LAS VEGAS — They are NBA novices who gathered in the desert Friday to play a game together for the first time, hoping to inch their careers forward in a meaningless summer-league game.
Then in the middle of their shootaround before that game came the announcement that dropped a spotlight on them, a spotlight that pretty much won’t ever leave them.
Effective immediately, they need to adjust their eyes and games to the pressure of playing with the best player in the league.
Rookie NBA coach David Blatt and the league’s last two No. 1 picks, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, have all had their careers pushed into fast-forward by LeBron James, with the expectation that the Cleveland Cavaliers should jump from winning less than a third of their games during the four years James was in Miami…to winning it all.
“I didn’t really believe it at first,” said Bennett, the 2013 draft bust who will soon be asked to play the swing role of someone as poised and strong as two-time champion veteran Shane Battier was to James in Miami.
But Bennett was smiling. Wiggins was smiling, revealing his feelings even before he answered the question about his reaction to the news simply as: “I was happy.”
Blatt was smiling as he kidded about needing to draw up a whole new offensive system to make the most of James. When a public relations official terminated Blatt’s packed press gathering in a steamy corner of Cox Pavilion, Blatt scanned the faces around him and apologized sincerely.
“I look forward to working with all of you,” said Blatt, fully aware how many more reporters will be interested in him tomorrow than yesterday.
Blatt knows that, which is why he said he admired James’ homecoming gesture because it came “from the heart,” but he pointed out that the locals are the ones who really felt it.
“Lifted the whole state,” Blatt said.
James’ loyalty lies with his family members, longtime friends and the people of Northeast Ohio, a region he cited by that broad two-word description over and over in his public letter at SI.com announcing his free-agent decision. If there is a meaningful connection with the Cavaliers here, it’s rooted in the redemption James seeks to get from and give to owner Dan Gilbert over their mistakes in handling James’ 2010 exit.
James is coming home, and that has created a feel-good vibe that is undeniable. Even Miami Heat president Pat Riley referenced it in his concession-speech statement upon losing this second LeBron election:
“While I am disappointed by LeBron’s decision to leave Miami, no one can fault another person for wanting to return home.”
James has immense comfort coming to him as he returns.
It’s a little different for Blatt, lead assistant coach Tyronn Lue, Irving, Bennett, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson, all of whom were brought to Cleveland as a result of the ineptitude that James’ departure triggered.
Those guys will be asked to live up to James’ standards and hurry up and get good or even great together. As it stood Friday, Blatt was just trying to get through this first game, which the Cavaliers won with 23-year-old Australian guard Matthew Dellavedova on a non-guaranteed contract as Cleveland’s clear leader on the court.
Blatt wasn’t just calling out simple plays, he was calling out plays by just describing what to do: “Handoff!”
That’s how far the Cavaliers have to go in building a champion around James. That process would be dramatically accelerated if a trade was made, even at the expense of Wiggins, to land Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves.
For now, much is expected from Wiggins, who said he was fine playing shooting guard now that James is coming at small forward. Wiggins on Friday generally outplayed Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo when matched up against them, although each had his moments.
We’ll be waiting to see many more moments from Cleveland’s kids in the days to come.
Wiggins is hopeful James will push them toward that.
“Hopefully he takes all of us under his wing,” Wiggins said, “and really teaches us what it takes to get to the level of being a championship team.”
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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