Former Teammates Irving, Strickland in Sweet 16

NEWARK Kyrie Irving and Dexter Strickland played only half a season together at Elizabeth (N.J.) St. Patrick High School.

Yet in their short time together on the court, they made a historic impact.

The duo led the Celtics to the New Jersey Tournament of Champions title in 2009, the school’s third in four years under head coach Kevin Boyle.

Strickland, a natural shooting guard, then went off to North Carolina to play point guard.

A year later, Irving landed at arch-rival Duke, where he has ascended to become the potential No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.

Their short careers have already taken several intriguing twists and turns. Yet with both teams in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, their friendship still runs deep, even as both play on opposite sides of Tobacco Road.

“Dexter and I speak all the time,” Irving said Wednesday in Anaheim, Calif., where Duke meets Arizona in a West Regional semifinal Thursday night.

“In fact, I spoke to him [Tuesday] night. [Being on Carolina and Duke], it’s been fine. Away from the court, he still is a good friend of mine. But when we’re on the court, we’re also competing. That rivalry is another thing … but our friendship, I don’t want to say it’s bigger than the rivalry, but I cherish it.”

POINT GUARD OR SHOOTING GUARD?

In the summer of 2007, prior to his junior season at St. Patrick, the 6-foot-3 Strickland attended both the Steve Nash and LeBron James Skills Academies.

A natural wing guard, he had played alongside Villanova-bound Corey Fisher as a sophomore. But with Fisher headed to Villanova that season, Strickland endeavored to improve his point guard skills.

“He was at the LeBron Camp in Ohio and he had some tremendous games, off just either getting the rebound or getting the ball in the backcourt and pushing the ball up the floor,” St. Patrick assistant Rae Miller recalled.

“And for that several schools, including North Carolina, got the idea that he may be able to converted to a point guard in college, which he still he has a chance to do over time.”

Even though Strickland was ranked among the top five point guards nationally in his class, Miller said he was always more of a natural off guard.

“Dexter is one of the best athletes we’ve ever had at St. Patrick, by far,” he said. “But what he does naturally is score the ball.

“If you’ve watched him in the AAU, you watched him in any one of his all-star teams, he’s always been a wing scorer. He’s tremendously athletic. He can get to the basket very quickly, can shoot open shots. That is clearly what he’s very, very comfortable doing all the time.”

When Strickland chose North Carolina over Michigan State and Florida in January 2008, he did so as a point guard because he was the lead guard at St. Patrick in between the Fisher and Irving Eras. Still, Boyle said he would evolve into a “combo guard” at Carolina.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams, having seen Strickland in the summer of 2007, clearly thought Strickland was coming to the Tar Heels as a point guard.

But Miller said Williams and the St. Patrick staff never talked specifically about playing Strickland more at the point.

“At no point did that discussion ever occur,” Miller said. “We’ve never had a coach come to us and ask us to play a guy at particular position to get him ready for college.”

IRVING CHANGES THE DYNAMIC

In May 2008, Irving announced that he would transfer to St. Patrick from Montclair (N.J.) Kimberley Academy, a small, lesser-known private school.

An under-the-radar star who had dropped 47 and 48 points, respectively, in two games, Irving would have to sit out 30 days, as per state regulations.

Once he did suit up, there wasn’t much question who would play the point.

Irving was a natural playmaker, and Strickland was able to slide to his natural wing position. Kevin Boyle Jr. also shared point guard duties.

“In my high school career, I played the one and the two and Dexter would move to the three or the two,” Irving said. “When I was out of the game, Dexter would sometimes move to the one. It was just a weird situation
that when I came to St. Pat’s at the time that Coach Williams wanted to play Dexter at the one, preparing him for the next level., But really, we shared time with that.”

The team jelled and was firing on all cylinders by the time it beat Science Park of Newark, 73-57, to win the Tournament of Champions. Irving had a coming out party with 26 points and Strickland 14.

It was in the wake of that game that Boyle made his now famous remark that Irving would eventually become the best guard ever to come out of New Jersey — better than Bobby Hurley, Dajuan Wagner, Shaheen Holloway or Randy Foye.

But Strickland also excelled.

