Five years ago, few knew Kyrie Irving’s name as an underclassmen in high school.
Fast-forward to now—the former Duke point guard has more titles than he knows what to do with. After his first year in the league, he was named NBA Rookie of the Year. In the internet-sensation Pepsi Max advertisements he goes by “Uncle Drew,” a nickname that has caught on with media and fans.
His Cleveland Cavalier teammates dubbed him the “Dark Knight” when he was wearing a facemask in December to protect his injured jaw. And ESPN the Magazine called him “the most captivating 20-year old since LeBron.”
His newest title tops his laundry list of aliases: NBA All-Star.
First steps to stardom
Contrary to the norm on the AAU circuit, Irving’s father, Drederick—a former NBA player—brought Kyrie along slowly. Irving played on a middle-of-the-road AAU team, the New Jersey Roadrunners, and did not attend major camps until he was an upperclassman in high school. The emphasis was on getting better as a person, student and player, which ingrained a mantra that he has lived by since: hungry and humble.
Finally, the time came to throw Irving in the fire, which required the then-scrawny, 5-foot-8 Irving to transfer from the smaller, more academically rigorous Montclair Kimberley Academy in New Jersey after his sophomore year of high school to nearby St. Patrick High School, a national public-prep basketball powerhouse at the time. The move also allowed the ambidextrous guard to be coached by one of the best high school basketball coaches in the business in Kevin Boyle.
Count current North Carolina guard Dexter Strickland as one of the many who had never heard Irving’s name before they became teammates at St. Patrick on a team that also included current Charlotte Bobcat forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.
“I was in the gym working out, and [Irving] was sitting on the stage behind the hoop watching me workout,” said Strickland, describing his first encounter with Irving several months before that season began. “Afterwards, he introduced himself saying he transferred [to St. Patrick], and he started practicing with us. At the time he could not dunk. He would try to get me to teach him how to dunk…. That was the first time I met Kyrie.”
Those vertical challenges were short-lived.
“He always had great handles and was very crafty,” Strickland said. “I think a few months later out of nowhere he started doing windmill [dunks] and throwing it off the backboard. It was kind of funny.”
As his physical abilities and explosiveness caught up with his already advanced skills and instincts, Irving blossomed as a player. After his brilliant junior campaign leading his squad to a state championship and 24-3 record, Irving participated in a marquee national camp for the first time in his career. The summer before his senior season in high school he attended the NBPA Top-100 camp in Charlottesville, Va., where current Duke juniors Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton began aggressively recruiting him to Duke.
Thornton and Hairston had already made their pledge to Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, and they made their pitch to Irving and Harrison Barnes, who would eventually commit to North Carolina.
“We knew that Ky and Harrison were the last two that coach [Krzyzewski] was going after,” Hairston said.
More importantly, the event humbled Irving, which is what allowed him to fully maximize his potential. While at the camp, Irving went head-to-head against current Detroit Piston guard Brandon Knight—the top-ranked point guard in high school basketball at the time.
“To say Brandon Knight outplayed him would be putting it kindly,” ESPN senior recruiting anaylst Dave Telep said. “At that moment, I think Kyrie had never gone through anything like that before. I remember talking to him the next morning. He skipped an optional workout and his head was down. It was clear that he had never faced adversity like that [in front of numerous college coaches and scouts].”
Irving didn’t keep his head down for long.
“I was actually watching that game,” Hairston said. “I think Ky used that as a wake up call.”
A few months later, Irving was the No. 1 point guard in the class, and Telep recalls walking out of one of Irving’s high school games wondering if he were the best player in all of high school basketball. He averaged 24.7 points per game and led St. Patrick’s to a 24-3 record in his senior season.
“I believe everyone has their moment of truth. The great ones will look themselves in the mirror, pick themselves off the floor and go get it,” Telep said. “I think that was his moment.”
In that process of picking himself off the floor and before dominating in his final prep season, the Blue Devil coaching staff, as well as Hairston and Thornton, locked up Irving. Citing his relationships with players on the team and Krzyzewski, Irving committed to Duke over Kentucky, Georgia Tech and Texas A&M in October.
Strickland, however, was a bit more skeptical of Irving’s decision to wear royal blue.
“I think it’s a good pick for him I just hope that system doesn’t change who he is as a player,” Strickland said at the time.
The pain and gain at Duke
Duke fans wanted to remember Irving’s name and number by seeing it hang in the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium. But a freak toe injury—that Krzyzewski called “dumb luck”—prevented that dream from becoming a reality.
Joining a team that had just won the National Championship, Irving made his presence felt right away when he arrived in Durham and instantly became the best player on the team.
