Austin Rivers has heard the criticism for most of the year. He isn’t Kyrie Irving, he isn’t as good as he was made out to be, he is selfish, he can’t play defense, he is out of control.
There are probably more things that have been said about Duke’s freshman from media, opponents fans and even some Blue Devil fans and to be honest some of the criticisms are pretty spot on.
Rivers isn’t a great defender, Mike Krzyzewski has admitted as much. He has been a bit overly emotional at times showing his displeasure with officials and even appearing to pout prior to his not starting in a game just a few weeks ago. To say he is the kind of polarizing character that opposing fans love to hate is an understatement but he causes strong emotions from even the Duke fan base.
But love him or loath him Rivers is Duke’s most talented player and his recent performances have him as the clear front runner for the ACC Freshman of the year award.
But beyond his play is his will to win and the edginess with which he plays the game. Duke is clearly not the best team in the country or the most talented. They probably weren’t considered that in 2010 either but they won a National Title that year because they developed a chip on their shoulder that helped them fight through the adversity and disbelief in their abilities.
Now I’m not saying this year’s team can win a title but they can and should play with that same chip on their shoulder.
Rivers in many respects is becoming that kind of player for Duke that can provide that chip. If the Blue Devils can use his clearly superior talent and play with that same chippy mentality then who knows what can happen as this year progresses.
After his unbelievable shot that clinched a victory at North Carolina last week, Rivers was anointed a star, even though he was kind of already that. His shot has been played countless times on ESPN and just about every sports outlet there is and for good reason. How often do you see that kind of game in that kind of rivalry end in a last second buzzer-beater? Not often.
The fact that Rivers, a freshman was in that position to wave off a junior in Seth Curry or Andre Dawkins to take the final shot, or even to pull up for the game winner rather than driving around a defender he could have clearly beat off the dribble to try and force a tie speaks to his confidence.
Through all the criticism, I’m not certain Rivers has ever lost that confidence or swagger that he brought to Durham this year. It is that swagger that this team needs heading down the stretch. Early in the Blue Devils game against Maryland on Saturday, Rivers appeared to be the only one playing with any fire.
After hitting a three pointer he almost chastised his teammates urging them to play with more fire and passion. That is the kind of maturity Duke needs, though surprisingly enough it is coming from a freshman.
Duke’s captains, Seth Curry, Miles Plumlee and Ryan Kelly have all been important to the team in a multitude of ways both measurable and immeasurable alike. But it is that vocal leader that Duke has been missing and Rivers has started to show that he can take on that role for this teams.
Still Rivers is not Kyrie Irving, that is not fault of his own. He isn’t the same type player or quite as ready for prime time as Irving was, but that doesn’t make him less than a top talent that can be a difference maker.
In that same game against Maryland, Rivers didn’t light up the stat sheet. He only scored 11 points after posting 29 against North Carolina, a number unheard of by a freshman against the Heels in the famous rivalry. But he did other things well. He is starting to pass the ball and look for his teammates when he is able to get into the lane.
He is playing better defense and showing more active hands that are forcing bad passes or leading to turnovers. He is starting to do the little things he has never had to do because his coach expects him to do more than just score.That is the reason I believe Rivers came to Duke, to learn from the best coach and to become a complete player.
In my opinion, Rivers still has a long way to go and would benefit from at least one more season at the college level. But he has come a long way so far this year and his development as the chippy, leader of this team can only mean good things for Duke in its remaining six regular season games.
But only time will tell how Rivers’ affects this team and program in both the short term and long term but so far things are definitely looking up.