The Evolution of Austin Rivers

The Duke basketball program is used to bringing in highly touted freshmen. In any given year, odds are that Duke has landed at least one of the top five high school players in the nation. The Blue Devils have been represented in every single McDonald’s High School All-American game since 1993. Last season, super-freshman Kyrie Irving needed only 11 games to take the NCAA by storm and earn the #1 overall pick in the draft. But although he’s stepping directly into the shadows of Irving, I think we all can agree that there hasn’t been more hype for a Duke freshman than for Austin Rivers.

Rivers’ story is already well known. The Winter Park, Fl. native is the son of former NBA guard and current Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. Doc spent the first nine of his fourteen NBA seasons as a player with the Atlanta Hawks (he also played for Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks, and San Antonio Spurs.) Living up to a father who played in the NBA is no easy task (and not an uncommon one in the Duke program, just ask Seth Curry, Gerald Henderson or Chris Collins). But being the son of a former NBA player and one of the top coaching minds in basketball means much more than that. Not only do you have to be physically gifted, you’re expected to have excellent basketball instincts.

Rivers was on display from the beginning in the Friendship Games (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Every fall at Duke is special thanks to the arrival of 1700 new Cameron Crazies, but more importantly it means the arrival of a handful of new campus “gods”: the freshman basketball players. As one of the most heavily hyped freshmen in the country, I can assure you that it didn’t take very long for Rivers to attain celebrity status on campus. Not only had we heard our favorite college basketball analysts raving about this kid and seen endless highlight reels of him on YouTube (my personal favorite being this one of him crossing up 2010 NBA #1 overall pick John Wall), but we were able to catch a glimpse of him playing with the rest of his Blue Devil teammates at the Friendship Games in China and the UAE over the summer. When the season finally started, however, the “Austin Rivers legend” and the 18 year-0ld player were not exactly identical.

Our first glimpse of Rivers at Cameron was at Duke’s annual Countdown to Craziness. Though the general excitement surrounding the event was the kick-off to this team’s run toward a fifth national championship, there wasn’t a soul on campus that didn’t walk into Cameron that day wondering what this kid could really do. Austin was well received by the Duke crowd- as the first player introduced, he received the loudest ovation of the entire evening. Rivers came out on fire, knocking down shots from all over the floor as his White team jumped out to a double-digit lead by halftime. In the second half, the wheels started to fall off a bit. Rivers’ shots were not falling and he became visibly frustrated, affecting his play on both ends of the floor. Meanwhile, the Blue team led by veterans Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins came storming back and eventually took home the victory.

Another month of hard work and fine tuning went by, and the Blue Devils were finally ready to start their 2011 season. Even in just 11 games this year, you can examine Rivers’ season in three distinct phases. Here’s a look at Rivers’ performances to date, game by game.

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Rivers' worst performance of the season was against Michigan State (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

As you can plainly see, the first few games of the year for Austin Rivers didn’t go so hot. In fact, he looked downright out of sync with the rest of the Duke team. Part of Rivers’ struggles in the opening games of the season resulted from increased pressure for him to step into his team’s vacant role of point guard. When Austin was bringing up the ball more often, he felt more pressure to create and facilitate the offense. This combined with a slightly naïve sense of invincibility left over from his high school playing days resulted in a lot of forced shots and turnovers, and the Duke offense struggled.

Rivers earned his chances at the rim when he was the centerpiece of the offense (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Following a dreadful performance at Madison Square Garden against Michigan State, Rivers finally started to slow down and trust in his teammates. In turn, he allowed other players to set him up for open looks and made sure not to waste his opportunities. The point guard responsibilities shifting toward Seth Curry and Tyler Thornton only made matters easier for Rivers, who was able to roam the perimeter in search of open threes when he was off the ball and split double teams to drive down the lane when he was on the ball. However, Rivers’ transformation into the offensive force that he now is was not complete. There were still moments where he would revert back to his old bad habits and force a bad shot or turn the ball over. This second phase of his season was still extremely important, as Duke was able to get quality wins over difficult opponents like Michigan and Kansas. Duke’s drubbing at Ohio State marked the last game of this phase. Rivers put forth one of his better offensive outputs of the season, netting a career-high 22 points while pulling off some dazzling drives.

