Duke's Kyrie Irving shoots a 3-pointer during the team's open practice at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte. CHUCK LIDDY - firstname.lastname@example.org
CHARLOTTE – Shortly after announcing his return to Duke’s lineup, freshman guard Kyrie Irving stood on the wing firing up 3-pointers at Time Warner Cable Arena.
He was making them, so he backed up.
Irving hit two, three, four in a row. Soon his heels were out of bounds.
“Look out, Kyrie,” a fan shouted in amazement.
Then everything but Irving’s toes were out of bounds.
The scary thing for opponents is that Irving, who hasn’t played since injuring his right big toe on Dec. 4, said it will take a while to get his shot and ball skills up to snuff again. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said Thursday that Irving will play a limited and undetermined amount of minutes off the bench as the top-seeded Blue Devils (30-4) play host to No. 16 seed Hampton (24-8) in their NCAA tournament opener at about 3:15 p.m. Friday.
“The NCAA tournament is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Irving said. “Nothing is guaranteed in this tournament, and that’s what I like about it. I want to play on the big stage. I’ve always loved playing on the biggest stage.”
Krzyzewski said Irving will guard the opposing point guard defensively and will share point guard duties with senior Nolan Smith on offense.
Irving’s stamina isn’t great because he didn’t start practicing with the team until Tuesday, but Krzyzewski expects a smooth transition.
“He’s a really smart player,” Krzyzewski said. “The game comes easier to great players than other players, and this kid will be a great player. He won’t be a great player [against Hampton], but he’s got great talent and he’s got great character.”
Irving averaged 17.4 points and 5.1 assists over Duke’s first eight games before bending his toe back on a drive during a Dec. 4 win over Butler that improved the Blue Devils’ record to 8-0.
The ligaments connecting the sesamoid bones leading up to his toe were torn and needed time to heal, Irving said. He said he has an extra sesamoid bone leading to the big toe on his right foot that necessitates his wearing a specially developed shoe to prevent him from bending back his toe again.
But he said he is not afraid of reinjuring the toe.
Duke was 22-4 without Irving, who said he learned a lot about the game while watching from the bench. Krzyzewski originally said Duke was playing as though Irving would not return this season, but Irving recovered more quickly than expected.
Even those who didn’t watch Irving’s shooting exhibition during Duke’s open practice Thursday realized the significance of his return.
“Kyrie is one of those guys I just think is phenomenal,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. “I think he’s the closest thing to Isiah Thomas – not the Isaiah Thomas from Washington, but the Isiah Thomas from Indiana – that I’ve ever seen.”