NEW YORK — When Kyrie Irving was introduced on opening night in Brooklyn, he waved his hands toward the rafters, embracing Nets fans and their cheers, accepting a second chance at leadership and fulfilling a childhood dream all in the process.
Irving grew up a Nets fan and watched them in the Finals when he was in fourth grade. He later played high school basketball in New Jersey. While attending Duke and playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, Irving's dream of playing for the Nets was always in the back of his mind. That dream became a reality when he signed a four-year, $141 million deal with Brooklyn this summer as a free agent.
On media day, Irving addressed reporters for the first time since joining the Nets and admitted he "failed" as a leader in Boston.
In his first season with the Celtics, Irving had surgery to remove a tension wire in his left knee, ending his season on March 11. With Irving and Gordon Hayward both sidelined, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier averaged playoff career highs across the board while Tatum averaged 18.5 points in his first postseason as the Celtics lost in Game 7 of the conference finals to the Cavaliers.
"Kyrie for his first year, year and a half was terrific for us," Celtics GM Danny Ainge told ESPN's Rachel Nichols. "I really liked and was hopeful that it was going to be a good marriage going forward, but he really wanted to go home, and that's his choice, and I don't know why he gets all the blame. I'm the one who should be blamed for last year. We put a team together that just didn't have the pieces that didn't fit."
This season, the Celtics have gotten off to a blistering 12-4 start with free-agent signee Kemba Walker in the fold and Irving and Al Horford playing for division rivals. Tatum is averaging a career-high 20.5 points. Brown is averaging career highs in field-goal percentage (.474), rebounds (7.2) and points (19.2). Rozier, who signed a three-year, $56.7 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets, has become a full-time starter and averaged career highs in field-goal percentage (.430), points (17.4) and assists (4.4).
Last season, Boston took a step backward while Irving dealt with a personal loss. Nearly three weeks after Irving told fans at a season ticket holder event he planned on re-signing, his grandfather died.
"After he passed, basketball was the last thing on my mind," Irving said. "A lot of basketball and the joy I had from it was sucked away from me. There was a facial expression that I carried around with me throughout the year."
Off the court, Irving would "do his own thing," according to a league source.
The Celtics lost in five games to the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semifinals. Irving shot an underwhelming 35.6 percent from the field and 21.9 percent from downtown, looking visibly dejected and frustrated in the process. Tatum, Brown and Rozier all saw their production decline across the board in the playoffs as well.
Despite winning a championship alongside LeBron James in 2016 and his elite individual talent as a ball-handler and scorer, Irving's reputation as a leader took a hit, and his ability to make teammates around him better was questioned.
Before signing Irving, the Nets did their due diligence by speaking with several of their players for unfiltered intel on the star guard. Joe Harris spent his first two seasons alongside Irving in Cleveland, where they played video games and later vacationed together in the Bahamas. Spencer Dinwiddie was a friend of Irving's before the two took a semester-long class together at Harvard last year. Caris LeVert shared the same agency.
Within the organization, there was a belief Irving could follow a similar path taken by D'Angelo Russell—quell some of the outside noise with his actions and maximize his talent at the highest level of his career. Close to home and surrounded by loved ones, Irving would be helped by the Nets' culture and the talented young core around him.
"To me, [Irving is] not a bad dude," one of Irving's former coaches told Bleacher Report. "You need him to win. You've got to hope you get the right coach who can manage him."
Enter Kenny Atkinson, who runs a point guard friendly system and treats his playmaker like a "quarterback" with the ability to change plays on the fly.
One of the notable differences with Irving as the primary playmaker has been a decrease in ball movement at times. Last season, the Nets ranked eighth in passes per game (309). This season the Nets rank 28th in passes per game (258.8).
Russell was benched by Atkinson late in games early in the season for fourth-quarter turnovers and was on his best behavior in a contract season. Atkinson won't be able to similarly discipline Irving by benching him for any reason since he's a maximum-salary superstar, but the two men have gotten along well so far.
Throughout games, you'll find Irving and Atkinson strategizing together during free-throw attempts. Atkinson has surrounded Irving with shooters such as Harris and Taurean Prince to create optimum floor spacing for Irving to drive. Thus far, the Nets are second in the league in drive points per game (29.3). In 11 contests, Irving is averaging a career-high 28.5 points and 7.2 assists. Irving has also scored a league-leading 51 "clutch" points this season, which are points scored in the last five minutes of a game with the point differential of five or less.
