After winning the NBA's Rookie of the Year award last season, Kyrie Irving has taken another step forward in his second season, averaging 23.5 points, 5.5 assists and 1.7 steals and making his first All-Star team. Though the Cavaliers' lackluster start has not helped, the first overall pick from 2011 has drawn a bigger following through a series of viral videos for Pepsi and Foot Locker. SI.com caught up with the 20-year-old star at the Foot Locker commercial debut.
SI: How did your first year in the NBA change you?
Kyrie Irving: Well, I definitely had to grow up. I was living in Cleveland by myself, so I had to learn to fend for myself and also get used to being on the road. I got as much advice as I could from LeBron [James] and CP3 [Chris Paul], but you can only give so much advice to a rookie; I had to go out and experience it for myself like they did.
SI: What was the hardest lesson you were forced to learn?
KI: How to take care of your body on a day-to-day basis. You have to realize you're an elite athlete now and people are paying to see you. Finance was also important. My dad handles my finances, but he always told me to be aware, so I always know what's going into my account. If you're unaware and you live life carelessly, that's when people go broke.
SI: You've said that your father is the toughest opponent you've ever faced on a basketball court. What sort of things have you learned from your father that you haven't learned in the NBA?
KI: Probably my work ethic, honestly. My dad laid out the foundation, the necessary skills that I needed to be a successful point guard or a shooting guard. I have the ability to play both positions and I get that from my father. He allowed me to work on my own. I was by myself most of the time out on the court in my backyard, and I learned to get used to playing with different mentalities.
SI: Do any lessons your father taught you go through your head on the court?
KI: Yeah. The mantra I live by is humble and hungry. You always want to make sure that you're never complacent because I feel that complacency leads to failure. You always have to have that hunger to be the best.
SI: What was the biggest eye-opener for you on the court as a rookie?
KI: You realize you're on the court with a lot of really good people that play the game. They can be the 15th player off the bench or the first starter; they're there for a reason, they've worked hard to get there and you can never take their game for granted. That 15th guy could have a 20-point night. That's why you always have to play every possession like it's your last.
SI: Take me through a possession. What are you looking to do with the ball?
KI: I'm just looking for the right play, what's the best play for us to get a good shot every time down, whether it's me shooting or me making a play for my teammates. You have to think about which guy is hot and where guys like to get the ball. Also, you need to think about where are their spots on the floor; you always have to understand that.
SI: When did you realize you were a good enough point guard that you could make a living at this?
KI: When I got to the NBA. Your whole life you're playing against the Chris Pauls and Russell Westbrooks in your head, and when you finally get there and prove that you can actually play with them, and you're successful, that's when you feel that you belong. That's when I got it, in my rookie year.
SI: Players work on their games over the summer, but you suffered a broken right hand in the Las Vegas Summer League. How did that affect your offseason?
KI: I worked on left-hand floaters and my left-hand shots and utilizing my left hand from different spots on the floor. I also worked a lot on my mid-range game.
SI: You've suffered a handful of injuries that have taken you out of action in your first two years. Do you think you might have to change your approach to stay on the court a bit more?
KI: No. Playing that way has got me this far, so I'm going to continue that way.
SI: Both your coach, Byron Scott, and you have talked about the importance of becoming a better leader. How do you do that?
KI: You have to earn your teammates' respect, and I feel like I have that. I hold myself accountable and they should hold me accountable, and I hold them accountable, too. We all have high expectations of each other and we should never drop those.
SI: Why has Coach Scott been so successful with point guards, from Jason Kidd to Chris Paul to you?
KI: He's the best player-coach in the league. You have a guy who's won three championships; he knows what it takes to be great on both ends of the floor. So having a player-coach who understands that, what it's like to be a player, what we go through mentally and physically, it's easy to play for him.
SI: Do you feel a burden playing in Cleveland in the post-LeBron era?
KI: Coming in I felt like I had to gain the fans' respect. LeBron did great things for the city, regardless of what anybody says. He brought them back to their winning ways. When he left, there was a lot of bad tension and a lot of bad blood, but in coming in, I tried to be the new face and be the new light and we're doing that now. Our first game we sold out, the second game we almost sold out as well, so I think the fans are starting to believe in us again and that's a great thing. I get stopped often in the city and I can tell that the fans have a belief and trust in this new Cavs team.
SI: What would some of those people be surprised to learn about you?
KI: That I have an open personality. When people ask for pictures or ask for autographs, I'm not a rude guy; I'm a normal person just like everybody else. I think some people create that barrier just because they play in the National Basketball Association, but I'm not like that. Basketball doesn't define me and it never will.
SI: You've created a bit of a buzz with your Uncle Drew ads that show a playful side. Is that the kind of image you want to portray?
KI: It's not more or less playful. It's me just being myself. The director never had to ask me to act to be something I'm not. Still, I'm a hard worker regardless, and I feel like my play demonstrates a whole different side of my personality. When I'm off the court it's a totally different mindset than when I'm on the court, and I like to separate that.
SI: How is your on-court demeanor different?
KI: Do everything possible to win. Do anything for my team and have that will to win.