Talent, not leadership skills, led to Kyrie Irving's selection as the first overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft.
Fast-forward three years later, and the Cleveland Cavaliers floor general is still driving the same car that brought him here.
The 22-year-old is relying on and fine-tuning his on-court skills: yo-yo handles, cotton-soft touch around the basket, a three-point stroke apt to catch fire at a moment's notice. As for piloting an NBA franchise, though, that remains a challenge he hasn't really started yet.
"Everybody asks me if this is my year to be a leader ... I haven’t been so far though, not at all," Irving told Real GM's Shams Charania. "I’ve just been a kid trying to figure it out."
There is a lot of truth in that statement.
He has been the Cavaliers' best player since his arrival. As the unchallenged face of the franchise, he was tasked with steering this ship back in the right direction after LeBron James infamously threw it off course in 2010.
While that off-court chatter often cast Irving in some unfavorable light, it rarely accounted for the challenge with which he was presented. At 19 years old, he was tasked with restoring the relevance of a franchise that wasn't heavy on either talent or experience during his first three seasons in the league.
He was just "a kid trying to figure it out," and both his good steps and bad ones were tracked under the basketball world's microscope. It wasn't so much a test as a pop quiz handed out on the first day of class. He's been fighting an uphill battle ever since.
Now, for the first time in his career, he might finally have the support staff needed to help him pass that exam. James is back, and he's brought along seasoned veterans with championship experience, like Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and James Jones.
As Irving told Charania, he is ecstatic about his new environment:
I’m more than excited with our new veterans. I’m really excited just from the standpoint of how the locker room is going to go and how to really be a professional. I’m not saying that the veterans that we had weren’t professionals themselves, but we didn’t have enough. Given the right and wrong things to do in the league, I’ve had to learn on my own and that’s what some of us been doing.
Now, we have guys who’ve been in the league for years, guys who’ve won championships and have had to give a piece of their game for the greater good of the team. It’s something I admire and something I’m going to learn from.
It's an opportunity that was never previously afforded to Irving. The fact he is eager to get it started says a lot about the growth he has already experienced.
"That's a mature outlook from Irving. The kind a leader should have," wrote ProBasketballTalk's Kurt Helin. "This is LeBron James' team now, and guys such as Mike Miller and Shawn Marion are certainly professionals. Things will be much more clear in that locker room, there will be a pecking order."
The structure is now in place for someone to lead this franchise. While that item has been temporarily removed from Irving's checklist, it's sure to reappear at some point down the line.
This is Irving's training program for life as an NBA leader. It's just coming about three years after he was handed the job.
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