Irving talks to reporters after being selected with the No. 1 pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers during the NBA Draft. (Photo: AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Kyrie Irving didn't know if he was going to be the No. 1 pick until NBA commissioner David Stern called his name.
"I was as surprised as anyone," he said.
You're going to Cleveland, kid.
Moving further away from LeBron James' maddening departure, the Cavaliers selected Duke's versatile point guard with the top pick in Thursday's draft, an expected-and-safe selection for a franchise that had to endure a 63-loss season after being abandoned last July by James short of a championship.
Irving played only 11 games last season for the Blue Devils because of a toe injury, but that didn't scare off the Cavaliers, who strongly considered Arizona forward Derrick Williams before settling on the 6-foot-2 Irving, the class of what is considered one of the weakest drafts in years.
"He was No. 1 on our board all season long," said Cavaliers coach Byron Scott. "He's definitely the guy. What I like about Kyrie is that he's an intelligent player. He has a very good understanding about what the game is all about, and very good understanding about what he is about as well."
Irving is the third point guard taken first overall in the past four years, joining John Wall, who went to Washington in 2010 and Derrick Rose, chosen by Chicago in 2008. In a league being dominated by backcourt stars, the Cavs are counting on Irving to become an elite playmaker and Cleveland's newest star.
He's up for the challenge.
"It's something that I've been dreaming about for a while," Irving said on a conference call from New Jersey. "I know they'll embrace me. I just want to bring a lot of wins to the city of Cleveland."
One summer after James' decision, the Cavaliers are making all the choices.
After taking Irving, the Cavaliers used the No. 4 pick on Texas forward Tristan Thompson, a selection that was viewed as a bit of a surprise. The team was reportedly interested in Lithuania center Jonas Valanciunas, but may have been turned off by his uncertain contract situation with a pro club in his home country.
The 6-foot-8 Thompson, who is from Toronto, only played one year with the Longhorns, averaging 13.1 points and 7.6 rebounds.
Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant was thrilled to land both Irving and Thompson.
"They're the two best talents and two best humans that fit our team," Grant said. "The further we went along in the process, the higher they went up."
Thompson's addition could mean the Cavaliers, who also have the Nos. 32 and 54 picks, are seriously shopping power forward J.J. Hickson, an immense physical talent who has shown flashes of stardom but whose on-court lapses frustrated Scott last season.
Thompson has been friends with Irving since they were in high school, and he's excited about the chance to play with someone he considers a brother.
"I think we'll complement each other real well," Thompson said.
For the Cavaliers, this draft signals the start of a new era — one they hope will someday end with owner Dan Gilbert being handed the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
There's still a lot of work to be done, but in the 19-year-old Irving, the Cavaliers believe they have the player who can take them back to where James had them before bolting as a free agent.
Irving has drawn comparisons to New Orleans guard Chris Paul, one of the league's premier playmakers and a player Scott coached with the Hornets. In Cleveland, Irving will join a crowded backcourt, which already includes guards Baron Davis, Ramon Sessions and Daniel Gibson.
Irving's excited about the prospect of being groomed by Davis, who came to Cleveland last February in a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers.
In the second round, the Cavaliers selected Richmond forward Justin Harper before trading his rights to Orlando for second-round picks in 2013 and 2014. With their final pick, they took Serbian forward Milan Macvan, whom Grant described as one of "the toughest, nastiest forwards I've seen."
The Cavaliers kept their draft plans under lock and key. They closed their player workouts to the media and Grant adopted a bunker mentality in the days leading up to the event. He may be feeling extra pressure to get it right for Gilbert, who famously predicted his team would win a title before James does.
There was no margin for error, which is why the Cavaliers took their time before finally settling on Irving. Cleveland was the only team he worked out for, and when he visited, the Cavaliers put him through a grueling 2½-hour workout and did extensive medical tests to make sure his foot was fully healed.
During his visit, Irving took on Scott in two shooting contests, with each winning one.
"He probably won't admit it," Irving said. "He won the second one — by luck."
Scott disputed Irving's claim.
"I had to let him win one," Scott said, laughing.
Besides Irving's physical gifts, the Cavaliers were also impressed with his character. Before anointing him as the next face of the franchise, Cleveland wanted to minimize its risk and make sure, as best as the Cavaliers could, that they were investing in someone the city could grow to love.
Gilbert has acknowledged making some mistakes with James, and is determined to avoid any future problems as he rebuilds his basketball team.
Cleveland fans are eager for the Cavaliers to get back near the top. James never delivered on his pledge to bring them a title, and then crushed their hopes and dreams last summer when he announced on his nationally televised special, dubbed "The Decision," that he was taking his talents to South Beach.
But the pain has subsided, and the Cavaliers are finally feeling like the worst is behind them.
Irving wants to take them forward.
"I really want to be the cornerstone," he said, "the piece of the team that they build around and have a lot of great players around."