One game, in particular, embodied Irving’s prodigious talents in his one-year stay in college: The ACC-Big 10 Challenge contest against then-No. 6 Michigan State at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Irving dazzled the college basketball world, getting to the rim at will en route to 31 points—only the fourth 30-point showing by a Duke freshman in school history.
“Before that game he told Tyler and I that he was going to kill it,” Hairston said. “Kyrie just dominated the entire game. That was the moment I knew he was really special, and he was going to do really special things.”
Perhaps the most gifted freshman that Krzyzewski has ever instructed, Irving played a scant 11 games in a Blue Devil uniform because of the injury and left school early to become the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA draft. While healthy, the 6-foot-3 and 185-pound point guard averaged 17.5 points, 4.3 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game in Durham.
Arguably the most gut-wrenching of all, Irving never got to experience the Tobacco Road rivalry. Or the rivalry never got to experience Irving, who never got to play against his close friends Strickland and Barnes
“It’s sad to say he couldn’t play [in the Duke-North Carolina games],” Strickland said. “It would’ve been great. It would’ve been something to see.” Much of the shortchanged Duke basketball nation still lies awake at night wondering what could have been if Irving stayed healthy. Rubbing salt in the wound, Krzyzewski gave a hint as to what could have happened.
“I’ll tell you what, Kyrie’s freshman year, I thought we could maybe run the table,” Krzyzewski said during a December press conference. “We had good chemistry right away with that group.”
As painful as it is it can be for Blue Devil fans to watch Irving dominate now, Duke is reaping the benefits. Irving’s enthralling performances on a weekly basis in the NBA have undoubtedly paid dividends for a program that was lacking—or at least publicly perceived to be lacking—that one elite NBA player to carry the Duke flag.
Recruits love Irving’s infallibly tight handles and clutch floor-game that has a spice of streetball to it, as well as his charming charisma. Now, Krzyzewski has a bonafide elite player in the NBA who he can point to when selling his program to young prospects.
“It helps a lot,” Telep said. “It’s a street cred thing. How much more ammunition do you need to give Mike Krzyzewski with USA Basketball and now Kyrie Irving? That’s a hell of a recruiting pitch.”
The future is now
Irving’s brief stint of brilliance in college has become a nightly routine in the pros.
Playing on a team with predominately young, no-name talent, Irving’s dynamic scoring and play-making abilities give the Cavaliers a chance to beat teams they shouldn’t on almost any night.
In light of Irving’s success, Strickland admits that Duke did not hurt Irving’s development.
“I don’t think it changed him it all,” Strickland said. “I only said it because my teammate, Leslie McDonald’s [high school] teammate Elliot Williams went to Duke and it changed his game a lot. I actually think Duke made [Irving] better.”
While Irving regularly displays pin-point shooting accuracy and among the best handles in the league, he has gained even more notoriety for his success in the clutch. Irving averages 23.5 points and 5.5 assists per game this season and leads the NBA going 11-for-17 in “clutch” situations late in games. The dominance during crunch-time is surprising for some, especially those who were skeptical of the Cavaliers decision to choose Irving with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
“I’m not surprised,” said Strickland, who maintains a close relationship with his former backcourt running mate. “I’m so proud of him. I texted him the other day, ‘Keep doing your thing—the sky is the limit.’”
Despite his many names, many people don’t know what to say about Irving. Celtics head coach Doc Rivers was at a loss for words when Irving scored 11 of his game-high 40 points in the final 2:31 of the fourth quarter to lift the Cavaliers past the Celtics 95-90 on Jan. 22. Rivers’ only had one assessment as to how his veteran team squandered the game.
“And then Kyrie Irving happened,” Rivers said after the loss.
With his All-Star debut, history has also happened: Irving became just the seventh player in league history be an All-Star at 20-years old. The other members of that list: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Kevin Garnett, Isiah Thomas and Shaquille O’Neal.
As if his rise to stardom weren’t enough, Irving finally got some revenge on Knight from that day in Charlottesville. In the NBA Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star weekend, Irving scored 32 points while being guarded by his old rival for much of the contest. None of those buckets were as spectacular as a tantalizing crossover, step-back jumper that Irving drilled over Knight, who fell to the ground trying to guard the move.
“That was kind of payback from the high school days,” said Hairston, who calls Irving one of his best friends. “It was good basketball—they were going back and forth at each other, but I think Kyrie got the upper hand.”
Irving’s impressive weekend continued as he took home the 3-point shootout title and then finished with 15 points in Sunday night’s All-Star game.
And the question of Irving being Duke’s best NBA player ever is becoming less and less of a question by the day.