Bulls

Kyrie Irving's USA Basketball transformation from 'a high school kid' to unquestioned leader

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Kyrie Irving's USA Basketball transformation from 'a high school kid' to unquestioned leader

Four years ago a 20-year-old Kyrie Irving stood toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant and challenged the game’s most feared player. Irving, then a member of the USA select team practicing against the 12-man squad headed to the London Olympics, wanted a 1-on-1 game against Bryant, the face of USA Basketball and a 33-year-old two years removed from winning his fifth NBA title.

Irving had reason to boast, even if his guarantee of beating Bryant was overzealous at best. He had just been named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year and appeared to be the face of a Cavaliers franchise still reeling from LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat two summers earlier.

Bryant sent back the playful trash talk, telling the rookie he’d have no chance of hanging with him. The two then shook on a $50,000 bet that Bryant said would go to his charity when, not if, he won. Bryant, the fiercest of competitors, then gave the closest thing to a compliment in Irving’s direction.

“Kyrie’s actually got some talent, so I entertain that conversation,” Bryant boasted. “He can play a little bit. A little bit, for a high school kid.”

That summer Bryant, along with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, ran through the field in London, earning the United States’ second straight gold medal in basketball. It would be both Bryant’s and James' final go-around at the Olympics that signified the ushering in of a new era for USA Basketball.

And as fate would have it, as Team USA prepares to defend its gold medal later this month in Rio, the fearless “high school kid” who just wanted to be taken seriously four years ago is showing that he may in fact be the next face of the world’s best basketball team.

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Venezuela guard John Cox, ironically enough Bryant’s cousin, spoke with the media following their 80-45 loss to the United States last Friday in Chicago. Cox, who scored a team-high 13 points, was asked about what makes Irving such a tough cover.

“Kyrie’s just extremely skilled. He’s a skilled point guard. Not just using his speed. He can shoot it, he can drive, he can dribble, he’s got a mid-range game,” Cox said. “He’s really confident, especially after this year.”

Specifically, after this summer. Irving missed the Cavaliers’ first 24 games while recovering from a broken kneecap suffered in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals, and struggled with consistency when he returned. But the 24-year-old showed no ill effects when the postseason rolled around. Irving looked like his old self as the Cavaliers cruised through the Eastern Conference, averaging 24 points and 5 assists.

His defining moment, however, didn't come until the Finals. With the Cavs trailing 3-1, on the brink of a second consecutive Finals loss, Irving put on an historic performance. In Cleveland’s Game 5 win over the Warriors, Irving became the second player in Finals history to score 40 or more points on 70 percent shooting or better. The other? Wilt Chamberlain in 1970.

Six days later he capped off a 26-point effort in Game 7 by connecting on a go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute to propel the Cavs to the unlikeliest of championships.

Irving said Friday his peers haven’t looked him at differently this summer now that he’s an NBA champion, the same way he didn't look at Draymond Green, Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes (now with the Mavericks) in a different light following Golden State’s 2015 title.

But where his confidence is at an all-time high because of his historic performances, the lessons he learned during that improbable Finals run have also helped him play on a team full of superstars.

“We understand what the process takes in order to win something bigger than yourself,” Irving said of himself and the champion Warriors. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life, so I just try to share the knowledge with (my USA teammates) as much as possible.”

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Even with Hall of Fame head coach Mike Krzyzewski leading the way, even with Carmelo Anthony, now competing in his fourth Olympic Games, the unquestioned veteran leader, Irving considers himself a leader. It’s an odd dynamic, given that Irving is the second youngest player on the team – Harrison Barnes is two months younger – but it's a role he's embracing, and one that's expected of him.

“It’s what we expect him to do,” Paul George said. “He’s our point guard.”

Irving will start at point guard on Aug. 6 when USA begins its pool play against China. And in doing so, he’ll be the youngest point guard to start for Team USA since NBA players began competing in 1992, when a 31-year-old Magic Johnson started for the Dream Team.

Since then, Gary Payton started consecutive Olympics at 27 and 31 years old, followed by Stephon Marbury (26 in 2004), Jason Kidd (34 in 2008) and Chris Paul (26 in 2012).

Irving is young, but don’t confuse youth with inexperience.

