ATLANTA — Austin Rivers’ arms are extended, palms facing the Phillips Arena rafters.
He doesn’t trust himself. He’s thinking too much, over-contemplating the cuts and screens that serve a greater purpose in his new role with the New Orleans Hornets. His coach, Monty Williams, notices as well. Following his team’s 97-68 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, Williams tersely answered a question on whether Rivers looks hesitant with a decisive and abrupt, “Yes.”
“I’m thinking so much. That’s not who I am,” said Rivers, who scored 11 points in the loss. “Some players like to think a lot, but that’s not who I am. I’m the complete opposite. I just go.”
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This is not the Austin Rivers the basketball world is accustomed to watching.
Rivers stocked up the highlight reels for Duke in his lone season at the college level, leading a relatively talent-depleted Blue Devils’ squad to a 27-7 record and an NCAA tournament bid — which culminated in a first-round loss to Lehigh and his NBA exodus.
At times last season, he was the only hope for coach Mike Krzyzewski’s offense. When Duke’s back was against the wall against a solid defensive team, it often fell to Rivers and his innate driving ability to get to the basket and cause teams to react. It was his burden to carry: sometimes it worked — his game-winning 3-pointer against North Carolina will remain in NCAA lore for decades — and other times it didn’t.
But his role is different now.
After hearing David Stern call his name as the 10th pick in the NBA Draft, he became one of many talented athletes striving to make it in the world’s premier basketball league. He’s no longer the superstar; he’s a borderline starter (depending on how Williams wants to juggle the lineup when standout guard Eric Gordon returns from injury) still trying to grasp a new system.
“Going out, what I need to do is study the film so I know all the plays in the back of my head so that when they call the play I’m not thinking. I can just run it,” Rivers said. “That’s the biggest thing for me personally is getting the plays just down. Once I get that down, which will be in the next week or so I’ll have that down, I’ll be able to just play.”
Fellow Hornets rookie Anthony Davis, the prized No. 1 pick in June’s draft, falls into a similar category on the opposite end of the spectrum. Although he was named the Naismith National Player of the Year for his singular season at Kentucky, Davis rarely found himself as the focal point of John Calipari’s offense. He played off his teammates, cleaning up mistakes, throwing down alley-oops and defending the rim like few ever have at the collegiate level. He was transcendent.
But now, instead of doing the dirty work and walking away with double-doubles, Davis is occasionally being asked to be The Guy for the Hornets, their franchise cornerstone at both ends of the court. It’s a role he certainly seems capable of — his 19 points against Atlanta led the team in scoring for the second time this preseason — but there’s still a learning curve. It’s a different ballgame.
“It’s different, it’s something I’ve gotta get used to. But we have other guys that can score the ball so I’m still in the same predicament,” Davis said. “I try to go out there and just look for my shot.”
Davis and Rivers come from different backgrounds: Davis the Chicago kid who grew eight inches his senior season to explode onto the recruiting scene; Rivers the NBA coach’s son primed for these moments his entire life.
They handle the early pitfalls in different ways, too. Following the blowout loss to Atlanta, Davis was visibly upset and despondent at his locker while Rivers sat but five yards away and openly discussed the intricacies of his in-game mindset.
It’s not an indicator that Rivers cares less about winning than Davis does, it’s just a reflection of two divergent basketball backgrounds. The most influential basketball figure in Rivers’ life — his father, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers — has undoubtedly worn off on the young guard: Losses happen at this level. Whereas for Davis, coming off a national-championship-or-bust year at Kentucky, anything short of success night in and night out likely feels like some small measure of failure.
But a few preseason shortcomings do not signify failure, despite Wiliams’ understandably sour mood about his team’s effort in Atlanta. This is an extremely young roster playing without its best guard. Its two top draft picks led the team in scoring. There are positives.
“What it told me, tonight, was that even though it was such a negative experience, it was a great experience for us because we got smacked,” Rivers said. “We need that, we got all this hype: ‘Oh, Hornets this, Hornets that.’ But we gotta go out there and earn it. We got all these pieces and lottery picks and whatever you wanna call it, but we gotta go out there and play.”
New roles take time to learn, as was made clear by Austin Rivers’ on-court confusion Thursday night.
With his outstretched arms speaking volumes, there is still much to be learned in New Orleans.
“[We’re] just getting used to playing this game the way that guys have to play it,” Williams said. “This is a man’s game, and our young guys are starting to realize that men are playing it.”