Garrett Temple—a nine-year veteran who passed on interest from the Nuggets, Wizards, Cavaliers and Pelicans before agreeing to join Irving in Brooklyn, according to a league source—believes the narrative regarding Irving's leadership skills will eventually shift.
"Any time you go to a different team, and you don't get traded there and choose to go to a different team when you're a star, you have a chance to not right wrongs but become the person that you want to be," Temple said at media day. "It's kind of a clean slate. The league is kind of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately type of league anyway. Kyrie comes here, and if he's the person I've seen the last four weeks, then all of those pundits are going to change their tune because he's been here since Labor Day, we've been working out, and he's been a great leader. He hasn't tried to show up any young guys. He's been a hard worker doing his thing, and when you win, it cures a lot of ills too. He said he failed as a leader. He's going to try to change that, and he recognizes that."
Since joining the Nets, Irving has taken steps to be an improved leader for his teammates on and off the floor.
According to teammate Theo Pinson, he and Irving get dinner together, and Irving is a participant in the team's group text chat often. "You can call him about anything," Pinson explained. "He always wants to do something with the team if we want to do something."
Former Celtics teammate Marcus Smart said on ESPN's The Jump that he recalled similar experiences with Irving, who was one of the first people to call and text him after his mom died. When Smart returned to Boston, Irving pulled him aside and talked extensively.
Nets forward Rodions Kurucs said the six-time All-Star delivers a consistent message to his younger teammates.
"Just stay focused and stick together because every player on the team is important," the 21-year-old told Bleacher Report. "He says that it's not just him, it's the whole team. That we have to play together and focus on the things coach wants from us."
According to several players, Irving has been constantly communicating with his teammates during practices and games, trying to figure out where the guards like the ball and discussing off-ball movement with the wing players and screen angles with the big men.
Irving, who has been out with a right shoulder impingement since Nov. 16, will miss Wednesday's road contest against the Celtics. He will be reassessed once the team returns. While injured, Irving has been vocal during timeouts and listening to players, according to Temple.
Multiple players said Irving leads by example and has brought a heightened level of competitiveness to practices. Irving is also the first player to hit the court roughly three hours before tipoff. During those pregame warm-up routines, he's laser-focused and prefers not to be photographed. Nets security officials have kindly asked media members present not to take photos or record video of him while he warms up.
As a superstar, Irving's practice habits behind the scenes are not monitored nearly as closely as his actions off the court.
According to ESPN, Irving had a mood swing episode and also refused to remove his hat during a team photoshoot in China.
Several players didn't think anything of the hat incident and spoke glowingly of their teammate.
"You understand now some of the things and some of the burdens that come with being a guy as high profile as Kyrie," Dinwiddie told Bleacher Report. "Sometimes people are going to say things that aren't completely accurate or maybe somebody had that opinion, but the rest of the team doesn't have that opinion. If somebody on the peripheral has that opinion about it, but we don't, then that opinion doesn't necessarily matter because his teammates and brothers don't feel that way about him."
"[He's an] amazing teammate," Jarrett Allen told Bleacher Report. "Great guy. He's a funny guy. He meshes well with everyone on the team. He's just an amazing guy to be around. He makes it easy to play with someone like himself."
"I don't think guys really pay attention to it as much as it's built up in the media," Harris told Bleacher Report. "You spend every day with him. He's like a really normal guy that you just enjoy being around."
Previously, Harris has also called Irving "misunderstood."
Off the court, Irving likes to skateboard, according to Harris, and is artistic while being heavily involved in the designs for his signature Nike shoe. You can find him at his local delis ordering a turkey and cheese sandwich with lettuce, tomato, vinegar, oil and mayonnaise and some tomato soup, as he noted during a brief autobiography video.
In Brooklyn, Irving's pursuit of happiness centers on seeing his family members more often now that he's closer to home, realizing his vision from when he was a fourth-grader and becoming the leader the Nets need to make a run in the playoffs this season without Kevin Durant.
As Irving left Barclays Center after the Nets defeated the Charlotte Hornets, he stopped to take photos with two young fans. It was another glimpse into his newfound happiness close to home while embracing the fans who want to see him realize his potential on and off the court in Brooklyn.
Michael Scotto is an NBA writer for Bleacher Report and the Associated Press. Seen on NBA TV and YES Network. Heard on ESPN Radio, Sirius XM NBA Radio and WFAN. This is his ninth season covering the NBA. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeAScotto.
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