NBA AM: Austin Rivers Ready for Transition
Austin Rivers playing in the NBA always seemed like a foregone conclusion. For years, there has been a considerable amount of hype around the scoring guard. Word of Doc Rivers’ talented son started to spread when he was starring at Winter Park High School in Orlando, where he would win back-to-back state championships. Rivers was ranked as the top high school player in his class ahead of familiar names such as Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Brad Beal.
Last year, Rivers arrived at Duke University and took the program’s reins as a freshman. He led the Blue Devils in scoring, averaging 15.4 points on 43.3 percent shooting. After one season, Rivers decided to leave school and enter the 2012 NBA Draft. Even though he was a lock to be selected in the lottery, there were many people who felt he should’ve returned to Durham and continued his development.
After being selected tenth overall by the New Orleans Hornets, Rivers doesn’t regret his decision. The 19-year-old believes he’s ready to make the transition to the NBA.
“You don’t come out of school early unless you know you’re ready,” Rivers told HOOPSWORLD. “That’s one of the reasons that I came out: I know I can handle it. It’s a long season. One night can’t bring you down, you have to come back the next night. It’s 82 games and if you’re a good team, it should be almost 100 games. But you just have to go out there, play hard and keep competing. I think that’s the main thing to transition to the NBA.”
Rivers believes he’s landed in the perfect situation. With Jarrett Jack no longer on the roster, Rivers will likely start from day one and form an impressive young core with Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. The group will grow together and could become very scary in several years.
One of the hardest things for a rookie to do is earn his head coach’s trust. Rivers doesn’t have to worry about that since he’s already very close with Hornets head coach Monty Williams. Williams played with Doc in New York and San Antonio and was coached by him in Orlando. The two remained friends over the years, and Williams has known Austin since he was wearing diapers. He also knows his game, having watched him at every step of his development. Shortly after Rivers was drafted, Williams met with him and told him not to worry about playing a certain position or role, but instead to just focus on being himself. Williams won’t limit Rivers and their bond will make his transition to the pros even easier.
“It’s been really great,” Rivers said of getting acclimated in New Orleans. “They’ve really been accepting and it’s a place I truthfully wanted to go to. I feel like the team resembles the city. It’s on the up-and-coming. The city is rebuilding slowly and getting stronger. The communities are getting better. I think it’s the same with our team. We have new pieces now and we’re starting to get better and better, to the point now where we have a team that can start doing some things.”
Many have wondered how Rivers will co-exist with Gordon, who signed a new four-year deal this offseason. When Gordon was trying to talk his way out of New Orleans after signing an offer sheet with the Phoenix Suns, he criticized the selection by saying that the Hornets needed a big man rather than another guard. It was nothing personal and more of a shot at the front office than at Rivers, but it still raised questions about whether the two scorers could play alongside one another. However, Rivers isn’t concerned. He believes they can be successful and make each other better.
“I see it (working) perfectly,” Rivers said of playing alongside Gordon. “I think it’s going to be great. Having Eric with me, we can both be on the ball. For such prolific scorers like we both are, especially him because he’s been in the league scoring for awhile, I think I can help with the pressure. If people were overplaying on him, they can’t do that now. My job is just to go in there and attack. I want to make plays for my teammates and make things easier for players like Eric. I think him coming back was huge. We have a lot of pieces and I’m really excited to play with him and also learn from him. We’re very similar in ways, but we can really play with each other I think. If you look at all of the great teams in the NBA right now, they have combos at the one and the two, with great players at those positions. I’m really excited about that.”
The first step in Rivers’ transition occurred last week, when he played in the Las Vegas Summer League. He played in two games, averaging 10 points and 3.5 assists, but had to miss the final three games with a sore ankle and foot. While he didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, Rivers enjoyed the experience.
“It’s been exciting,” Rivers said. “I’ve been able to come out here, work on things, see where I’m at and compete. Summer league is a little taste of what the NBA is like. It’s good to go out there with a new role and a new situation. It’s fun.”
Rivers’ NBA arrival has been highly anticipated and all eyes will be on the teenager when he makes his debut in October. He’ll be met with enormous expectations and intense pressure, but that’s nothing new for the phenom. Rivers has been preparing for this moment his entire life.
When Rivers’ name was called on draft night, his proud father embraced him. After telling Austin that he loved him, Doc had one message for his son: “You are ready.”
Lowry, Casey Click in Toronto: It didn’t take long for Kyle Lowry and Dwane Casey to start preparing for next season. During the Las Vegas Summer League, Lowry and Casey were sitting courtside, going over plays and breaking down the team’s personnel. The Toronto Raptors’ point guard and head coach have known each other for several years, and they’re looking forward to working together this season.
