NBA Draft 2012: 3 Good Reasons Austin Rivers Is Worth a Risk in the Top 6

Colin KennedyFeatured ColumnistJune 27, 2012

NBA Draft 2012: 3 Good Reasons Austin Rivers Is Worth a Risk in the Top 6

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    Less than 12 months ago, Austin Rivers graduated Winter Park High School as a back-to-back state champion and college basketball’s most sought-after prospect. His raw talent and natural scoring ability impressed scouts across the board and convinced many that he was a virtual lock for a lottery pick in this year’s upcoming NBA Draft.

    And now, skeptics have him sliding out of the first round.

    Somehow, Rivers’ stock has fallen considerably despite solid freshman statistics and a year of tutelage under the game’s most prolific coach. Questions about attitude and subpar shooting percentages have many experts labeling him a high-risk selection in a draft that is filled with below-average NBA talent and overwhelming uncertainty.

    The criticism is expected for a No. 1 prospect and the son of an NBA coach; however, Rivers may have his high-profile status to thank for overly exaggerated analysis.

    In a recent appearance on ESPN’s First Take, draft specialist Chad Ford went so far as to say that he wouldn’t be surprised if Rivers were out of the league in three years.

    Really?

    The kid has yet to play a single minute against NBA competition and you’re ready to send him to Europe. Why don’t we give him a chance?

    After all, Rivers did show signs of brilliance during his only year at Duke University, including an unforgettable shot at someplace called Chapel Hill that left the Dean Dome and all that were viewing in awe.

    Ultimately, chances are that Austin Rivers will be taken in the top 15 picks of Thursday’s draft. But the mere idea that some talent evaluators aren’t projecting him in the first round is a bit ridiculous.

    I’m not saying he is bound for greatness, or that he is even going to be an all-star. But I will contend that Rivers is worth the risk of a high lottery selection given his scoring potential and the lack of remaining talent.

    Here’s why:

(Not) a Product of the System

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    With virtually every major Division I school to choose from, Austin Rivers’ commitment to Duke came as a bit of a surprise in September 2010. As a high-shot-volume combo guard destined for the NBA, he didn’t exactly fit Coach K’s multi-year model that has earned him more wins than any other coach in college basketball history.

    And despite Duke’s tendency to shy away from “one-and-done”-type players, the commitment from the nation’s top prospect left the Cameron Crazies hopeful for another NCAA Championship. Besides, if anyone could translate talent into titles, it’s Coach K.

    But unfortunately, Rivers didn’t fit the system either.

    Playing for a team that has become famously reliant upon the spot-up three-pointer, he wasn’t able to flourish under a scheme that didn’t cater to his strengths. Coach K’s pass-first offense truly didn’t suit Rivers’ unique talent to create his own shot and get to the hole.

    Austin Rivers is a playmaker. And playmakers don’t pass.

    Yes I realize the percentages weren’t eye-catching. I acknowledge the fact that he had more turnovers than assists.

    But he isn’t a point guard. He’s a scorer.

    And on a team that lacked a true passing guard, Rivers was forced to handle the ball more frequently than expected. And his shot totals and overall numbers suffered as a result.

    Only hard work and discipline will help the rookie out of Duke succeed at a high level in the NBA. But on a team in need of a pure scorer, 20-plus shots a night could translate to a franchise centerpiece.

He's Got It All

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    One of the main reasons Austin Rivers topped the list of college basketball prospects was his unmatched offensive versatility. A deadly combination of above-average perimeter shooting and blinding quickness made him nearly impossible to guard throughout high school.

    And while the shooting percentages didn’t translate flawlessly to the college level, I find the pessimism among NBA scouts grossly exaggerated.

    Experts often point to Rivers' unorthodox shooting mechanics as a cause for concern, but he compensates with a skill that remains rare even in the NBA. His superior footwork, quick moves, and ability to elevate allow him to establish separation between the defender and create his own shot almost at will.

    Though he struggled with finishing in traffic early on in his freshman year, he converted 63 percent at the rim over the last 15 games while consistently reducing his turnover numbers.

    An aspect that is commonly undervalued—one’s ability to make the necessary adjustments to get better—is one that he undoubtedly possesses.

    And considering Rivers is still just 19 years old, he has plenty of time for improvement.

Mental Toughness

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    Oftentimes we see immensely talented high school or college players struggle to succeed at the next level because they lack the mentality to do so. After realizing their dream and earning a lofty paycheck, they become complacent and fail to make the adjustments required to compete in the NBA.

    Not Austin Rivers.

    While most young children dream of playing in the NBA, he expected it.

    And with a father in the league, Austin knows what it takes to get to that level and, more importantly, how to stay there.

    What may come off as cockiness or arrogance is a quality that very few possess. From MJ to Kobe, nearly all the stars have a mentality to compete and a toughness to win.

    Austin Rivers has a desire to be great.

    It would be blasphemy to compare him to the all-time greats at this point in his career of course, but even from the small sample size, we can see the quality in Rivers that made LeBron James the most criticized athlete in the history of sports.

    Confidence.

    James was blasted by the media for fading down the stretch of last year’s playoff games. He was hated universally for not taking the final shots of the fourth quarter. And until recently, his greatness, not as an athlete but a competitor, was in serious question.

    And while it is almost certain that Rivers won’t ever produce numbers like LeBron, nobody is questioning his confidence.

    Rivers showed the world at Chapel Hill on February 8 that he doesn’t shy away from pressure. Instead, he strives in late-game situations. He wants the ball in his hands when the clock is winding down.

    He wants to take that shot.

    And for me, that quality is worth a risk.