Duke’s Austin Rivers Is Duke’s No More: On The Decision To Go Pro

Why Austin’s making the right decision, and why he isn’t the player you thought.

Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

Austin Rivers spent about as long at Duke as most of us spend commuting to work, and his stay there had the same purpose: it got him from point A — amateurism — to point B — his professional career.

This is fine.

In fact, and even as a Duke fan, I’m impressed by Austin’s decision to leave school after his freshman year. Rivers is a cagey player, his game a soaking messy ball of crossovers and goofy off-balance threes during which he falls backward like somebody pushed him, and he always gave off a certain animosity for the college game. There are legit knocks on his NBA readiness: he’s still an inconsistent shooter, an undisciplined defender, and physically immature; but he’ll belong there better than he does in college, and particularly at Duke, where he often had to work as the primary ballhandler.

But Rivers will go in the lottery, equipped with quick-twitch handles, NBA-level shooting ability and preternatural control at the hoop. Within the right system, and with a talented point to help spread the offense, Rivers could be a deadly and efficient scorer, and there’s no shortage of teams in need of that. I said a similar thing about Brandon Jennings, and it remains true for Austin — not all basketball players are suited to the 35-second shot clock.

The 2012 Blue Devils also had a nasty point-guard vacuum, with Seth Curry, Quinn Cook, Tyler Thornton, and Rivers all trying and failing to demonstrate the combination of strategic savvy, passing ability, and court vision necessary to run the offense. This aggravated things. Duke’s offense often became a static graph, three or four dots spread along the arc and Mason/Miles Plumlee planted inside. Next step: feed the Plumlee, or iso-attack, or jack up a contested three. Lather, rinse, repeat. Krzyzewski did not seem to know how to make this offense whir, and when the team’s best player went down at the end of the season — yes, Ryan Kelly was Duke’s best player — the whole machine stopped working.

Rivers struggled in this setting: burdened with carrying the scoring load, he often forced shots and made poor decisions; without another explosive outside-inside scoring threat, he drew constant double teams. Yes, the defenders will only get tougher as he enters the NBA. The thing is, Rivers suffered from the suffocation of bodies converging on him, not the skill of individual defender. There wasn’t a guy all year he couldn’t break down to Legos in a one-on-one situation.

Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

Postmortems of the Blue Devils aside, Rivers’ decision also gives the commentariat a chance to debate the morals and advantages of going pro early, a conversation that can usually be relied upon to get old-fashioned types foaming and nasty. We love to pretend that college is a panacea for a lot of things — bad manners, ignorance, naivete, neglect — despite constant evidence to the contrary. Rather than get too political, and as much as I hate to shatter racially suspect and arrogant delusions, I’ll just say: college is not this.

MOVING ON.

Throughout his college career, Austin Rivers seemed to be a dick, a swaggering and entitled adolescent who couldn’t handle the pressure of playing for one of the most legacied programs in the country. None of this was actually true. His effort sometimes lagged on defense, but he never gave anything short of a complete game on offense. He constantly appeared to be a leader within the team, responding to criticism and taking responsibility when the squad underachieved. As the son of an NBA giant, and as a player at Duke, a (both justifiably and unjustifiably reviled) bastion of blue-bloods, there was no way he’d ever shed that entitled label. And the swagger part: that was awesome. Duke has been so demure in recent years, so polite and underenthusiastic, — think the Wonder-bread blandness of Greg Paulus, or the icy, machine-like competence of Kyle Singler, or the goofily loveable Nolan Smith — that seeing someone play mad was refreshing, to say the least.

Hopefully, Rivers will now be able to doctor that confidence to fit the pros. He needs to knock it down a notch, essentially; unlike in college, where he entered every game thinking he was the best player on the court, he has to become a player comfortable and excited about the possibilities of his own game while being cognizant of the fact that he’ll be a 20-year-old kid playing against another breed of athlete. Brazenness in professional sports walks a fine line, and I’m confident Rivers can walk it, after all his father is the man that brought “ubuntu” to the Celtics.

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