A more patient Austin Rivers has blended into the Duke offense splendidly (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

The third phase of Austin’s season was an intriguing one. Rivers stepped back from his role as the team’s primary scorer and once again the Blue Devils scored by committee. However, this is when he began to play his best basketball of the year. It seemed as though the less Rivers had to do, the more he could do. In Duke’s past three games, Rivers hasn’t had to take as many shots, but has converted as a higher percentage and has not stuck out as an individual entity wearing a Duke jersey, but rather a contributing member of Duke’s fluid offensive set. This is a role he has thrived in- his scoring has not dropped whatsoever and he is contributing more to the team. I’ve watched every single Duke basketball game this year and wrote about most of them, and I’ll still contend that the Austin Rivers moment that got me the most excited had nothing to do with a steal, dunk, or 3-pointer, but rather when I got home from the Colorado State game on December 7, checked a box score and realized he scored a beautifully quiet and efficient 17 points, and then rewatched the game and witnessed how incredibly he flowed within the offense for the first time all year.

Our mission at Crazie-Talk is to bring you all aspects of Duke basketball: the good, the bad, and the Crazie. Ironically, that is exactly the way to sum up Austin Rivers’ young freshman season–the first part was bad, in the second part he became the focus of the offense and went a bit Crazie (not necessarily in a good way), and the third part has been very, very good. Let’s take a look at Austin’s averages from his three phases of this season, “The Bad” being the year’s first three games, “The Crazie” being from Davidson to Ohio State, and “The Good” being Duke’s past three games.
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So which of these would you rather have? Obviously we’re getting rid of Austin at the beginning of the year where he wasn’t playing well overall, but I’d rather have the Rivers that plays fewer minutes and shoots less, while making more, and doesn’t disrupt the flow of the offense. It sounds almost like a no-brainer.

Just like last season, the Blue Devils enter the ACC regular season headlined by a stud freshman as their leading scorer. Unlike last season, this year’s stud freshman is not sidelined by an injury that will cost him 20 or so games. Just like any first-year player, the ACC  season will be another transition for Austin Rivers, so don’t go jumping off the bandwagon if he has a tough game or two, especially as he gets accustomed to the intensity of ACC road tests. But over the course of this young season, we have learned a lot about who Austin Rivers really is–he is developing, he is learning quickly. He has become an integral member of this offense and he is earning the hype. At this point in his freshman year, Rivers is nowhere near the “finished product” that Kyrie Irving was in December, but he is improving at a scary pace. And we get to watch. We see these glimpses of greatness that a year ago were only reserved for our computer screens on YouTube, as game by game the greatness begins to take over.

It will be something special to witness.

Section 17: Duke Trumps Volunteers, Set Up Rematch with Michigan

Courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com

Austin Rivers d's up. He had 18 points in the game. (Photo via BluePlanetShots.com)

Through four games, Duke looked like a talented team without a fixed identity. We escaped against Belmont by one point at home, and many fans in Cameron gaped in bewilderment. We looked ready to roll against Michigan State before the Spartans cut a double digit lead to 5 by the buzzer. Davidson had a fantastic first half before the Plumlee connection overcame the Wildcats in the second half. Blue Devil fans, including the Crazie-Talk cadre, were never sure of victory despite the high level of talent on this team.

And so we went to Maui, where we faced off against upstart coach Cuonzo Martin’s Tennessee Volunteers in the quarterfinals. The Vols have had their fair share of scandal in the past year, with formerly lauded coach Bruce Pearl dismissed at the end of last season. The new look Tennessee squad never truly backed down; their lack of organization and a tendency to take bad shots doomed them against Duke, but they were athletic and feisty through Monday’s 40 minutes. Duke finally got it together in the final eight minutes of action, pulling away to a 77-67 victory in the Lahaina Civic Center, where we have never lost in four previous Maui Invitationals.

Here are some of my observations from the night.

