CHICAGO — Kyrie Irving is as fast as they come. His dribbling is more mystifying than anyone's in the league, and he's already racked up a slew of clutch scoring performances during his three NBA seasons. But the Cleveland Cavaliers point guard understands that his basketball skills have limited clout when he's off the court.
At the ripe age of 22, Irving has already displayed an impressive business acumen. There may be shortcomings to his game. His defensive performance (an ongoing project) and ability to run a sophisticated offense are questionable. That's natural for someone not yet old enough to rent a car.
But Irving has already displayed a knack for how to behave in the public sphere beyond the court. He's also lucky enough to have two world-class generals in LeBron James and Kevin Love coming to help.
Love is a nearly certain trade addition, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, and is almost as strong a passer and floor visionary as James. Irving's recent stint with Team USA thus acts almost as a training camp for a souped-up Cavs roster, with which he'll be able to thrive as more of a freelancing, off-ball athlete, untethered from the responsibilities of a classic point guard as two elite floor-runners run beside him.
Irving's choice to join the ever-prestigious Duke University, a program made renowned by Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski, now seems like a presage to his path toward upper-tier NBA fame. He's more than talented enough to contribute to either the American squad or the Cavs, and he's likely to make a huge impact with both. But Irving often finds himself in just the right situation—evading maximum responsibility while facing colossal gain.
More will be expected of him in Cleveland in 2014-15 and beyond since more people will be watching, but he'll also be a third wheel, eminently capable of scoring, running the floor and making snap decisions in transition. Kyrie's fortune has landed him in a situation almost as cushy as the basketball incubator of Krzyzewski's Duke. So it came as no surprise when Irving followed up Friday's Team USA practice with an appearance at Navy Pier, where he collaborated with ESPN analyst and former NBA star Jalen Rose on a charity event with mutual partner Jeep.
Rose has proved himself as one of the better economists among players of his generation. Founder of the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy and one of the most-heard voices in the game, he's come a long way from the brash and irreverent shooting talent he was, famous nationwide at the center of the University of Michigan's Fab Five.
"[NBA players] have to mature faster now," he said at the event. "I'm glad they didn't have social media when I was younger, when I think about some of the things I would've said on Twitter, about some of the pictures I would've posted on Instagram when I was in college. When you walk across that draft stage, you go from being a college man to being a professional. That's not just for the 48 minutes on the floor or the 82 games on the schedule either. You lose your innocence fast, and faster now than before."
Rose's message is an especially foreboding one for Irving, whose spotlight increases tenfold this season as James brings the greatest show on earth back to Ohio. The Cavaliers are playing 29 national TV games this year.
"It's exciting," Irving said at the event. "I've only had three national TV games so far in my career."
But Irving has already partnered not only with Jeep but also with Nike, Foot Locker and Pepsi. Irving's "Uncle Drew" spots with Pepsi make for the most memorable modern NBA ad campaign this side of Cliff Paul.
Irving hasn't yet seen the level of public scrutiny that Rose did at Michigan or as a professional fighting for NBA titles with the Indiana Pacers. Cleveland was something like an NBA coverage blind spot in the four years James spent away, as the team cycled through two coaches and never got above a .402 winning mark. It became a draft lottery staple and a television dead zone.
But the standard for the Cavs and Irving jump from zero to a billion with James' re-arrival. Playing at Duke is one thing, but having syndicated SportsCenter time next to the world's greatest athlete is another category entirely.
"The expectations for me are higher now, and I'm cool with that," Irving said.
Along with heightened hopes for basketball performance comes extra character assassination. Irving's very self will be picked apart with industrious intensity in the media during 2014-15. The way Rose tells it, such exposure will only do Irving good.
"The philanthropic piece has to come from the heart," said Rose. "Kyrie's been really generous with our students. He's been coaching them, showing them what to do. He's on the verge of becoming a superstar, and to have his support really means a lot to our students.
"It's hard to be successful at more than one thing," Rose says about Irving's career thus far. "It takes three to five years, usually, to realize that this isn't forever and start branching out. And that's what makes Kevin Durant, LeBron and Kobe Bryant so special. They mature from day one and hit the ground running."
Irving's early savvy for building himself up as more than a basketball player would suggest he's approaching that rare air of global stars and renaissance men. The true test of his difficult balance as an elite player and man of the people will come this year. LeBron's presence is the surest path to more probing.
But if Irving can maintain this effective of a balance when the spotlight, harsher than the sun, hits him in 2014-15, he'll be a household gem in no time.