Hornets’ Rivers talks NBA adjustment, early struggles and lessons learned
By Ben Golliver
PORTLAND, Ore. — Hornets guard Austin Rivers is only 20, a rookie who spent just one year in college before becoming the No. 10 pick in the 2012 draft. But he’s been accustomed to scrutiny since he was a highly regarded high school player, thanks to his lack of a clear position, demonstrative personality on the court, famous last name and decision to play at the most polarizing of all college programs, Duke.
His first month and a half in the NBA hasn’t always been pretty. Rivers crafted his reputation as a teenager on his ability to score and make plays. In five of his first 16 games as a pro, though, he didn’t make a single shot. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Rivers is a tweener who is at his best with the ball in his hands but hasn’t yet shown the ability, even at the college level, to be a facilitator or a traditional point man. In New Orleans, coach Monty Williams has played him alongside Greivis Vasquez, giving him the green light to attack at will but also leaving much of the ball-handling to Rivers’ veteran running mate.
With the absence of guard Eric Gordon, Rivers has been shoved into a large role: He’s averaging eight points and 2.8 assists in 28.4 minutes per game, playing a lot despite his limitations on the defensive end, some bothersome ankle injuries and a 35.2 field-goal percentage that would have many rookies pinned to the bench. Williams doesn’t have many alternatives, so Rivers gets to ride the waves as he learns from doing rather than from watching.
Speaking with Rivers on Sunday before the Hornets faced the Blazers, you wouldn’t know that he has had a rough go at all. Perhaps it helped that his conversation with SI.com occurred at a high point individually, as Rivers was coming off a season-high 27-point effort against the Timberwolves on Friday. And while Rivers had scored in double figures just seven times in his first 21 games, four of those performances had come in the previous five games. Rivers was eager to focus on his recent progress while also expressing some of the same “I am who I am” sentiments that made him a quintessential “you either love him or hate him” figure at Duke.
SI.com: I imagine you’re feeling good after the big night against Minnesota?
Austin Rivers: It’s been progressively getting better for me the last four or five games. It’s not just about scoring. I’ve just been aggressive, I’ve been talking on defense and trying to lead and getting out and pushing [the ball], making assists. Before this streak the last four or five games, I would have a good game, then a bad game; I was just up and down. I just started thinking, “I’ve got to find my consistency, what I can bring every single night.” One thing I told myself: I need to be aggressive and let the defense know I’m out there. When I leave the court, I have to make sure the other team knows that Austin played tonight. Whether that’s zero points and 10 rebounds, zero points and six fouls, I’ve got to let them know. I just started being aggressive and stopped worrying about what happens. If I fail, I’m going to fail doing it the hard way. I’ve just been playing great lately. I’ve just got to keep it up.
SI.com: Can you pinpoint a moment over the last couple of weeks where a switch flipped for you?
Rivers: Yes. The beginning of the streak was Memphis [on Dec. 7, a 15-point, 7-of-13 game]. I struggled in the couple of games before that [shooting 0-for-10 in the previous two games]. In the Memphis game, after I hit my first basket, I was like, “All right, Austin. Just relax and play, man. I want to see what happens if I just go play, listen to the coach and just play my game, be aggressive.” I played good. I was thinking, “I need to keep doing that.” I can’t promise I’m going to make every shot, but I can promise I’m going to make the aggressive play every time. That’s what I started doing and things started falling in line for me. I’m just confident now because I’ve played so many good games in a row. I’ve got to keep it going.
Every rookie has to find it. [Portland's] Damian [Lillard] found it early. He’s in a good position, he’s aggressive. Damian goes out there and shoots a lot of shots. I don’t mean it in a bad way — he makes them, he’s a great player, he’s aggressive and that’s why he’s playing so great. [Cleveland's] Dion Waiters, aggressive. I was just like, “I’ve got to be aggressive.”
SI.com: So you compare yourself to other rookies as motivation or are you watching them to learn from them?
Rivers: You can always learn from your peers. You can’t always have too big of an ego to learn from your peers. I don’t care if they are drafted in the same class as me. I can learn from people younger than me, learn from people older than me. You’ve got to be a student of the game no matter who you are. I was looking at those two because they were the most consistent. Everybody else was up and down. Those guys are aggressive. There were times when they didn’t have a good night shooting, but they were being aggressive, making assists, plays, rebounds, a [defensive] stand. I just started doing that these past four or five games, and it’s worked out for me. That’s what I’m going to try to do going forward. Make the right play for my team.
SI.com: A lot of times with young players, if they aren’t shooting well, people will immediately chalk it up to confidence. Watching you in high school and college, it never seemed like confidence would be an issue for you.
