For his entire life Austin Rivers has been under the microscope.
From “Doc’s Kid” to nation’s top high school prospect to leading scorer at arguably the most storied basketball program in the country, Rivers is no stranger to the spotlight.
He’s been faced with enormous expectations since he was a young lad, and while praise has come in bunches, scrutiny has been just as present. “He’s too arrogant, he shoots too much, he’s not a team guy,” the critics have been saying since he bounced a ball in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Oftentimes the critics are right. Rivers’ shot selection can be almost laughable at times. It’s not hard to see how he can come off as selfish and arrogant as he rarely defers to his teammates.
But as difficult as it is to reward qualities like that from a day-to-day life perspective, in the game of basketball it’s that attitude and swagger that turns average NBA talent into superstars. It’s the confidence to think every shot is going in, the yearning to want the ball in your hands with the game on the line that you simply can’t teach.
Rivers has that inherent “It Factor,” and that quality alone could make him a steal for whatever team takes a chance on him. Whether it was spending time with Dominique Wilkins when his dad played for the Hawks, hanging with Patrick Ewing when Doc was with the Knicks or being around David Robinson when the Celtics’ head coach was in San Antonio, Rivers has seen excellence at the highest level.
He’s watched Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo and their work ethic and desire to be great. He’s been blessed with a window into what it takes to be great in the NBA, which is something no one in this draft class can say.
“It gives him a big advantage because nothing’s going to surprise him,” said Duke associate head coach Chris Collins, son of Sixers head coach Doug Collins. “When you’ve been around those caliber players your whole life, you understand what greatness is.”
Because of Rivers’ experiences, he understands that he won’t be great unless he carries himself the way he does. He won’t make game-winning shots if he doesn’t clear out against Tyler Zeller and pull up for three to stun the entire basketball nation.
“For him in order to be good he has to be confident in his ability, he has to be tough, he has to have a swagger on the court,” Collins said.
Rivers clearly has that confidence and swagger, along with the work ethic to go with it. Collins called him a “gym rat in every sense of the word.” Rivers is in the gym every night after practice getting shots up, according to Collins. He’s constantly working on his weaknesses, bettering his body, and working to be elite.
“He has a strong desire to be a great player. His life is basketball,” Collins said. “He believes that this is what he’s meant to do. I think that’s why he’s a great big-game player. He’s not afraid of taking big shots. He succeeds most of the time because he’s got an amazing will to succeed.”
Despite all of these qualities that are so tough to come by, Rivers is still criticized. Outsiders believe the intense, overly confident kid they see on the court is the same kid walking around Duke’s campus in street clothes. Collins says that couldn’t be more inaccurate.
“Off the court Austin is a very fun-loving kid. He’s fun to be around, he’s funny, he likes to be with the guys,” Collins said. “Sometimes you get a misconception of who he is based on what you see of him as a competitor. I don’t think that could be further from the case. When you talk to him he’s very engaging, he’s fun to be around. He holds that persona on the court because that’s what he has to do to become great.”
Whether or not Rivers becomes great remains to be seen, but if he is around when the Phoenix Suns pick with the 13th selection it will be difficult to pass on him. In addition to his persona he can flat-out fill it up. He’s lightning quick, has NBA range, and can create his own shot better than anyone in the draft — all things the Suns desperately need.
With little to no star power and Steve Nash getting older and possibly leaving the Valley, the Suns need a new face of the franchise. There are few players expected to be available at No. 13 with the makeup and skill-set to potentially carry the title of “face of the franchise.”
All off-balance threes, bad body language and missed open shooters aside, Rivers is one of them.