In his first public comments since rejoining the Brooklyn Nets, Kyrie Irving admitted he missed basketball while he was away from the team and says he is nervous as he approaches his season debut.
Irving, who only recently exited the league’s health and safety protocols, practiced with his teammates for the first time since one week of training camp in San Diego in early October.
How did Kyrie get to this point and what does his return mean for the Nets, who currently lead the Chicago Bulls by one and a half games in the Eastern Conference?
Why hasn’t Kyrie Irving been playing?
With New York City mandating that players get vaccinated in order to play at the Barclays Center, the Nets decided against having Irving play as a part-time player, only appearing in road games and practices.
The mandate dictated that Irving would not be able to participate in over half of the team’s games, as 43 of the Nets’ 82 games are held in New York City this season. In addition, NBA players who are unvaccinated against COVID-19 are also not allowed to travel to and from games in Canada.
In early December, the league sent out a memo to teams warning them that as of January 15, 2022, those players who have not received the vaccine and do not have approved medical or religious exemptions will not be allowed to travel to games against the Toronto Raptors.
Just prior to the season tip-off, in a statement, Nets GM Sean Marks said the team would proceed their season without Irving.
“Given the evolving nature of the situation and after thorough deliberation, we have decided Kyrie Irving will not play or practice with the team until he is eligible to be a full participant. Kyrie has made a personal choice, and we respect his individual right to choose. Currently, the choice restricts his ability to be a full-time member of the team, and we will not permit any member of our team to participate with part-time availability.”
In his press conference with the media, Irving said he empathized with the Nets in regard to their decision.
“I really had to sit back and think and try not to become too emotionally attached to what they were deciding to do,” he said. “I had to really evaluate things and see it from their perspective, meaning the organization, my teammates. I really empathized and I understood their choice to say if you are not going to be fully vaccinated, then you can’t be a full [participate].”
Why did the Nets bring Kyrie Irving back?
A surge in COVID-19 cases within the NBA resulted in the Nets making the decision to welcome back their All-Star point guard, even as a part-time player. At one stage, the Nets had up to 10 players in the league’s health and safety protocols and even had three of their games postponed in a week due to a lack of players fit to suit up.
Brooklyn opted to bring back Irving for their road games, but just one day later, he also entered COVID protocols.
Irving, teammates Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge were all cleared from protocols and ruled eligible to practice this week.
When will Kyrie Irving make his season debut?
The earliest Irving can make his season debut is Jan. 5 when the Nets travel to Indiana. The team has three home games – which Irving is ineligible to play in – prior to that game. Their next road game after Indiana is Jan. 12 at Chicago.
That won’t be the only hurdle Irving will have to overcome, either. He’ll also have to get his conditioning back to an NBA level.
Irving says he was working out in middle school and high school gyms while away from the NBA, but this week was his first week facing NBA talent again.
“I’m at peace with the ramp-up,” said Irving. “But I can’t sit here and sugarcoat it…. I am just looking forward to that first game whether it be kind of [Jan. 5] or somewhere after that, however, I can get back in shape at an optimum level and be productive, that is what I am aiming on.”
Head coach Steve Nash said he thought Irving looked good for a guy who hasn’t played much basketball recently.
“He looks great considering he just came out of protocols and hasn’t played basketball,” Nash told reporters. “How does he recover from today? How many high-intensity [practices] does he need to feel comfortable, confident?”
How much better are the Nets with Kyrie Irving?
Given the talent on the Nets’ roster, Brooklyn is a championship contender even without Irving. But with him, they become title favorites.
Irving played in 54 regular season games for the Nets last year and averaged 26.9 points, 6.0 assists and 4.8 rebounds. Both Harden and Durant wanted Irving back and now they have him – albeit part-time. Irving believes that as long as the three of them are available to play, the Nets’ championship window will remain open.
“We have a lot more left in the tank,” Irving said. “But obviously our age between us three, us being at a certain level of mastery in this game, it is only going to last for a certain amount of time. We wanted to strike while the iron is hot.”