“Dexter had a tremendous year that year,” Miller said. “He never had to worry about passing the ball to other people. What he did was score. He played as well as he possibly could.”

MOVING TO THE NEXT LEVEL

While Strickland had excelled as a shooting guard alongside Irving his senior year, he was expected to play the point when he arrived at Carolina in the fall of 2009.

The Tar Heels were coming off a national championship in which Ty Lawson was the floor general and Larry Drew hadn’t entrenched himself as the heir apparent.

“The year before that, when they won the national championship Drew was on the team and he didn’t really play,” Miller said. “I don’t think they were comfortable with Drew as the point guard to be someone that would be effective.”

The problem was, Strickland wasn’t entirely comfortable playing the point, either.

He averaged 5.0 points, 2.0 assists and 1.7 turnovers as Carolina failed to make the NCAA Tournament.

“People ask me, ‘Was it a waste of a year [last year]?’” Strickland said earlier this season. “It wasn’t a waste at all. My first year was really a learning process because I never played the one before.”

CAROLINA EXPRESSES INTEREST IN IRVING

Ironically, North Carolina initially expressed interest in recruiting Irving to play the point beginning this season.

“When Kyrie was a senior they wanted to recruit him but they had already committed to playing Dexter at the point,” Miller said.

“So that kind of made it very difficult for them to come back and then recruit the next guy at St. Pat’s the same year and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to bring you in as a point guard also. It just didn’t make sense.’”

Irving, of course, ended up choosing Duke in October 2009.

All of that prompted Williams to joke last summer that he was “mad” at Irving for his cumulative impact on the development of Strickland and the North Carolina and Duke programs.

“I’m really mad at Kyrie,” Williams said at the Peach Jam. “I don’t like Kyrie. I do laugh at that and say that with tongue in cheek.”

He added: “Kevin Boyle was going to play Dexter at the point his senior year and Dexter’s never played the point and I thought that’s what he was going to be in college.

“Kyrie goes in and so no longer is Dexter playing the point cause Kyrie’s so great,” Williams added. “I already told Kyrie, ‘You really made me mad. You played the point so Dexter didn’t get to do that and then you went to Duke too so you really made me mad.’”

IRVING EMERGES AT DUKE

Ironically, just as there were questions about who would play what position in the Irving/Strickland backcourt, some wondered how Irving and Duke senior Nolan Smith would coexist.

Those questions became magnified after Irving went down with a toe injury Dec. 4, allowing Smith to emerge into a National Player of the Year candidate.

Now that Irving is back and playing in the NCAA Tournament, some wonder how long it will take for him to fully jell with his teammates. He returned to score a team-high 14 points in the tournament opener against Wofford and then hit a the game-winning basket against Michigan for his only field goal of the game.

“I’ve read a few columns saying that they’re not sure how me and
Nolan are going to work, but it worked in the beginning of the season
— we were both averaging over 17 points,” Irving said. “I’m not a selfish player, he’s not a selfish player, so me integrating myself back into where
Nolan is as a player is going to be easy for me.

“I’m definitely going to run the offense, but primarily, he’s our scorer, he and Kyle. So in the beginning of the season, the goal was to get them shots and
also find my spot, so I’m going to do the same thing.”

FORMER ST. PAT’S STARS IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Strickland, meantime, has moved back to his old shooting guard spot now that Drew has left the team and freshman Kendall Marshall is entrenched at the point.

Strickland had 13 points, six rebounds and one turnover in Carolina’s 86-83 victory over Washington.

Carolina meets Marquette here Friday night in an East Regional semifinal at the Prudential Center.

As of Thursday, Miller was still trying to secure some tickets to see his former star play in person.

One thing’s for sure, Irving and Strickland have both persevered and thrived despite adversity. And Miller couldn’t be happier.

“Going to North Carolina and going to Duke, I knew that they both had a chance to be in the tournament every year,” Miller said.

“I was very disappointed this year that those guys didn’t get a chance to play against each other twice during the regular season, at least [because of Irving’s injury.

“But I always dreamed of watching those guys compete at the highest level. I think they’re both tremendous people and tremendous players.”

(Phil Chardis contributed reporting from Anaheim, Calif.; Photos courtesy The Star-Ledger and Irving Family)

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