Rivers: That’s been my strongest thing and that’s been the funny thing. In high school and college I was very confident, and I think I still am. Sometimes it was almost to the point where people were like, “He’s too cocky.” Off the floor, I’m a low-key guy — I don’t say too much, I just stick with my circle. On the court, I’m making shots, that’s just who I am: I’m confident, and that’s just the way I play.
The first couple of games here I was running around like a chicken with his head cut off. I was trying to find my way. Coach was like, “Hey, man, stop doing that. Play your game. I want you to walk around like you were at Duke or you were in high school. You take your shots, you do your step-backs, you drive and kick, you have your swag.” Before the game, I was telling myself I had to play aggressive and confident. It’s been working for me these past two weeks.
SI.com: Does playing on the same team as Anthony Davis, a rookie with sky-high expectations, make it easier or harder on you? Does he provide you some cover or does it actually raise expectations on you to perform?
Rivers: [Raising expectations] is what it’s ended up doing: “Hey, Austin and Anthony need to do this.” Yeah, [it's been more pressure]. I like it.
I don’t think like that. When I was at Duke, I had the most pressure. I was the No. 1 kid coming out of high school. Guys looking at me. I’m at Duke, the most hated, the team that’s on TV every night. Famous last name. Under Coach K. All of that. I love it. High school, half my games were on ESPN and people were looking for me to do the wrong thing. I love it. Here, I’m with Anthony, we’re struggling right now, but they’re looking for a lot. I love it. We’re going to find it, figure it out somehow. I don’t care what it takes, I don’t know how long it takes, it could take 10 games from now or five games from now, we’re going to figure it out. We’re going to keep working until we do.
SI.com: What did Doc Rivers, your father, tell you about Monty Williams as a player and a coach?
Rivers: You hear he grinds, just grinds 24/7, doesn’t stop. Film, eight hours a day, up until 3 a.m. Film, comes in the morning with his thoughts. He’s not a rah-rah coach that’s going to scream at you. He’d rather pull you aside and speak to you. He’ll get on you, but he wants to make sure you’re always there mentally. He’s gotten on me, he’s gotten on all of us. There are days in practice where he’ll be like, “Austin, what are you doing? You need to do this, you need to do that.”
Me and Anthony are rookies and he’s really helping us right now, to the point where, good game or bad game, he’s like, “This is what you did great, this is what you did bad, work on those things.” Every day it’s something. He’s always giving us confidence, so you’re not out there thinking too much about taking a shot. He’ll never get mad at a bad shot as long as you play defense and play hard.
SI.com: You just went through an extensive pregame shooting workout. Are you working on anything in particular and did you attempt to rework your shot at all during the slow start?
Rivers: One thing I tried to stop doing was thinking about my [form]. When you come in here [to the NBA] with a different-looking shot, immediately people are like, “Wait, you need to do this and that.” The [Hornets'] coaches haven’t done that really. They try to do [little] things, but they haven’t really done anything. The main thing they want me to do is go out there and shoot and be confident. I think confidence is so underrated in this league. You never know what anybody can do when they have confidence. You look at players like Jeremy Lin, who never got to play, then once he has one good game he has confidence, and look what happens to him. Confidence is so huge; basketball is like 70 percent mental.
I’ve been shooting the three-ball pretty well lately, the mid-range. There are going to be nights where I don’t shoot well. That’s just basketball. In the back of my mind, I can shoot and my teammates believe I can now. So now when I shoot, I have confidence. If it goes in, it goes in. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. You can best believe, if I have that next shot, I’ll take it again.
SI.com: Some people questioned whether you should stay in college. I imagine when you declared you had high expectations for yourself as a professional. Now that you’ve gotten a taste for the NBA, have those expectations changed?
Rivers: Coming into the league, I wanted to be an aggressive playmaker. I’ll be able to score a lot, make plays for my teammates. If guys are all over me, I can drive and make passes. I didn’t in the beginning; I was up and down. Lately, I’ve been better. I’m really happy with myself right now. My teammates have been helping me, giving me confidence. After every game, they tell me, “We’re better with you, we’re better with you.” They say things like that to get my confidence up — Roger Mason, Ryan Anderson, the older guys, coach Williams and the other [assistant] coaches. Those have been my expectations, to be a playmaker. The past couple of weeks, I think I’ve been that.
I’ve got to continue to do that because it’s a long season. We’ve only played 20 games. We’ve still got another 60-something to go. It’s just crazy, it’s so different. If I’m in college right now, I’d have 10 more games until it’s March Madness and tournament time pretty soon. Here, we’re just getting under way, and they are long games. You’ve got to take this stuff seriously, as far as sleep, eating right — that stuff is huge. You don’t think it is, but until you get to this level, the stuff you could do in high school and college isn’t going to work here. The only way you can figure it out is to go through it. Not getting sleep one night and the next day in practice you’re going against the best players in the world, it’s going to be a tough practice. You’ve really got to just learn those things on your own and adjust.