GUESS WHO’S BACK?
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After months of endless speculation, freshman Kyrie Irving will finally return to the court today against Hampton.
The point guard, who has been out since Dec. 4 with a toe injury, made his decision Wednesday night after talking with his father and the coaching staff.
“I feel like I’m around 95 [percent],” Irving said to a media horde in Duke’s locker room. “The other five percent will come when I actually play out there. Just raising my game to the occasion, the other five percent will come.”
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski has been conservative with Irving’s injury all season. That continued yesterday, when the coach said Irving will play “limited minutes and come off the bench,” without specifying anything else.
Irving will, though, defend on the ball when the Blue Devils are on defense. In a practice open to the media this afternoon, Irving participated fully, cutting and driving to the basket and guarding Nolan Smith in a few 5-on-5 drills.
Krzyzewski doesn’t anticipate any problems reintegrating Irving into the team.
“I can only think of advantages,” the coach said. “We never thought that this could happen, and the fact that it is happening, we need to take the advantage of it and go from there. He’s a really smart player. The game comes easier to great players than other players, and this kid will be a great player.”
Irving, for his part, echoed Krzyzewski’s thoughts.
“I’m a pretty good basketball player, and I’m not a selfish one at that either,” he said. “I like to get my teammates involved and share the wealth. I don’t think it will be hard to integrate me with the team.”
News of Irving’s return spread quickly. North Carolina head coach Roy Williams, whose Tar Heels are also playing in Charlotte this weekend, was asked how Irving’s return could impact the Blue Devils.
“Kryie is one of those guys that I just think is phenomenal,” he said. “He’s the closest thing to Isiah Thomas from Indiana as a freshman that I’ve ever seen.”
Irving did say that it’s unfair to expect him to be at the same level he was in December. He said his conditioning “isn’t where it should be,” but he expects that to improve as Duke moves through the Tournament. He also said that his basketball IQ has increased by watching his teammates on a daily basis, and he expects that will help make up for any shortcomings in fitness.
Still, though, even if Irving is not on top of his game like he was when he scored 31 points against Michigan State Dec. 1, the freshman doesn’t expect a huge drop-off.
“I can basically do everything I did before I got hurt,” he said. “I’m feeling really good.”
Irving confirmed that his injury was a result of torn ligaments in his big toe. The ligaments had grown back to the point where he could begin running about a month ago. Duke’s athletic department released a video of him going through rehab on Feb. 28, sparking optimism among the Blue Devil faithful.
But even Irving had doubts he would return to the floor this season after his initial diagnosis. He and his family seriously considered having surgery, which would have surely ended his season.
“It was a close decision,” Irving said about possibly having surgery. “The most important thing for me was getting healthy. If it came to me missing the whole season, then it was going to happen. We just didn’t want to have any hindrance on my future or anything.”
Now, despite the long initial odds, he’s back—and his teammates couldn’t be more thrilled.
“He’s only going to help our team,” sophomore Ryan Kelly said. “Nolan has been great for us, he’s a score-first point guard that has obviously done wonders for us. Kyrie is more of a pass-first point guard. Those two players, if you put them on the floor... not many teams can say they have that.”
Nolan Smith added that Irving’s return is a “huge boost” for the Blue Devils and will make the backcourt that much deeper. And regardless of how he plays, Irving merely making an appearance on the court will affect Duke’s opponents.
“His presence means a lot.” Smith said. “The main thing is people know who Kyrie Irving is. You see him all over the Internet, all over everything. People are going to get a little afraid, he’s that good.”