- National Teams
The rise of Kalil Irving has been a prominent one, establishing himself as a regular starter at Worcester having joined the club as a 19-year-old in 2012.
Irving came through the academy at Medway Park (now Kent Crusaders again) and also spent a year out in America before his move to the BBL, where he has made his way into the starting rotation.
“It hasn’t been easy,” he said of his progress. “It’s down to countless hours of hard work. I hate losing, being behind someone in the rotation and that’s what keeps me fighting to be the best I can.
“I’ve come on leaps and bounds and playing in the BBL has been extremely valuable. Having players like Alex Owumi nurture me has been great, too.”
Irving, now 22 and also in his final year at the University of Worcester, has not been able to hit top form this season with his impact hindered with niggling injuries. A season best of 10 points came in a win against Surrey last month, and he believes things will improve once he returns to full fitness.
“I’ve been up and down,” he admitted. “A couple of injuries have prevented me from being 100%, but once I’m there I know I’ll be fine.
“I try to bring intensity to the team, especially through my defence. I see myself as the glue guy because we have fantastic scorers on our team.”
One particular strength that makes him invaluable to Head Coach Paul James is his ability to guard any position with his versatility to adjust to different roles.
In his debut BBL season, Irving quickly asserted himself in the top flight as an important role player despite not expecting to play a great deal of minutes.
Irving was used predominantly at the 4 position, which he admits is not his natural position, but since then has been used more in his favoured role. Last season, the 6’7″ forward shot a total of 58 attempts from 3-point range compared to just 11 in his first season.
“That’s down to a change in role,” he explained. “I’m playing in a different position and that requires me to shoot more, which is something I’m working on.
Whilst Irving gets himself back up to full fitness, fellow Medway Park academy product Disraeli Lufadeju is enjoying a similar breakthrough season of his own. The guard has produced a couple of key performances off the bench including hitting some big shots in the recent win against London and Irving believes his team-mate’s ‘tenacity’ is the reason behind his success.
It’s a gamble at times that coaches take, offering young British players from the lower divisions the chance to prove themselves and develop at the highest level.
The Wolves duo are prime examples of when it pays off and the likes of Connor Murtagh and Zak Wells have shown their ability to compete in the BBL, but Irving admits not everybody is cut out to do so.
“It’s not easy to play in the BBL – some players can make the step-up whereas some players think they can, but can’t.
“Having said that, trying to get to a BBL team is the best way to improve,” he added. “There’s no point in being a big fish in a little pond.”
Irving competed in the inaugural Hoopsfix All-Star Classic in June and is already becoming a household name in the BBL, but he’s not prepared to get carried away with the bright future that awaits him. Whereas some players aspire to make it into Europe, the Kent-born player only has his mind set on the season ahead.
“It’s not something that I think about,” he said. “I try to take things as they happen and my main focus is winning everything I can with Worcester.”
That winning feeling came last season as the Wolves completed an historic double after following up their BBL Trophy success with victory in the end-of-season Playoffs. Irving certainly played his part in what was a tremendous achievement for the club.
“It was phenomenal,” he recalled. “My first year didn’t feel too great as I wasn’t sure I was going to be back, but after last year I’m ready for more and it was very special.
“You work so hard to get to a point and it was very emotional for me.”
The departures of star duo Zaire Taylor and Will Creekmore in the summer cast doubt over Worcester’s aspirations to add to their silverware collection this time around.
However, they opened the season with a statement win over the defending league champions Newcastle (their only loss at 8-1) and have since improved to a 7-1 record to keep up the pressure at the top.
“Losing Zaire and Will may seem massive to others, but I feel like we are just as strong as last year,” insisted Irving. “PJ (Paul James) has done a fantastic job again with recruitment and we are definite contenders.”
Chavis Holmes and Robert Thurman were drafted in with the task of the filing the void left by last year’s BBL MVP and runner-up, and the duo have proved capable replacements. Holmes is an instrumental guard with previous BBL experience with Surrey while Thurman is living up to Creekmore’s recommendation by gobbling up points and rebounds week in, week out.
“They’re definitely sleepers in this league,” Irving claimed. “They may not be in the same calibre, but they are just as good.”
Remi Dibo is another addition that has coped well with the adjustment to playing in the BBL while Jamal Williams, often underrated at times, is a valuable squad member. Wolves’ captain Owumi is having another strong season, leading by example with 16.8 points per game with a shooting percentage of above 40 from downtown.
Last weekend, the Wolves enjoyed a successful back-to-back with two ‘very important’ victories according to Irving.
“If we didn’t get those wins, we wouldn’t be improving and that’s what we’ve been trying to do ever since we lost to Bristol,” he explained. “That defeat was a learning curve and a moment of realisation for us.”
Worcester may have been knocked out of the Cup by the Flyers, but they are still very much in the hunt for silverware this season and will look to build upon their strong start in the league. And having two young Brits able to play significant roles is certainly no bad thing, either.
Image credit: Paul Beard Photography