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Vardon: Kyrie Irving is on a roll and he accepts that leader is his role

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Houston Rockets v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Joe Vardon has known Kyrie Irving since Vardon was a Cavs beat writer and Irving was a rookie in Cleveland.

So Irving opened up to Vardon, now with The Athletic, about leadership, in general and with the Nets. In so many words, Irving said actions speak louder than words, but he can articulate what it means to be a leader as well.

“True leadership comes from the way your actions speak,” Irving told The Athletic. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s just not trying to overemphasize what leadership means all the time and overexplain it, in terms of, ‘This is me as a leader.’ Because truth be told, there is not just one leader in the locker room.

“It’s a lot deeper when it’s just a team basketball game, and it’s just the realization of that.”

In the Nets locker room, with all the change —and limited preseason action— the pecking order is probably still a work in progress. As a result of his experiences —three appearances in the Finals, including the championship, and gold medals in the Olympics and FIBA World Cup— Irving has to be considered a natural choice for leader. Been there, done that and he knows it.

“I think at this point in my career, it’s just about doing whatever is needed,” Irving said. “I understand how special I am with the basketball in my hands and being at the top tier of scoring, and I think that I am capable of doing so. I don’t mind showing it for the rest of the season. It’s not even so much an individual goal, it’s something that James [Harden] is asked to do for his team and it’s something I’m going to be asked to do for my team this year.

“If [Kevin Durant] was playing and on the court, it would probably be a little bit different. But you just understand that whatever the game needs, you just give it.”

Irving of course has apologized for his lapses in leadership while in Boston. The experience seems to have made him more thoughtful about the challenge.

“I think it’s just the realization that I’m going to be one of the leaders, regardless (of) whether I want to come out and say it or not,” Irving said. “That’s part of the responsibility of being one of the best players on the team, is really taking responsibility for gearing up the guys, or utilizing your experience, or utilizing your talent, not just for your own scoring or not just for defense, but for rallying the guys. It’s just, when you come out and say it, you put a lot more emphasis on it.”

Although he apparently didn’t speak directly to Irving about the Jackie MacMullan story about his supposed moodiness, Vardon did speak with those around him.

Sources close to Irving expressed frustration with the report, especially since he is trying to not make the focus this season about what he says and does when he isn’t on the court.

In the meantime, Irving no longer feels he has to assert himself as Brooklyn’s “leader” the way he did in Boston because the responsibility to lead is already there given who he is.

The Nets, in both the MacMullan story or in its aftermath, have repeatedly said there is no unspoken concern, no queasiness about Irving. Kenny Atkinson, who multiple sources have said is very close to Irving, gone 180 degrees on the story.

“In Kyrie’s case, I watch every possession, every offensive possession and I think he’s making great decisions,” Atkinson said before the Rockets. game. Irving has exploded so far, setting team and NBA records for newness, and Atkinson expects that increasingly opponents will recognize the his place in the Nets system and compensate.

“I am sure we are going to see different coverages, more blitzes getting it out of his hand, but right now he’s making the right play,” Atkinson said. “Probably more so than anybody on the team. I think our issue has been other guys on the team making the right reads. I think he’s in a really good place. I think his understanding of the offense has been really good. I think the group around him can pick it up and we’ve got some guys who can play better than they are.”

At the moment, Irving is averaging 32.6 points 5.6 rebounds and 7.0 assists a game and shooting an efficient 46/44/90. His performance so far, as Vardon notes, is the best of his career.

[Kyrie] has 163 points through his first five games — one more than he scored in any five-game stretch over his previous eight seasons. They are also the most any non-rookie has scored in his first five games with a new team, besting the 153 points Kevin Durant scored when he began with the Warriors in 2016.

With the Nets win over the Rockets Friday night, the fallout from the MacMullan story and subsequent interviews has dissipated. A win over Detroit would bring the Nets to .500 and move things further away from the “unspoken concern,” etc. As leader, Kyrie will need to make it happen.