WASHINGTON, D.C. — The question elicited an immediate and emphatic, “Yes” response from Boston Celtics big man Al Horford. Then he repeated it three more times as if to really hammer it home.
Kyrie Irving had just pulled back the curtain a tiny bit and explained his desire to evolve as a leaders with the Celtics this season. So Horford, sage veteran on the roster, was asked if he had noticed any changes in Irving’s leadership this season.
And that elicited the four “yes” salvo.
"He’s really been there for us,” said Horford. "He’s really taking guys under his wing — very vocal, encouraging when he needs to be. He’s really embracing that role.”
From the outside, it’s always appeared that Irving is a quiet leader, the sort of player that others look up to both because of his obvious skill but also all that he’s accomplished in his young basketball career.
So it was interesting to not only hear Irving detail his desire to be a more vocal leader, which included him reaching out to some trusted advisors for guidance on how to best lead, but also to hear a teammate like Horford affirm just how much Irving has already evolved in the role.
"It’s an everyday job. It’s part of kind of the next step of evolution for me in my career, of just learning what that means for me and what type of leader I want to be,” said Irving. "I’ve reached out to a few people, just asked questions, learning more about how to kind of manage being in a group like this.
"That doesn’t just go for your teammate, it goes to how you communicate with the coaches, how you communicate with the organization, and just really getting across just being great and just being successful, without anybody feeling personal about you saying something honestly or feeling like you would add something to the team. It’s all communication and once you get past that aspect of it then you’re fine.”
Of course, Irving wasn’t going to pull back the curtain too far. Pressed on who he had reached out to, he — in very Kyrie fashion — wouldn’t reveal any identities.
"I will never tell you guys. Never tell you guys,” he said. "I like having a mystical wisdom feel, older board of people I like to go to.”
But he did reveal what they taught him.
"Patience. Patience. Patience,” said Irving. "Even for myself, I think at this point in my career it’s not necessarily about my skills or my talent, it’s more about how do I echo greatness to our group every single day and figure out what that looks like for us. That’s been the biggest challenge for me, is just being patient on that end. Really learning my teammates, I think I’ve learned my teammates in the past, but I think knowing them every single day and having fun coming to work is one of the most important things I can do for the rest of my career.”
Irving admitted that it was Boston’s early season struggles that left him searching for advice. As he noted, “Most of the time, you won’t ask for help when everything looks like it’s kind of going to be fine.” So as the Celtics searched for answers amid a maddening 10-10 start to the season, it was Irving who embarked on his own quest to figure out how he could get everyone back on the same page.
In the NBA, it’s often a team’s best player that is looked to as the leader of a group, but that’s not always a responsibility that a player desires. Irving seems to recognize that he has no choice. Even in a locker room where Marcus Smart can be a vocal presence and Horford can offer veteran guidance, it’s ultimately Irving that the players look to when things go awry.
"I think it’s a little unfair to have that responsibility but the ones that are meant for it are willing to accept it and figure out how they learn best leading a group and just being the best player,” said Irving. "It’s easy to go out and score 27 points, go get it and nothing else really matters and you’re just caring about yourself.
"When you have to care about a whole entire group, really depend on just learning who you’re playing with every single day, who is coaching you, that relationship, that’s far more important to me now that it is just being able to be the young guy fourth year in the league, fifth year or whatever, trying to get a bunch of points and assists and be in the top standings. As long as we’re winning and we’re up in the top of the teams and my teammates are feeling good, I’m happy.”
Maybe it was only natural that Irving needed a year to find the comfort to express his voice in Boston. Celtics coach Brad Stevens often implores all of his players to be leaders but clearly there’s a new comfort level for Irving in Year 2 that allowed him to embrace the leadership role a bit more.
“He’s always been good about [leadership],” said Stevens. "I think the other thing is that, when he first came in, I thought he did a great job of just kinda fitting in and making sure that everybody, 1 through 15, knows that he’s invested in them. And that’s all you can do from a leadership standpoint. It starts with being authentic, it starts with investing in people. Then you have a chance to go from there and he’s done all that stuff.”
Echoed Horford: "I think that last season this was new for him. He was getting to know our guys, he was getting to know what we were about. And yeah, he wasn’t as engaged as he is now. Like, now it’s night and day. He was still trying to lead us and things like that but it’s way different and it’s for the better of the group.”
The Celtics have won six straight, they are clawing their way back towards the top of the Eastern Conference, and they’re playing some of their most inspired ball during a stretch of games against lesser competition.
Irving has been sensational all season but his ability to keep the team united amid the early season struggles might be his biggest accomplishment. These young Celtics needs a leader who is comfortable expressing his opinions and guiding younger players. And it’s so very important that it comes from Irving given his elite status in the league.
For the Celtics to truly be great, they needed Irving to evolve as a leader. And he seems to be doing all he can to embrace and evolve in that role.
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