INDEPENDENCE — Luol Deng is finishing his 10th NBA season. Jarrett Jack has been in the league nine years.
Both Cavaliers veterans are considered to be intelligent, hard-working players who understand the nuances of successful professional basketball.
Perhaps it should be a positive, then, that both expressed extreme confidence that young Cavs guards Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters can not only learn to play together, but prosper.
It might not happen tonight, when Cleveland concludes the season by hosting the Brooklyn Nets at Quicken Loans Arena, but it will happen soon, Deng and Jack firmly believe, if the 22-year-olds are given a bit more time and continue to mature.
“They’ve got to be willing to work together, even if it’s watching tapes together, watching with a coach,” Deng said Tuesday at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “We’ve shown they could play together. There’s times where we’ve looked great.”
There have also been times when Irving and Waiters have appeared to be taking turns with the basketball, rather than playing off one another and making each other — and their teammates — better.
A 111-99 loss to a bad and injury-plagued Boston team Saturday was a classic example. A disinterested Irving went 3-for-15 from the field, while Waiters was 6-for-15. Neither player created much for teammates, neither played much defense and neither worked hard on the boards.
As a result, the Cavs were down 31 points at the end of three periods before staging a cosmetic rally while both players spent the entire fourth quarter on the bench.
Toss in a number of reports that they don’t get along — Irving and Waiters strongly denied that recently while talking to the media together — and there have been rumors one of them, most likely Waiters, might be traded in the offseason.
“There’s so much being said about it, for two young guys, it’s a distraction,” Deng said. “All this stuff I hear, but we’re in the locker room with these guys every day and they love each other. I can’t say one word or one incident.
“When we get on the court, we never think twice about it. We just go out there and play. For young guys to keep hearing that, obviously it’s going to be in the back of their mind. They’re human. In terms of can they play together, yeah. I’ve played in this league for 10 years, and I know they can.”
Added Jack: “It’s crazy that people think they really don’t like each other. These kids have known each other since they’ve been in high school.”
There’s virtually no argument that Irving and Waiters are talented. Both are athletic, both can shoot, both can create, both can pass and both have the attributes necessary to be a good defensive player.
Both, however, also like to have the ball in their hands — a lot. Both are also works in progress from a maturity standpoint, and both seem to equate success with how they perform on an individual basis.
But Jack, a savvy veteran who has played alongside both players all season, has seen growth in a number of areas.
“Those guys have the potential to be a force backcourt in this league,” he said. “It’s just going to take a little bit of time to develop that synergy, camaraderie.”
The excitement in Jack’s voice was evident as he talked about overhearing a recent conversation between Irving and Waiters, who were discussing ways they could improve their compatibility on the court.
“You create that type of relationship that people don’t see and don’t necessarily need to know (about),” the veteran said. “I don’t even know if I was supposed to speak on that. These are the things that go on behind the scenes that people don’t know.
“It’s two guys that are just very, very passionate about what they do,” he added. “In the end, those two guys have a chance to be a very, very formidable backcourt.”
The numbers are already there. Third-year pro Irving is averaging 20.9 points, 3.7 rebounds and a career-high 6.1 assists while shooting .429 from the field, .360 on 3-pointers and .860 at the line. Second-year man Waiters is averaging a career-high 15.9 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists on .431 shooting from the field, .367 from 3-point territory and .684 at the stripe.
However, learning to do all the things necessary to win — and learning to do them every night — remains very much a work in progress, as the Cavs went 24-58 last season and bring a 32-49 mark into their final game tonight.
Waiters is not devoid of responsibility, but as the point guard, Irving is responsible for setting the tone, leading by example and determining what needs to be done each game for the Cavs to succeed.
“The sky’s the limit,” Deng said. “Kyrie is obviously an All-Star. He knows the game. He knows what he needs to do in order to be at his best, but there’s so much he could still learn, and I think he will.
“That’s what makes it so unique and exciting. As good as he is, there’s so much for him to learn, to control the game, get his guys going. I think it will come.”
So does Jack, who was quick to point out that because Irving was the first overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft and has already been a two-time All-Star — he was MVP of the game this year — he will always be held to a higher standard.
“We know the extreme talent he is,” Jack said. “It’s more of a mentality, him understanding it’s a 26-hour job for him. There’s not a moment where he can take a step back and, quote, unquote, be regular. It’s kind of frustrating for somebody like him, but that’s what comes along with being an All-Star, one of those top-tier guys.
“It’s a job that doesn’t end,” he added. “It’s a constant job.”
It’s a job, however, that Deng and Jack firmly believe Irving and Waiters can get done.