NEW YORK -- Other than Derrick Rose and perhaps John Wall, Duke's Austin Rivers is the most ready NBA guard to enter college in quite some time.
While he struggled on the big stage of Madison Square Garden against Michigan State, Rivers nonetheless showed us why he is such a special talent. Opting not to settle for jump shots, the freshman attacked the rim hard on numerous occasions. The results were mixed -- and primarily bad to be honest -- but his lethal first step and sheer quickness was evident.
Just minutes into the game he made his best move of the night. Holding the ball on the left wing, he waited for a screen to come. When he noticed his defender overplaying the middle drive though, he used a super quick jab right (screen side), only to come back hard left and leave his man in the dust. Rivers then attacked the rim hard with the attempt to dunk baseline, but was instead fouled. He made both free throws and moved on. This is just a small example, I know, but still very important. Why is this?
At 6'3", Rivers is a scorer at heart. If he were to stay three or four years and be coached up by Mike Krzyzewski, he could ultimately have a similar career path as Nolan Smith; another McDonald's American who entered college as an undersized scorer but became a true point guard by his senior year. Realistically though, we cannot assume the nation's third ranked player out of high school won't be a one-and-done.
Without question, Rivers has a secure handle and the basketball acumen to run an offense. But scorers score, and not to take anything away from him, but that's what he is.
Even still, Rivers forced the action a little too often against the Spartans. In a sense, it's as if he gets jumpy when he doesn't shoot the ball after a couple minutes. I watched him intently -- sometimes not even the game -- just to see how he handled these situations. Instead of letting his scoring come in the natural flow of the offense, he over-asserted himself and forced errant drives. In 23 minutes, he finished 1-7 from the floor with 5 points, two turnovers and just one assist. That's the bad. But the good correlates with the bad. Let me explain: Oddly though, it didn't seem like Rivers was being actively selfish. He wasn't trying to dominate the ball like many young scorers will. Quite honestly, I'm not sure he's ever been in a situation like that, where he just couldn’t get a shot to fall.
The thing I love about him is the willingness and desire to keep coming. The guy is a flat-out killer; he wants the ball when he's going good, but he also wants it when he's going bad. Of course such an outlook can backfire, but generally when great players struggle, they are simply too talented not to dig out of the hole. With an excellent crossover dribble, terrific step-back and superb shooting mechanics with unlimited range, Rivers appears to be one of those players.
The Duke team that I saw Tuesday night doesn't have a single pure point guard. Seth Curry has assumed the role nicely thus far and Quinn Cook looks decent but both are still very offensively minded. It will be very interesting to see if Krzyzewski gives the keys to Rivers at some point during ACC season, because he is by far the most talented player in the backcourt ... even if he wants to score first.
Projecting at the NBA level, I foresee Rivers somewhat in the mold of an Eric Gordon; a dynamic scorer who can play both guard positions but is best served off the ball with a green light to shoot. Because he is an intelligent and solid -- if not spectacular --defender, he has value on both sides of the ball as well. The jury is still out, but even amidst his struggles, Rivers looks like a big-time pro.
Click here for my full evaluation of Kentucky's star freshman Anthony Davis.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or ask me questions about anything hoops-related @206Child for my upcoming mailbag.