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NBA Draft heads into a great unknown

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 23, 2011

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NEW YORK — Not since high school players were allowed to go directly into the NBA Draft has there been more mystery surrounding the No. 1 overall pick.

Duke point guard Kyrie Irving handles a barrage of questions like a pro, even though he is just 19 years old. The Cavaliers are expected to take Irving first overall tonight, a sure sign that the franchise is ready to move forward from the LeBron James fiasco.

Irving has all the characteristics of a franchise player: He is polished, mature, and talented.

But if you spent your November watching college football or the Celtics and Bruins, you probably missed most of Irving’s college career.

He played in just 11 games, eight before a ligament injury to his right big toe cost him the rest of the regular season. He returned for the NCAA Tournament to boost the Blue Devils’ chances of repeating as national champions, and he dropped 28 points in what would be his final college game, a loss to Arizona in the regional semifinals.

Shortly thereafter, Irving declared for the draft. He is considered an impact player, but the immediacy of that impact is unknown. Is he a Chris Paul, a Derrick Rose, a John Wall, or a Deron Williams? They seasoned their games enough during college to gain a reputation.

Eleven games provide only a taste of Irving’s potential, but in a weak draft, that’s enough to go first.

“It feels surreal knowing that last summer I was in the gym every single day working out [to prepare for college],’’ said Irving, who models his game after Paul and Chauncey Billups. “I just had to adjust to taking care of my body and the 82-game schedule and knowing I do this for a living now. But this is something I have dreamed about.

“I think everybody’s going to have questions knowing I didn’t play as many games as everyone else in this draft. It just shows that a lot of teams believe me, and honestly the mock drafts don’t mean anything until draft night.

“It’s all about what the team needs, and if a team is willing to take me at No. 1, I think it will be a great decision.’’

Irving was highly rated coming out of high school in New Jersey, raised by his father Drederick, a former Boston University guard who led the Terriers to the NCAA Tournament in 1988.

One of Irving’s goals as a youngster was to make the NBA, but another was to earn his college degree, something he has promised to do in the next five years.

His focus has impressed the Cavaliers, the only team he has worked out for. At 6 feet 4 inches and 191 pounds, he has an NBA body, plus solid passing skills and the ability to dive into the paint. There have been comparisons to Paul, but he bristles at the notion that he is expected to fill the LeBron void in Cleveland.

“I am not the next LeBron; my name is Kyrie Irving,’’ he said. “I’m not really concerned about filling that void that everyone speaks about if I do go to Cleveland.

“I just want to help whatever team I go to. I have played that dream in my head of getting my name called. That plays over and over in my mind.’’

In some ways, Irving is the poster child for the weakness of this draft, which is filled with unknowns, underclassmen who may have left prematurely, and overseas wonders who may not translate to the NBA.

The shallow talent pool and the threat of a lockout have added unpredictability to tonight’s proceedings. This will be the league’s last official function before it potentially shuts down.

This rookie class won’t have a summer league to gain experience because that has been canceled. And there are many NBA veterans milling about the city, meeting with Players Association executive director Billy Hunter as they prepare for tomorrow’s pivotal negotiating session with the league.

Just five days after commissioner David Stern calls the names of the draftees, he could announce a lockout at the NBA Board of Governors meeting in Dallas.

But for now, Irving is living a dream, as are the rest of the potential draftees. For at least one night, they will represent an NBA team.

The Cavaliers have been shopping veteran Baron Davis to make room for Irving to start right away. And just three months after his 19th birthday, he may be depended on to lead Cleveland out of the abyss.

“All of my goals remain the same, they just have a higher standard,’’ he said. “It’s an honor to be in this role.

“This is a youthful league. Derrick Rose won the MVP just three years into the league, and I feel like I have a lot to offer. I just have to stay focused and grounded.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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