Irving starred two years ago in the FIBA Basketball World Cup. He averaged 12.1 points and a team-best 3.5 assists while playing a team-high 24.4 minutes, starting ahead of Stephen Curry and James Harden. He cemented his status with Team USA in the gold medal game against host Spain, scoring 26 points and being named MVP of the tournament.

Irving started all nine games, leading the charge for the Krzyzewski-led group. Irving played his lone collegiate season at Duke under Krzyzewski in 2010, and the two still hold a special relationship six years later. Irving said Krzyzewski has been a mentor to him, regularly texting him and giving words of encouragement when Irving went down in last year's Finals. The point guard said he has a different, "genuine relationship" with Coach K that most one-and-done players do not. That relationship was a major reason why choosing to play in the Olympics, despite his already strenuous summer, was an "easy decision."

Playing late into June for the first time in his career, Irving had just three weeks off in between the end of the Finals and the start of USA training camp. He averaged just 8 points on 40 percent shooting in Team USA’s first three games, games he referred to as “kind of some bulls---.” He looked more like himself in Chicago, scoring a team-high 13 points in 21 minutes, with a leg bruise suffered in that game keeping him out of Monday’s game against Nigeria.

As was the case in Spain two years ago, Krzyzewski will lean on Irving in Rio. The Americans are deep at most positions, but point guard isn’t one of them. The likes of Curry, Paul, Russell Westbrook, John Wall and Damian Lillard all opted against playing for Team USA, leaving Irving and Kyle Lowry as the team’s only true point guards.

But as Irving continues to acclimate with his team and prepares for Rio, he’s confident in his ability to lead a group destined for greatness.

“This is what I’ve been preparing for my whole entire life,” he said. “I’ve put myself in this position, working extremely hard. And having the confidence in my teammates as well as the coaching staff makes that job a lot easier.”

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Irving always believed in his game. He’s battled through two major injuries – and another in college – and become one of the premier point guards in the world.

After earning individual accolades in his first four seasons – Rookie of the Year, three All-Star berths, 2014 All-Star Game MVP, 2013 Three-Point Contest champ –  he capped off his fifth by winning an NBA title.

Now he has a chance to become the fourth player ever to win an NBA title and an Olympic gold medal in the same summer. The other three? LeBron James (2012), Scottie Pippen (1992, 1996) and Michael Jordan (1992). All before he’s old enough to rent a car.

“I didn’t know it was going to happen this soon, but honestly I’m glad it’s now,” Irving said. “I’m ready to live in the moment, ready to be in Rio with these great guys in the locker room. I’m just ready to go for gold.”

Irving never got that 1-on-1 game with Bryant. And he doesn’t think he’ll get it now that Bryant has since retired.

“Kobe’s making movies now and writing books,” Irving said with a laugh. “He’s doing whatever he wants to.”

The same could be said for Irving, who four years later is anything but a high school kid.

Ryan Hollins says Golden State Warriors would "run laps" around the '96 Bulls

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

Ryan Hollins says Golden State Warriors would "run laps" around the '96 Bulls

Former NBA journeyman Ryan Hollins made waves on Tuesday, stating that Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan couldn’t “fill LeBron’s shoes”. Hollins argues that LeBron James cemented himself as the greatest player of all-time with his impact on multiple franchises and his knocking off of the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals. 

Hollins doubled down on his argument, saying that the Golden State Warriors would “run laps around that Bulls team”. Shaquille O’Neal brings up the valuable point that whichever team has the upper hand would depend a lot on what rules they played on, the more physical 1990s rules or the more finesses-based and offensive-oriented current rule set. Hollins believes that the Warriors would defeat the 90s Bulls regardless of what rules they played under, and O’Neal simply could not believe it.

“Whoever’s paying him to say all this stuff, I will pay you double to stop it,” said a bewildered Shaq. He knows a thing or two about playing against the 90s Bulls, as he was a key member of the Orlando Magic team that knocked off MJ’s Bulls in six games in the 1994-95 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With All-NBA level talent Anthony Davis now headed to LeBron’s team, we could be seeing James back in the NBA title picture sooner than later. A return to the NBA Finals stage would add even more layers to the already complex, never-ending back-and-forth over who the true GOAT is in NBA history.

