So a few months ago, during one of Duke’s offseason pickup games, it was easy to understand why Nolan Smith did a double-take when he was given an order by Kyrie Irving.
Actually, make that freshman Kyrie Irving.
“Get out of the way,” Irving yelled at Smith as he streaked past half-court and raced toward the basket. “Move out of the way. I got it.”
More than a month later, Smith chuckled when recalling the story after Wednesday night’s 84-79 victory over Michigan State.
“You don’t really hear that too often – a freshman telling two seniors on the wing to get out of the way,” Smith said. “But we’ve got no problem sitting back and letting him do it, because we know he can.”
Indeed, Irving has proven that in his short time at Duke.
It began during players-only scrimmages in a dimly-lit gym and then carried over to supervised workouts under the watchful eye of Hall-of-Famer Mike Krzyzewski. Now, in front of an entire nation, Irving has blossomed into the top point guard in all of college basketball.
Anyone who questioned that before certainly won’t after Wednesday, when the 18-year-old Irving turned in one of the top performances by a freshman in Duke history by scoring 31 points and dishing out four assists in the top-ranked Blue Devils’ win over No. 6 Michigan State.
Thirty minutes after the final horn, Irving shrugged off his gaudy stat line as he lounged in a chair in the Blue Devils’ locker room.
“This was a big game for me,” he said. “But I try to do that every night.”
That’s what makes Irving – and, in turn, this Blue Devils’ team – so special. He could put up those kinds of numbers in just about every game Duke plays. But after just seven college games and a handful of practices, Irving understands the big picture.
Smith and National Player of the Year candidate Kyle Singler are future first-round draft picks who played an integral role on a team that went 35-5 en route to winning last season’s NCAA championship. Emerging power forward Mason Plumlee is one of the most athletic, skilled post players in the country, and reserves Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry give the Blue Devils two of the game’s top threats from beyond the 3-point arc.
Instead of trying to outshine his teammates, Irving grasps the importance of involving them. It may sound like a small thing, but that sort of maturity impresses NBA scouts more than highlight-reel dunks and behind-the-back-passes. It’s also the reason fans and media members are wondering aloud whether Duke can become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to go undefeated.
“When I came here I was just trying to find my place on this team,” Irving said. “I didn’t know how close a team could be until I came here. We’re definitely a brotherhood. The trust around here is really special. It’s made everything so much easier for me.”
Irving may be a different type of point guard than former No. 1 picks John Wall and Derrick Rose, but he’s every bit as valuable to his team. Not just because of what he does during games, but because of how Irving carries himself when the cameras are off and the stands are empty.
“He’s one of the best point guards I’ve ever seen,” Smith said. “He’s very coachable. He loves being on the court with us. Whenever I have something to say to him, he looks me in the eyes and listens. He’s been a great teammate.
“But he’s on a different level as far as confidence. We know there are going to be games where he’s just going to go – and we’re going to follow him.”
Wednesday was one of those games.
Michigan State took a 17-15 lead on 3-pointer by Korie Lucious with 11 minutes remaining in the opening half. Irving, though, responded with back-to-back three-point plays to put the Blue Devils ahead 21-17. Michigan State tied the game three more times during the opening period but could never take the lead.
Irving, who was often guarded by Michigan State standout Kalin Lucas, scored 18 of his 31 points in the opening half. The game was the second-straight banner showing for Irving against a big-name opponent. Last week he had 17 points and six assists against Kansas State and preseason All-American guard Jacob Pullen.
“I need that, especially this early in the season,” Irving said. “You can’t go out there intimidated or they’re going to take advantage of you.”
Opposing guards are probably thinking the same thing about Irving, who continues to draw praise from his coaches and teammates for being such a sponge during workouts.
“It’s scary,” Smith said. “He still wants to learn.”
Krzyzewski has always emphasized structure. But with Irving things are slightly different. Krzyzewski said he wants Irving to “follow his instincts” at times. He said he’s given him the freedom to make reads instead of always running set plays.
“We’ve changed the way we play because of him,” Krzyzewski said.
Duke scored 84 points against the Spartans. Last year, with Jon Scheyer running the point, Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils would’ve tallied about 63.
The new, fast-paced style has led to plenty of smiles in the locker room – and in postgame press conferences. The normally stoic Krzyzewski was in such a good mood after this win that he cracked a joke when asked to think of a word that best describes his freshman point guard.
“I’m not a big adjective guy,” Krzyzewski said.
He paused for a moment, then smiled.
“Sensational, scintillating,” he said. “Was that not a good attempt by me – a guy with a low SAT verbal [score]? Jesus Christ, I’m using up all my words.”
Save a few, coach. You’re going to need them.