Not only was he popular enough to be voted into the 2014 All-Star Game as a starter, despite the impressive appeals of John Wall and Kyle Lowry, but he also went on to win MVP thanks to his stellar performance against the best the Association could offer.
Irving is a household name, a player commonly viewed as the next great point guard in professional basketball. He's an omnipresent entity in highlight reels, thanks primarily to his dazzling handles and penchant for offensive heroics.
The Cleveland Cavaliers floor general is undoubtedly a superstar, but is he ready for everything that comes along with that title? He's proven capable of handling the publicity and statistical burdens, but what about the leadership that is inherently expected from such a player?
That remains the trouble spot for Irving, just as it has been throughout a lackluster 2013-14 campaign.
Let's begin with the negative.
This 2013-14 campaign hasn't exactly been easy treading for Irving and the Cavaliers, as the losses piled up early in the season while the point guard's game took a step in the wrong direction. Between his regression and the constant turmoil in the locker room, Irving's leadership came into question.
Even from certain members of his own franchise, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst:
There are those who even wonder whether Irving is truly worth a maximum-level contract, including some within the Cavs organization. His game has regressed a bit this season, particularly from a leadership standpoint, with his clashes with Dion Waiters making headlines, and it has raised a red flag or two in-house.
Those spats in the locker room weren't positive, but neither were the reports that Irving was acting disinterested and pouting on the court when things didn't go his way.
"Two opposing general managers this season have told me they think Irving is pouting. Over what is anyone's guess," reported the Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd earlier in the season.
The point guard has staunchly denied these sentiments, but it's telling that multiple front-office personnel have noticed his poor mentality.
Whether you believe that the 21-year-old floor general has been the source of frustration and negative feelings in Cleveland, it's impossible to deny that he hasn't been a positive role model and leader for the organization.
When was the last time you heard about Irving holding himself accountable for a poor performance or spending extra time ironing out the kinks in his game? When was the last time you heard about him taking a page out of Kobe Bryant's book and leading by example?
Those things just aren't happening as frequently as they should for a young man who's supposed to be an NBA superstar.
But that's changing.
I don't hold his potential desire to leave the franchise against him. So long as he's committed to leading this organization to the best of his abilities in the present, it's understandable if he wants out in the future.
Irving's ability to leave Cleveland in the coming years is a huge story, but it's a nonissue for the purposes of this article.
Turning Things Around
"We went into the All-Star break with some momentum and now, coming out, its really important to get that first game and get up for that first game no matter how tired we are," Irving told Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer. "Everybody's rested. It's just really important to come out with that same focus and play as a team and hopefully continue this streak.''
So far, that's exactly what has happened.
Although the Cavs have lost three games in a row—two to the Toronto Raptors and one to the Washington Wizards—none of the outings have been particularly embarrassing. And dating back to the start of the win streak Irving referenced, Cleveland has a 6-3 record, one that's allowed some semblance of playoff hope to remain alive.
During that nine-game stretch, Irving has been significantly better.
He's averaged 20.0 points, 3.9 rebounds and 6.9 assists per contest, but he's also refusing to turn the ball over and shooting efficiently. His field-goal percentage of 41.6 percent isn't anything special, but that's made up for by his 41 percent shooting beyond the arc and 90.9 percent clip at the charity stripe.
It all adds up to a true shooting percentage of 55.8 percent, per Basketball-Reference, which is significantly better than the mark he's posted throughout the season (52.7).
All of a sudden, things are starting to come together. But I'm not just talking about his play.
"Earlier, he was very withdrawn," an anonymous member of the Cavaliers told the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence. "Lately, he’s been a lot more engaged with all of us. He’s back, from wherever he was."
That's been readily apparent on the court, but it also seems to be noticeable behind the scenes. That's arguably more important, as Irving's primary flaws this season have been his lack of leadership skills and inability to pull the Cavs out of their collective slump.
Waiters, the cause of a few problems during the early portion of the season, has even noticed how well things are clicking, per Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe:
It’s tough because you want to win and you want to win now. But I think the last couple of games before the break we’ve been jelling. We’ve been passing the ball and running the floor. We’ve been playing team basketball and it shows. You see the results. I think we’ve just got to keep that momentum.
And that's truly key.
It's one thing for all the feel-good stories to emerge while the team is in the midst of its most successful stretch. It's another thing entirely to remain positive while losses are mounting once more.
Yet that's what seems to be happening, which is a massive positive on Irving's ledger.
What were you doing at 21 years old?
Generally, there are a few options, excluding the lucky few who manage to hit the jackpot before legally consuming a beer:
- Finishing up a degree.
- Working to support yourself in a low-level job.
- Trying to move out of your parents' basement.
- Playing video games.
Irving is one of the lucky few.
He entered the NBA while he was just 19 years old, and he won't turn 22 until the end of March. He's still got plenty of time left to mature, and he's already well ahead of the developmental curve.
If you listen to him talk for long enough, you'll hear him say quite a few times that he's still a young man learning how to function as a true adult. Recently, he revealed as much to Washburn:
You have to look at yourself in the mirror and ask what do I need to do in order to change and make this team better? That’s what I’ve had to do a few times this season. I’m just figuring it out. I’m a 21-year-old kid just trying to figure out this leadership thing and it’s been rocky. But hopefully in a few years I can look back and appreciate this journey. It’s a great journey that I’m going through mentally and physically. I’m enjoying the process.
Or how about what he told Lloyd in late January?
I just feel like what people fail to realize is I don’t have all the answers all the time. I’m still the third-youngest on this team. I’m a 21-year-old kid trying to figure this whole thing out. It’s a daily job and that’s probably why it’s been one of the toughest years for me. I’m learning every single day.
Does that sound like someone who's ready to embrace the life of an NBA superstar?
It reads like a player still trying to figure things out, one who's making an effort but just not quite there at this stage of his life. And, it's worth noting, there's nothing wrong with that.
Just as is the case with any job, there's a learning curve. It takes time to adjust. It takes effort and going through those rocky patches that the point guard referenced.
Irving, as he's stated multiple times, is a 21-year-old kid.
Was LeBron James a leader at 21, when he was similarly three years into his NBA career? Was Kobe capable of taking charge of an organization and generating nonstop positive headlines while he was just four years removed from his high school experience?
Leadership isn't something that develops overnight. Instead, it's gained over time, carefully cultivated by players who learn from their successes and failures with equal reverence.
Irving might not be ready for all that right now, but he's tracking toward the day when he will be. And given the way the second half has begun in Cleveland, that day might not be too far off in the future.