and win some more games.”
“(If I) probably had to pick one, he might be the guy,” Brooks said.
When asked if that was a goal of his, Irving answered “Absolutely”. Twice.