The Raptors acquired Lowry from the Houston Rockets earlier this month in exchange for Gary Forbes and a protected future first-round pick. Casey, who is a defensive-minded coach, couldn’t have been happier with the move. The 26-year-old point guard is known for his tenacious defense and he’s coming off a career-year that saw him average 14.3 points, 6.6 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals. Casey believes that Lowry will fit right in with the Raptors.
“I was excited,” Casey said. “Kyle represents everything that I’ve been preaching and he fits the culture that we’ve started in Toronto. I was excited and happy. He’s a young man who exemplifies our style of play with his toughness and grittiness. He has made himself into an excellent NBA player and he’s ready to take the next step and reach that next level. I feel he’s one of the elite point guards in the league.”
“I just have to prove it and show that he’s right,” Lowry said in response to Casey’s praise. “That’s my goal. My goal is to make our team better and do the best I can possibly do. I want to push us to the limit and make the playoffs this year.”
Lowry’s transition should be smooth, especially since Casey is already starting to bring him up to speed.
“It won’t take long,” Lowry said of acclimating to his new team. “He’s a great coach and he’s going to make sure I get it and make sure we all get it. I’m the leader of the team and I’m just going to be out there doing what I do. It’s not going to take me long at all. We talked about some sets already and they’re not too difficult. You just have to go out there and executive them.”
Casey is already getting excited about how Lowry will change Toronto’s defensive approach.
“It’s a great plus for us,” Casey said. “Now, we don’t have to commit a second big in our pick-and-roll coverage and we can have more one-on-one coverage. I can say, ‘Kyle, you guard your guy. Landry (Fields), you guard your guy.’ We have a lot of guys who can stay home and who don’t need quick help. That’s a huge plus. His leadership is going to be huge for us too, setting the tone for everybody else.”
During his stint with the Houston Rockets, Lowry didn’t get along with head coach Kevin McHale. The two men butted heads, culminating in Lowry publically criticizing McHale and essentially calling for him to be fired. In Toronto, Lowry won’t have similar issues since he and Casey are on the same page and have a strong relationship.
“I trust Kyle,” Casey said. “Not to say that I don’t trust Jose (Calderon), but I’ve known Kyle longer so there’s a tremendous amount of trust and respect that goes both ways. That’s huge, that line of communication. I want to have that connection with my point guards and it’s there. That’s something that goes a long way in a relationship.”
“Is it going to be hunky-dory all the time? No. We’ll agree to disagree a lot,” Casey said with a smile.
“And he’s probably going to win most of the time,” Lowry said with a laugh.
“At the end of the day,” Casey said, “it’s about winning, doing whatever we can to help our team win.”
Aldridge Excited About Blazers’ Moves: The Portland Trail Blazers have had a busy offseason. After failing to live up to expectations last season, the Blazers are in the midst of an overhaul. Nearly every veteran from last year’s team is gone including Gerald Wallace, Marcus Camby, Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford and Kurt Thomas. They’ve been replaced by young talent such as Damian Lillard, Meyers Leonard, Will Barton, J.J. Hickson, Victor Claver and Joel Freeland, all of whom are under 25 years old.
While the Blazers have gotten younger and may need several years to develop before contending in the Western Conference, LaMarcus Aldridge is pleased with the front office’s recent moves. He believes that new general manager Neil Olshey has assembled a talented, up-and-coming team.
“They look really good,” Aldridge told HOOPSWORLD at the Las Vegas Summer League. “(Lillard) is really, really good and (Leonard) is going to be really good. Our future is looking bright.”
“He’s bringing in a lot of guys who are really good,” Aldridge said of Olshey. “These are guys who are competitors who can help us win now. We just have to work. We have a great group of guys. Now, we just have to start working out together. We have a bunch of talented, athletic guys. We’re good to go.”
Olshey was also able to re-sign Nicolas Batum to a four-year deal, matching the large offer sheet that the Minnesota Timberwolves extended to the small forward. Aldridge believes that bringing Batum back was a very important move.
“It’s big,” Aldridge said. “He’s a big-time player for us. Having him back and feeling comfortable is really important for us.”
Even more important for the Blazers is Aldridge’s health. The power forward underwent season-ending surgery on his right hip in April. His rehab was going well and he was making significant progress until last month, when he contracted a blood virus that hospitalized him for a week. If it had gone untreated, the virus could have been deadly and Aldridge described it as the worst he’s ever felt in his life. Now, after receiving treatment and resuming his rehab, he’s doing better and nearing a return to the court.
“I’m working out already,” Aldridge said. “I’m at about 99 percent, maybe 98 percent. I have about one more week and then I can go five-on-five.”
When Aldridge returns, he’ll be playing five-on-five with many new teammates, but he believes the franchise is heading in the right direction and that their best basketball is ahead.