BOSTON — Last season after being traded to the Boston Celtics, Kyrie Irving bristled at questions about his former Cleveland Cavaliers teammate LeBron James.
For the most part, reporters stopped asking them — angering Irving midway through an availability was a great way to ensure nothing else useful would come of the session, and other storylines abounded throughout the season.
On Tuesday, prior to Celtics practice, Irving opened up a bit regarding his time in Cleveland and how he saw himself alongside James.
“I wasn’t the face of the franchise,” Irving said, when asked about his experience as the main player in Cleveland his rookie season. “They made that very clear. I was just a great piece in Cleveland, which I gratefully accepted. …
“I was just a great piece, a great piece. They weren’t giving me the keys to the franchise. They weren’t. I was too young, man. I didn’t deserve them. But after I while I felt like I earned it, and I took a lot of that responsibility on myself. Still wasn’t ready to do it, but learned a lot from that point to be at this position now.”
Irving may have been exaggerating a bit — he was the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, and a clear star on a team bereft of them after James’ first exit. But when James returned to the Cavaliers, it did appear that Irving was asked to take a big step back.
Irving was asked if he saw himself as James’ lieutenant on Tuesday.
“I didn’t really see it as that,” Irving said. “I saw it as a point in my career where I could grow. I took as much knowledge as I could and moved on with my career. From that point I learned a lot about myself and how much of a competitor I am. The biggest thing when I see the young guys we have here is how young I was. The experience component — I had to learn a lot about the game of basketball like being with LeBron, being with Mike Miller, being around veterans like that is when I went from being one of the youngest to being one of the oldest. Whether it was lieutenant, sergeant or whatever you want to call it with LeBron, being around him with basketball knowledge and all of the other veterans was something we needed. I was my fourth year in, just signed a $90-million contract, and for the most part I had just been taught roll out the ball and go play. That was the first time I had watch film, get ready for the playoffs, learn how to be competed against. I had become the hunted, and that was the biggest change.”
The Celtics have a deep team, with Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but Irving would be considered the face of the franchise by most observers. The Celtics clearly consider him a cornerstone going forward, and Irving has an opportunity to cement himself in the history of the franchise if he can lead the team to a championship.
That’s what the face of a franchise is expected to do.
“I think the important thing was just being happy and having an environment where I’m challenged on a physical level as well as mental,” Irving said on Friday. “I can get better as a basketball player — as a man — and grow here. I do have a dream of putting my number 11 in the rafters one day, if I’m so blessed to do that. Work my tail off. Obviously a lot of great players have come before me, but to grow my name in Boston Celtics tradition and history is something I’m glad I can do.”