Kyrie Irving's evolution from basketball pupil to professor

A. Sherrod Blakely
NBC Sports Boston

Kyrie Irving's evolution from basketball pupil to professor originally appeared on nbcsportsboston.com

BOSTON -- Kyrie Irving came into the NBA with lofty expectations, the kind that can only be realized by going against and eventually outplaying the established great guards of that time. 

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The 26-year-old, six-time All-Star has by all accounts ascended to the short list of elite point guards in the NBA, more accomplished than any player from his 2011 draft class. 

And so these days we find Kyrie Irving the pupil more so in the role of Kyrie Irving the basketball professor, leading and teaching the next generation of NBA playmakers by example. 

Irving isn't the least bit coy about letting it be known how much he enjoys facing the next great playmakers in the NBA who look to him both as an example of someone they want to learn from but also someone they want to ascend past basketball-wise.

"That makes it fun," Irving said. "That makes it worth it, going out there playing against those guys. Obviously it's a challenge for them. Obviously, they see me in a certain light, I see them. I've been watching those guys for a while. To have that kind of competitive spirit, I love it."

Irving has recently gone toe-to-toe with a couple of upcoming star playmakers in Sacramento's De'Aaron Fox and Atlanta's Trae Young

Fox had a near triple-double of 19 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in Boston's 126-120 win over Sacramento.

And Irving?

He wound up with his second career triple-double, scoring 31 points to go along with 12 assists and 10 rebounds. 

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Irving faced another up-and-coming guard in Atlanta's Trae Young on Saturday night. 

Young looked really good in finishing with 26 points, four rebounds and four assists. 

And Irving? 

He came within an assist of a second straight triple-double as he tallied 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. 

Knowing Irving, it should not come as a shock that he goes at young, up-and-coming talent similar to how he approached matchups in his early years in the NBA against the likes of Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Steve Nash. 

"As you grow and go from different levels; high school, college, NBA ... now everybody is on an even playing field," Irving said. "Now you have to show why you're here."

Being more of a professor than a pupil these days is something Irving enjoys. 

And while he enjoyed the battles against established, proven All-Star caliber playmakers when he first came into the league, Irving recalls how challenging it was to separate from a largely talented pack of players at or around his level in terms of experience and talent. 

"Steph (Curry) was ascending, Russ (Westbrook) was ascending, … Klay (Thompson) went to Golden State, John (Wall) went number one, I went number one, so it was very competitive in terms of who was going to come out as the best," Irving said.

Irving recalls there being a tremendous amount of fluctuation as far as who the top-5 point guards in the NBA were at that time. 

"It just starts to shift as we all get older," Irving said. "And the young guys are coming for my spot. I'm watching them as well, just like I was coming for CP (Chris Paul); CP was my favorite player before I came into the league. So seeing him work and do great things on the floor was special for me, going against him was even more special."

As memorable as those early battles with proven All-Stars were for Irving, there's one foe - Jose Calderon - who serves as Irving's "welcome to the NBA" moment. 

"Coming into the league, I got people like Jose Calderon busting my ass!" Irving recalled. "I still can't believe that (expletive)."

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In Irving's first game with Cleveland against Toronto, Calderon had 15 points and 11 assists while Irving tallied six points on 2-for-12 shooting and seven assists as the Raptors came away with a 104-96 victory.

"Around that time, 2011, he was a great piece for them," Irving said of Calderon. "I held on to that. Every time I see him to this day, I'm still going at him. You try to spark motivation in guys when you go against them."

And Monday's game will indeed be one where Irving, while still in the mode of teaching, will be looking to dole out a few lessons to Denver's Jamal Murray, who had his best game as a pro in defeating the Celtics 115-107 on Nov. 5. 

In the win over Boston, Murray had a career-high 48 points. 

However, he drew the ire of Irving late in the game when he launched a 3-point attempt in an effort to score 50 points after the game had essentially been won. 

Irving took the ball after the miss and once the final horn sounded, Irving tossed the ball into the stands, drawing a $25,000 fine

"No disrespect to the Boston organization and fans with that shot … I just had in my mind that I was going to go 50," Murray told reporters afterwards. "And I think everybody kind of understood that was what I was trying to do."

After calling it a "bull(expletive) move" on Murray's part after the game, Irving doubled down on that sentiment afterwards. 

"From a competitive standpoint, I think (the ball) absolutely deserved to go into the stands," Irving told reporters. "You just don't play basketball like that, and it's as simple as that. You just don't. There's a tradition and a respect within the league as well as within any basketball game. Obviously you've won the game, have it sealed, had a great game - the game of your life - and then you do something like that. It's just petty, it's immature. But we'll see him again though."

Following Saturday's win over the Hawks, Irving's focus had shifted towards Denver. 

"Coming up on Denver on Monday, I haven't forgotten what we did up in Denver," Irving said. "I'm looking forward to that."

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