NBA Buzz: Expect a lot of movement at the start of Thursday's NBA Draft

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

NBA Buzz: Expect a lot of movement at the start of Thursday's NBA Draft

As we get closer to the New Orleans Pelicans going on the clock with the 1st pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, rumors are flying all over the basketball universe. All of a sudden, it seems like a handful of teams are trying to trade up to draft Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland, even though he only played five games as a freshman before season-ending meniscus injury. Remember, Kyrie Irving only played 11 games at Duke because of injury and still wound up being the No. 1 overall pick by Cleveland back in 2011.

The Knicks are planning to work out Garland on Wednesday, but it’s not believed they would take him over high-scoring Duke swingman R.J. Barrett with the 3rd overall pick. Apparently, the Knicks are just doing their due diligence in case they get an overwhelming offer to trade down. With that said, don’t be surprised if we see at least a couple trades involving the top 10 picks on draft night.

Here’s my final mock draft looking at what could happen in the lottery on Thursday.

  1. PELICANS-Zion Williamson, F, Duke.  No surprises here. New Orleans gets its franchise player to start a new era under Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin. Griffin is an extremely bright executive who made an excellent trade with the Lakers over the weekend, getting maximum value for unhappy star Anthony Davis.

  2. GRIZZLIES-Ja Morant, PG, Murray St.  Memphis also in rebuild mode after dealing Marc Gasol to Toronto at the deadline, with Mike Conley also likely to be traded this summer. Morant is the perfect player to build around with his play-making ability and charisma.

  3. KNICKS-R.J. Barrett, SG-SF, Duke.   The Knicks are holding a last-minute workout with Darius Garland, but that could just be to try to drive up better trade offers. Barrett’s scoring ability is a perfect fit for a team that desperately needs more scoring at the wing spots.

  4. HAWKS (trade w/New Orleans) -Jarrett Culver, SG, Texas Tech. Armed with 3 first round picks, the Hawks cash in No. 8 and No. 10 to acquire a perfect backcourt complement for last season’s rookie sensation Trae Young. If New Orleans decides to keep the pick, I still think Culver goes here.

  5. BULLS   (from Cavs)-Darius Garland, PG, Vanderbilt.  Bulls trade the 7th pick and a top 5 protected 2020 1st rounder to Cavs to acquire their point guard of the future. According to multiple reports, the Bulls have traveled to Los Angeles to watch Garland in a private workout, and they’ve been high on his potential since early in the college season. John Paxson is looking to make the team playoff relevant again, and acquiring Garland gives the Bulls a dynamic, young starting line-up with the chance to add a couple of quality veterans to strengthen the bench and the locker room in free agency.

  6. SUNS-Coby White, PG, North Carolina.  Phoenix also in desperate need of a point guard to run their young team. White’s speed and scoring ability should open things up for shooting star Devin Booker, and also set up screen and roll opportunities with last year’s No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton.

  7. CAVS-Cam Reddish, F, Duke.   Since the Cavs just drafted point guard Collin Sexton last season, moving down 2 spots to get the player they want anyway is a perfect trade scenario. Some scouts believe Reddish has the most star potential outside of the top 3, and he can step right into the starting small forward spot once held by Northeast Ohio’s favorite son LeBron James.

  8. PELICANS-Jaxson Hayes, C, Texas.  After trading Davis to Lakers, New Orleans has a major need to solidify the post position. Hayes is only 19 with excellent potential as a rim runner and shot blocker, ala Houston’s Clint Capela. The Pelicans will have to be patient with Hayes’ development, but he could eventually be a good fit playing alongside Zion and Brandon Ingram.

  9. WIZARDS-De’Andre Hunter, F, Virginia.  Washington will be thrilled to see Hunter fall this far. The Wizards are likely to lose both Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker in free agency, so they’ll need some reinforcements on the frontline. Hunter shot 52 percent from the field and 44 percent from the college 3-point line in leading Virginia to the national championship this past season. He should start immediately on a Washington team that will likely be without star guard John Wall for most of the 2019-20 season while he rehabs from an Achilles injury.

  10. ROCKETS (from Pelicans) -Rui Hachimura, PF, Gonzaga. Griffin probably doesn’t want to make three top 10 picks in a shallow draft, so he’ll send this selection to Houston for a future first-round selection. Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey is desperate to re-tool his roster after coming up short against the Warriors for the second straight season. Hachimura is a highly skilled power forward who will give Houston some needed scoring punch on the frontline.

