Austin Rivers: A Love Story
If you are a fan of college basketball, then the following statement is an undeniable truth.
At the end of this calendar year—perhaps even sooner—you will love Austin Rivers.
You will either love the energy and the passion that he brings to the Duke Blue Devils this season, or you will love to hate the swagger that accompanies him each and every time that he steps onto the court.
It's that simple.
There is no room for debate, no middle ground to stake. It's either heads or tails, black or white, hot or cold. When it comes to Duke's latest blue-chip recruit, no one can claim to be as neutral as Switzerland.
Rivers won't allow it. He has the bloodlines (Rivers is the son of 14-year NBA veteran Doc Rivers) and the resume (2011 Naismith National High School Player of the Year) that will make you take notice, one way or the other.
On sheer talent alone, it will be hard not to be enamored with Rivers. At 6'4", he is a well-rounded combo guard with NBA range and a lightning quick first step. Rivers has the mid-range game of a seasoned professional, and he has no qualms about taking the crucial shot in crunch time.
Virtually every scouting service of consequence tagged Rivers as one of the top prospects in the Class of 2011, and in a loaded freshman crop, he was named the ACC Preseason Rookie of the Year.
Of course, there are some (read: fans of other ACC teams, for the most part) who simply won't be able to root for Rivers.
Why? Because he is J.J. Redick to the extreme. He is this generation's Bobby Hurley, only with infinitely more talent.
One glance at the ESPNU profile of Austin Rivers will tell you that he is a "cold-blooded assassin." He's the type of player that will come into your gym, drop 30 points on your team's best wing defender, and let everyone in the building know what he just did on the off chance that they were too busy updating their Twitter feeds to pay attention.
Rivers often straddles the razor-thin line between confidence and cockiness, and he sometimes winds up on the wrong side of the ledger. Case in point: he's already given himself his own nickname.
On Twitter, Rivers dubbed himself "Sub-Zero" earlier this year because of his jersey number (zero) and his self-proclaimed ability to "freeze people" with his moves on the basketball court.
It's a good thing that he has the talent to back up his words.
A privileged few got an early glimpse of that talent this summer at the Greater NC Pro-Am in Durham, North Carolina. True to form, Rivers showed up for his first day at the McLendon-McDougald Gym wearing the uniform shorts given to him at the McDonald's All-American game.
It would be naive to think that his choice of outfit that day was a random occurrence. For Rivers, the shorts gave him instant credibility in a league that featured such talents as John Wall, Harrison Barnes, Rasheed Wallace and Kyrie Irving.
Of course, his play would grant him that same credibility soon enough—it wasn't long before he dazzled the Pro-Am crowd with an array of deep three-pointers and baseline dunks.
That performance showed that Rivers' game is perfectly suited for a summer league-type of an environment. Simply put, he is an individual in a team game—the anti-thesis of a typical Blue Devils recruit. But by all accounts, he has pretty much conformed to the structure imposed by Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski ever since he arrived in Durham.
Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn recently relayed a story about an October scrimmage in which Rivers didn't give full effort on defense after a poor offensive possession. Krzyzewski immediately stopped practice and called his freshman star out in front of his teammates. From that point on, Rivers dominated the remainder of the practice session.
"It's all about becoming a member of a team," said CBS college basketball analyst Bill Raftery when asked about Austin Rivers. "That's part of the process, too."
The process will begin with a 19-year-old who is used to playing in an offense where he was the first, second and third option. A 19-year-old with questionable shot selection at times, and one who gambles more often than he should on the defensive end of the court.
If Rivers conforms, the process could very well end with Duke capturing its second title in three seasons. If he doesn't, the Blue Devils could see a repeat of the 24th of last March when the Arizona Wildcats blew them out of the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
March Madness is still four months away, however. Until then, there's quite a bit of work to do.
To be clear, Rivers isn't the most vital player to Duke's success this year—junior point guard Seth Curry is the Blue Devils' top returning scorer and provides invaluable veteran leadership. Rivers may not even be Duke's best recruit in recent memory—Kyrie Irving was a more polished prospect when he arrived in Durham last summer.
Even so, Austin Rivers is one of the most exciting talents to come onto the college basketball scene in quite some time. But if you just can't allow yourself to enjoy what he brings to the table—especially those of you who have Carolina blue running through your veins—feel free to express your disdain.
Go ahead. He's used to it.
"I was probably hated before I ever even stepped on the court," said Rivers, referring back to his time in high school and on the AAU circuit. "The funny thing is, a lot of those same guys who yell things at you from the stands come down after the game and shake your hand and want to get their picture taken with you."
If you are a fan of college basketball, then the following few statements are undeniable truths:
At some point this season, Austin Rivers is going to lead Duke on an impressive run during a game. After the opposing team takes a timeout out to quell the rally, Rivers will implore the crowd—and those watching at home—for a reaction.
Wherever you may be when this happens, you can choose to join in the adulation, or you can engage in your finest version of a Bronx cheer.
The choice is yours. But you will make a choice. Rivers is simply too good to ignore.
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