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Irving trying to rediscover role
Kyrie Irving missed 3 ½ months, a total of 26 games and has practiced just three times since returning from a toe injury that nearly cost him the remainder of the season.
But people want Kyrie to be Kyrie.
“That’s not going to happen,” Duke’s star freshman point guard admitted shortly after scoring 11 points in Sunday’s 73-71 win over Michigan. “I’m not going to be myself right away. I’ve been away too long.”
There are fleeting moments in which Irving resembles the player who once made the Blue Devils appear invincible, the first eight games of the season when he was literally doing it all.
Like when he buried arguably the most critical field goal of the game, an 8-foot floater with 32 seconds left that gave the Blue Devils a 72-69 lead over the Wolverines.
“For him to be put in that position and make that shot, that’s a heck of a thing for that kid,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Duke advanced to the Sweet 16. “We wouldn’t be going forward if he didn’t play today.”
But there were plenty of other times when he appeared tentative and the offense appeared stagnant — such as was the case just a minute or so prior to his floater when the ball stuck in his hands too long and Duke was called for a shot clock violation.
“It’s awkward for him, trying to fit in,” Irving’s father, Drederick, admitted after the win. “These guys have played 25 or so games without him. He’s still trying to find his place again.”
Irving was thrust into action on Friday and logged 20 minutes in a rout over No. 16 seed Hampton. He looked rusty early, but wound up with 14 points.
This was to be expected. Again, here’s a kid who hadn’t done anything for more than three months.
Against Michigan, he came off the bench again, was on the court for 21 minutes and finished with 11 points – nine of them coming from the charity stripe.
He only made one field goal, but it was a huge one that just might carry over through the rest of the NCAA tournament.
“To me, he’s been phenomenal,” Duke assistant Chris Collins said. “He’s not himself, but to make that shot when everybody tightened up in the final minute. Just think about the poise he showed.”
Now Irving will get more practice time this week in hopes of inching his way closer to 100 percent.
Duke has essentially bought him more time, but there isn’t all that much time left this season – and maybe in Irving’s college career.
“I’m confident,” said Irving, who is the front-runner to be the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft if he opts to leave school after a year. “If I wasn’t confident, I wouldn’t have taken that shot.”
Irving said it’s a combination of the layoff and that he doesn’t want to step on anyone’s, yes, toes.
“I don’t want to be over-aggressive either,” he said. “My instincts are a little slower and I’m just trying to work myself back in.”
He understands the expectations are high and some anticipated him returning without missing a beat, but he has taken a different approach – a realistic one.
“I have to be real with my expectations,” he said.
“It’s a gradual process,” added his father, a former college basketball player at Boston University who played overseas. “It’s about the mind and the body being on the same page.”
What is back is Irving’s smile, the one that had disappeared the past few months while he could only sit and watch his teammates.
Irving is a part of the team again — and he’s content with not being the old Kyrie.
“It’s a good problem to have when you’re trying to figure out how to integrate Kyrie Irving into what you’re doing,” Krzyzewski said.
It’s a great dilemma. Just as long as you don’t run out of time.
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