DALLAS — Austin Rivers, son of Doc, has found it more difficult than perhaps expected to make a name for himself in the NBA. Maybe that’s about to change.
Since New Orleans selected Rivers — some would say reached — with the 10th overall pick in 2012, the one-and-done Duke product has had a rocky indoctrination. He was thrust into the starting lineup early on and struggled, then was knocked out of the last quarter of his rookie season by a hand injury. He has spent his sophomore campaign so far largely riding the pine behind a recast backcourt of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and even the undrafted Brian Roberts .
But as it goes in the NBA, things change quickly. Injuries to Holiday, Evans and 3-point-shooting power forward Ryan Anderson are drastically reshaping the Pelicans’ rotation. Suddenly the little-used Rivers is getting his shot for a team dangerously close to being out of playoff contention and dragging a five-game losing streak into Monday’s home game against San Antonio (8 p.m. ET, League Pass).
“The mindset in the locker room right now is if we play hard we can win,” Rivers said. “You look at teams right now like the Phoenix Suns, they don’t have superstar players, but they play hard, they play hard the whole game and they trust their system and they play the same way every night. And because of that they’re one of the better teams in the league, which no one could have called at the beginning of the year, and that’s because guys stepped up, and that’s what we need to do. We have more than enough talent and skill to do that.”
Rivers hopes to be a significant piece of the equation. He’s played in just 24 of 36 games, averaging just 13.3 minutes per game, 10 minutes off his rookie average when he started 26 of 61 games. His shooting percentages have remained stagnant, below 40 percent overall and around 32 percent from beyond the arc. Playing so little makes it difficult to develop any rhythm, but questions linger about the 6-foot-4 combo guard: Beyond an ability to get to the rim, is he NBA material?
Rivers, 21, said he examined that question daily during the offseason, and at times with his dad, former NBA guard and Clippers coach Doc Rivers.
“We looked at things and I had to look at myself and think about what I was doing good and what I was doing bad,” Rivers said. “The main thing was, it’s funny, the thing that I wasn’t doing was being myself. I was going out there and trying to live up to this or trying to be everything I wasn’t instead of being what got me here, which is not like me. That was my biggest focus. Some second-year guys do Summer League, some guys don’t; I was adamant about doing it because I wanted to go out there and show that I’m back to being me. That’s what I did. And then we just had a lot of trades where I had to sit out and wait, and now it’s my time.”
In the two games since Holiday was ruled out indefinitely with a fractured ankle, Rivers logged 25 and 23 minutes. He had played more minutes just once all season. In the first game, he aggressively attacked, tying his second-best scoring output of the season with 12 points, and adding a season-high four assists. He had nine points and four assists in Saturday’s second of back-to-back losses to Dallas.
In the latter game he also discovered that having a famous basketball surname means little when it comes to getting the benefit of a whistle. Rivers was being closely checked by Mavericks guard Monta Ellis above the 3-point arc as the game clock ticked down. The Pelicans needed a 3-pointer to tie. Rivers’ ballhandling was sloppy, but he regrouped. And as he tried to rise up for the shot, Ellis raked him across the arms. No call. Game over. The following day the league office ruled a foul should have been called and Rivers should have gone to the free-throw line for three shots and a chance to tie.
Tough lesson. Seems Rivers’ brief career already has been full of them.
“Everybody has different paths and that’s something that took me a while to figure that out,” Rivers said. “At first [not playing] was just frustrating … [but] that doesn’t do anything because at the end of the day I’m here, and I’m glad I’m here because I think this is all going to make me better in the long run. I like where I’m at with my teammates and my coaches and I think four or five years down the road from now I’ll be able to look back and be like, ‘I remember that time when guys were asking me how did you feel about this and that,’ and now I’m here.
“I know this is all a process, and I know if I continue to work like I know I do and to listen to the coaches and older guys I’ll be fine. But it’s funny how it works like this — one minute I’m like, ‘Man…,’ and now I’m playing a lot.”