CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After a turbulent 48 hours in which he angered his coach and members of the organization while drawing his harshest public criticism as a pro, Kyrie Irving finally conceded Wednesday the frustrations of a long season caught up with him.
Now he’ll spend his summer in the weight room and working on his defensive game while understanding the importance of what it means to be entering his third year in the league.
“This third year can go left or right,” Irving said in the locker room before the season finale against the Charlotte Bobcats.
“This is the decision of where I want my career to go. That’s why it’s a big summer.”
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Irving mentioned Chris Paul and LeBron James as stars who entered the league on bad teams, then made the playoffs for the first time in their third season. After two years talking about growth and development, it’s clear what Irving’s goal is for next season.
“If you watch the other great players in this league, the first two years you get a grace period,” Irving said. “But now I’m going into my third year. I’m a third-year point guard. There’s no more lackadaisical effort game to game. It has to be consistent.”
Irving’s on-court struggles since his return from a shoulder injury and the overall frustration of consecutive losing seasons culminated in him walking off the floor Monday night and skipping the Fan Appreciation ceremony following the home finale.
Several people close to Irving have talked to him the past couple of days about professionalism and maturing, and it’s a message that seems to be taking hold, beginning with his public apology through his Twitter account Tuesday.
“I’m just growing as a person,” he said. “Not shooting well tonight, coming back and not being in my normal rhythm, it was a little frustrating. But I’m just learning game to game.”
Several people inside and outside the organization have noticed a sour change in Irving the past few weeks. He has committed silly mental blunders, he appeared to sulk at times and his on-court body language has eroded with every mistake made by a teammate.
He conceded he is still adjusting to the scrutiny and constant magnification that comes with being a star in the NBA.
“With 66 games last season, that wasn’t really enough and I don’t think everybody got to see me a lot,” he said. “Now that I’m on a bigger stage with this team and with my career, I’m getting used to it.”
Irving’s shooting percentage has declined dramatically as the season progressed. He averaged 23.5 points, shot 47 percent from the floor and 43 percent on 3-pointers in 42 games before the All-Star break.
In 16 games since the break, he averaged 19.8 points, shooting 41 percent and 33 percent on 3-pointers. The numbers are even worse in nine games since returning from the shoulder injury: 19.3 points, shooting 38 percent from the floor (31 percent on 3-pointers).
“It’s frustrating not being in the same rhythm that you were in at the beginning of the season or before I got hurt,” Irving said. “It’s just very frustrating when the extra work I put in just doesn’t translate to the games.”
Irving agreed with Cavs coach Byron Scott’s recent assessment that the upcoming summer is huge for his development. He knows he must get stronger to endure the pounding of a full season and has heard loud and clear the criticisms about his defense.
“That’s kind of the stigma on me right now,” Irving said of his defense. “I’ll take on the challenge and finish out this season and I know what I have to do this summer.”
Irving has won 30 percent of his games in two years with the Cavs, but he says he remains committed to the organization and turning the Cavs into a winner.
“It’s always going to be frustrating. I’m a winner. Everybody on our team is a winner,” Irving said. “When you’re losing game to game, you’re looking back on it and wishing you could’ve done this or that. It gets frustrating, but that’s part of growing. Especially in this league. We’re a young team, we have some ups and downs and we’re getting through it together.
“I love Cleveland. I love being here. When they drafted me and I first came in, the way the fans embraced me is what keeps me going, honestly. Just playing out there for them.”