Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving selected NBA's top rookie
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Once Kyrie Irving finished cracking jokes, thanking Cleveland’s fans, his teammates and coaches, he looked down from the podium at the person who promised this would happen.
He was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.
“This award is for us,” Irving said to his father, Dred, who raised his son after his wife, Elizabeth, died 15 years ago. “We’re bringing it back home and we’re going to put it right on the mantle and we’re going to put some flashing lights on it so it shines throughout the whole entire house.”
This season, Irving shined brightest.
The 20-year-old ran away in voting by a nationwide media panel that could have handed in ballots with two months left in the season. There was really no other choice.
Irving received 117 of 120 possible first-place votes from writers and broadcasters and finished with 592 points, more than three times as many as Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio (170), who finished second despite missing most of the season with a knee injury. Denver’s Kenneth Faried (129) was a distant third.
Faried, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and New York’s Iman Shumpert received the other first-place votes, stopping Irving from joining Blake Griffin (2011), David Robinson (1990) and Ralph Sampson (1984) as the only players to win the award unanimously.
Irving played beyond his years and above everyone’s expectations — including his own — this season when he routinely took over games in the fourth quarter and renewed the hopes of a Cleveland franchise still putting together the pieces after LeBron James left as a free agent two summers ago.
Irving always felt the award was within his reach.
“It was a goal of mine,” Irving said. “I kept it on the back burner. I knew as long as we won games and we beat great teams that it was going to come.”
The first pick in last year’s draft, Irving led all rookies — and the Cavs — in scoring with 18.5 points per game. He also led first-year players in field-goal percentage (46.8), was second in assists (5.4) and became one of just six rookies in league history to average at least 18 points and five assists.
However, it was the other elements of his game — a nasty crossover dribble, a fearless desire to get to the basket, and a clutch, cold-blooded instinct in the fourth quarter — that separated him from the others.
Cavs coach Byron Scott knew Irving was special long before he made his pro debut.
“The day we brought him in for his individual workout before the draft, I thought he was definitely the best player that we had,” Scott said.
Still, Irving’s first season, delayed because of the league’s labor lockout, began with some doubting whether he was deserving of the top pick or if Cleveland had made a mistake. Irving had played in just 11 games at Duke because of a toe injury.
It didn’t take him long for him to show the Cavs made a perfect choice.
“When they drafted me, there were a lot of questions about my toe and everything, would he live up to the hype or whatever,” he said. “I didn’t pay any attention to all that, just being in these closed doors helped me have a vision and be focused every single day. I wasn’t the most heralded No. 1 pick. I had my own goals and I had my own team goals.”
Irving made spectacular moves and game-winning shots and earned MVP honors at the Rising Stars game during All-Star weekend in Orlando. But when asked what moment stood above all the others in a magical first season, Irving had a surprise answer.
It came, of all places, in a huddle during a timeout at Indianapolis.
With 4.4 seconds left and the Cavaliers tied 84-84 with the Pacers, Scott, who has formed a tight bond with his young star point guard, drew up a play for Irving to take the last shot even though he was playing just his third game as a pro.
“I was surprised,” Irving said. “We kind of knew each other. I didn’t really know the bald-headed man. I just knew that when he told me it was a high screen and roll, I was like, ‘I’m going to do my best to get to the basket.’”
Irving’s left-handed layup rolled out, and the Cavs lost in overtime. But Irving knew that from that moment on that the Cavaliers were his team and that Scott expected him to lead them.
“Just him having that confidence in me was a stepping stone for me,” he said. “It was a learning experience, and I needed it.”
A month later in Boston, with his father sitting courtside, Irving made up for the miss at Indiana. With the Cavs down by one, Irving, ignoring his failure in the previous situation, drove to the basket, split two defenders and flipped in a left-handed layup to beat the Celtics.
Irving arrived with none of the superstar trappings. There was no entourage or multimillion dollar shoe contract, no cameras chronicling his every move. He often tossed the praise on others and minimized his role in victories.
“One of his biggest attributes — you can ask all of his teammates — he’s willing to give up a little bit of himself for the greater good of the team,” said general manager Chris Grant. “That’s truly what makes great leaders. That’s what makes great people and great players.”
Irving appears to be the major piece the Cavs can build around, and they plan to get him some help next month with three of the top 34 picks in the draft.
“He’s great and the way he carries himself is really remarkable,” said Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who opened his downtown casino Monday night. “He’s 20 years old. He can’t have a drink legally or come into our casino but he can do everything else.”
Irving, too, is excited about the future in Cleveland.
“I know what we’re building here is something special,” he said, “and I’m here for the long haul.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.