LOS ANGELES—He is poised to be the starting point guard for Team USA in this summer's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but Kyrie Irving was not always sure he would wear the red, white and blue during international competition.
Before the dynamic guard arrived at Duke in fall 2010, Irving—who was born in Melbourne, Australia—had to decide between competing internationally with Australia or the talent-rich United States. Blue Devil and Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski told Irving he had the talent to represent America in the Olympics one day.
The West Orange, N.J., native listened and has since blossomed into the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Rookie of the Year, three-time All-Star and recently-crowned NBA champion. He was also named the 2014 FIBA World Cup MVP.
“Absolutely I [believed him],” Irving said of Krzyzewski's message after Team USA beat China 106-57 Sunday in an exhibition game at the Staples Center. “I know coach has the utmost belief in me, and I’m really happy to be on this team and have this opportunity.”
Although Irving is one of the NBA's young stars at just 24 years old, his road to the Olympics has been anything but smooth since committing to Duke.
The former NBA All-Star Game MVP missed most of his only season in Durham due to a right toe injury and suffered a slew of injuries early in his NBA career, including a broken right hand and multiple knee and shoulder injuries. He missed an average of 14 games per season in his first four years in the NBA.
Most notably, in his first NBA Finals game in 2015, Irving fractured his left kneecap after landing awkwardly on a drive to the basket and had to watch as Golden State knocked off Cleveland in overtime and captured the NBA title in six games.
But despite questions about his defense and ability to coexist with fellow stars LeBron James and Kevin Love as head coach David Blatt was replaced by Tyronn Lue in 2015-16, Irving came into his own against the Warriors in this year's finals.
The 2014 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year averaged 30.8 points per game in the final five games of the seven-game series, helping Cleveland to a historic win by erasing a 3-1 deficit. Irving hit the defining shot of the championship, a go-ahead 3-pointer over two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry with less than a minute left in Game 7.
That gave the former Duke one-and-done player plenty of momentum entering this year's Olympic training camp after Irving was a member of the Select Team that trains with the Olympic team in 2012.
“He’s evolving into a leader. His performance in the finals this year was pretty indicative of what he’s capable of and more,” USA Basketball Managing Director Jerry Colangelo said Sunday before the exhibition game. “We’re looking to him to be that leader for us in the backcourt at the point.”
But Irving is also a leader among former Blue Devils as one of the most successful former Duke players in the NBA and the first in a recent string of one-and-done prospects.
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Irving was the third Blue Devil to leave Durham after one season, joining Corey Maggette (1999) and Luol Deng (2004). Since Irving left, Duke has had six players follow Irving's path.
Austin Rivers left in 2012, All-American Jabari Parker departed in 2014 and the trio of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones left in 2015 after winning the national championship. Brandon Ingram is the sixth on the list after being selected by the Los Angeles Lakers with the No. 2 pick last month.
That list will likely continue to grow next year, with Krzyzewski and his assistants bringing in their third straight No. 1 recruiting class led by forwards Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum.
“He’s had a huge impact on our program,” Krzyzewski said of Irving after Sunday's game. “When any of the elite NBA players come from your school, it has an impact positively on your program.”
Now alongside national team mainstays like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, Irving will lead the Olympic team to Brazil looking to keep the momentum going.
"He’s gotten better [since 2014]," Krzyzewski said. "When you go through the experience of first of all fighting off of an injury—he had an injury where he wasn’t able to play in the playoffs—and to win the whole thing, I think he’s as good a guard as there is."