  11. TIMBERWOLVES-Sekou Doumbouya, F, France.  Minnesota needs some frontline help with the likelihood of losing former Bull Taj Gibson in free agency. Doumbouya came on strong late in his European season and scouts like his potential as a 6-foot-9  athlete with a smooth stroke from 3-point range.

  12. HORNETS-Kevin Porter, Jr., SG, USC.   With the possibility of high-scoring Kemba Walker and shooting guard Jeremy Lamb leaving in free agency, the Hornets need some help in the backcourt. Porter is a dynamic athlete who could develop into a go-to scorer at the NBA level.

  13. HEAT-Keldon Johnson, SG-SF, Kentucky.  Johnson is moving up draft boards with strong showings in individual team workouts. Miami will be looking to replace the wing scoring they lost with Dwyane Wade’s retirement, and they’re also looking to trade oft-injured shooting guard Dion Waiters.

  14. CELTICS (from Sacramento)-Romeo Langford, SG, Indiana.  With the likely departure of All-Star guard Kyrie Irving in free agency, Boston will need to add some backcourt scoring to go along with young wing players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Langford shot poorly in his one season at Indiana, but he played most of the year with a torn ligament in his right thumb. He began the college season as a likely top 10 pick.

Purdue Carsen Edwards hoping to crack the first round 

The Bulls also currently hold the No. 38 overall pick, which they acquired from Memphis in the Justin Holiday trade. Don’t be surprised if the Bulls trade the pick or use it on a European prospect who might not come to the league for a couple of years like forwards Luka Samanic or Deividas Sirvydis. They also could take a chance on Missouri big man Jontay Porter (Michael Porter’s brother), who might not play next season after suffering a second ACL tear. Another possibility is a first round talent falling into the second round like Purdue’s high-scoring guard Carsen Edwards.

Edwards led the Boilermakers to the NCAA’s Elite 8, putting up a pair of 42-point games against Villanova and eventual national champion Virginia. "Every game we won I enjoyed it, you know, moving on. I was just happy to be able to play the next game. Kind of enjoying it, staying in the moment, but then also getting ready for the next game. I enjoyed it with my teammates because it wasn't just me who won all those games and got us on the run that we had. I feel that we enjoyed it and for the most part we did it as a collective team."

For the season, the 6-foot-1 guard averaged 24.3 points per game, reminding some scouts of former Bull Ben Gordon with his quick-strike scoring ability. His size would suggest playing point guard in the NBA, but like Gordon, Edwards is really an undersized shooting guard. Still, he’s willing to shift to a facilitator role if needed. "I just want to do whatever a team needs from me. They want me to prove that, which I'm working hard just to be able to be ready for that. But at the same time, Coach (Matt) Painter didn't tell me that's the role I need to play, so it's hard for me to prove that when I need to score the ball for my team to win. At the end of the day, I was trying to do what's best for my team. If they want me to be a point guard and run the offense, then that's what I'm prepared to do."

Until his scoring explosion in the NCAA tournament, Edwards was projected to be a second-round pick in this draft, but given the success of smaller scoring guards in the league like Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, and Damian Lillard, he could hear his name called somewhere in the 20s on Thursday. Still, Edwards isn’t wasting any time focusing on mock drafts.

"We'll see. There's a strategy we have for it, but for the most part, I'm trying not to focus on that. Honestly, I truly try not to look at those things. I just try to stay motivated by myself and do what I need to do. My agency has a strategy for me, and I just kind of work and follow after that."

Would the Bulls consider Edwards if he falls to 38? A lot depends on who they select in the first round and which players they plan to target when the free agent market opens at 5 p.m. on June 30. But the NBA has become a perimeter-based league--with 3-point shooting at a premium--so a player like Edwards figures to have a lot of value. Matter of fact, don’t be surprised if the Golden State Warriors pick him at 28 after losing Klay Thompson for most or all of next season due to an ACL injury.

The Big Ten won’t be getting a lot of attention in this year’s draft with only Romeo Langford and possibly Edwards expected to go in Round 1, but the Purdue star isn’t lacking confidence. After leading the Boilermakers within an overtime loss of reaching the Final 4, he plans of earning rotation minutes as a rookie for whichever team drafts him Thursday night.