  • Our three point defense against the Vols was fantastic. Tennessee took eight shots from beyond the arc and connected on none of them. I attribute this to our ball-hawking perimeter defense. This facet of our defensive strategy is both a gift and a curse: we often pressure shooters at the expense of dribble penetration. The Vols were more keen on taking shots closer to the bucket anyway–they shot 50 times from within the arc and collected 10 offensive rebounds. However, Tennessee is not a bad outside shooting team. Even after tonight, the team shoots threes at a 49.1% clip. If Coach K is comfortable funneling shooters to the paint and protecting the three point arc, let’s hope our big men can handle it against better teams in the future.
  • Ryan Kelly is our most consistent offensive player. The White Raven has proven his mettle this year, quietly of course. The Raleigh native doesn’t burn up in a blaze of glory, he simmers like a tender pot roast (Thanksgiving metaphors!). Against Tennessee, he had 17 points and six rebounds–a ho hum night for a star player, but a testament to Kelly’s skill at taking what comes to him. Yesterday, we wrote about Kelly’s incredible effective field goal percentage, and he continued that trend against the Vols. Kelly shot 5-9 from the field, made five of six free throws and two threes. His buckets came at important times in the game, too. With about four minutes to go, Kelly was on the finishing end of a Seth Curry alley oop that permanently shifted momentum in the game to the Devils. As Curry recovered the loose ball, Kelly saw the play developing and made the smartest possible play: a cut to the basket and a call for the ball. It’s no secret that Kelly is one of the smartest players on the Duke team–he had extremely high SAT scores and studies in the demanding Sanford School of Public Policy. As a junior captain, he has shown his ability to lead Duke to wins in competitive games. I’m glad the White Raven is flying with Duke.
  • Mason Plumlee and Austin Rivers showed flashes of offensive brilliance, but just flashes. Mason and Austin are the most hyped players on the team this year, mostly because of their NBA potential (never mind that Curry and Kelly are the most productive, of course). Monday night was up and down for each of these studs. Rivers took several boneheaded shots in the first half, killing Duke momentum and allowing Tennessee easy transition opportunities. Plum2 was 3-5 from the field, but showed a tendency to dribble himself into trouble with his back to the basket. In the second half, each player had fantastic finishes: Mason’s left handed finish and one and Rivers’ many floaters come to mind. Both Mason and Austin have oodles of ability, and since K is the master of November, he will find ways to help each player grow as the season progresses, even when making mistakes. Certainly both will have to be more efficient if we plan to go deep in March. Luckily, March is months away.
  • Free throw shooting needs work. 18-27 will not cut it when we start conference play. Oh wait, the ACC still sucks. Still, though.
  • The backup PG duo of Thornton and Cook were up and down, but I believe in them. Thornton, our requisite defensive stopper, bodied up against Tennessee’s best player, Trae Golden. He fouled out. Cook posted a eclectic line of two points, two boards, a steal, a block and an assist. He did seem a little bit out of control, though, and only was on the floor for eight minutes. Many have made the observation that “Duke plays better” with Thornton on the floor, and that is usually true of the sophomore. Cook is still recovering from a knee injury and will surely grow as a guard as the season goes on. So, let’s just wait to see what happens for these two guys.
  • Rebounding can be better. Chalk some of it up to Tennessee’s wildly inconsistent shot selection, but they had 10 offensive boards to our eight, and outrebounded us 34-33 overall. This should not happen when we have three upperclassmen 6’10” or taller.

Tonight, we face off with a surging Michigan Wolverines squad who handily beat favored Memphis yesterday. Duke-Michigan carries heavy historical connotations, which were reignited last season by Jalen Rose’s foolish “Uncle Tom” comments about Duke legend Grant Hill. Then we barely escaped from Michigan in the NCAA second round, saved only by Kyrie Irving’s late game floater. Michigan has already beaten Duke once this year by securing the commitment of coveted high school senior Mitch McGary. The Wolverines, true to their mascot, will be out for blood against Duke for all these reasons. There shall be fireworks.

We’ll be back with another liveblog of tomorrow’s action; tipoff should be around  7 PM on ESPN. Thanks to all of those who participated in last night’s liveblog, by the way.

See you at 7PM. Go Duke.

Bonus footage: Highlights from Duke’s most recent Maui championship from DBP in 2008. Whoa, remember Greg Paulus?!? Whoa, remember Taylor “2 packs a day” King? Well, we are now 13-0 in the event.

Correction appended 11/23/11: Tyler Thornton is a sophomore, not a junior. Whoops. 

 

Deviled Eggs: 4/11/11

 

Kyle and Nolan are still giving it their all for a few final collegiate games. (Courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

1.  ACC Seniors Put on a Show in the ACC Barnstorming Tour

Every year, some of the top seniors in the ACC travel throughout the southeast to face off against local all-star teams and compete in slam dunk and 3-point contests.  Duke’s three seniors, Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, and Casey Peters, are all part of this year’s squad.  There are still a few more stops left on their tour, so take a look at the schedule and see if they’ll be nearby.  You won’t want to miss this!

2.  Will Duke Add DeAndre Daniels to its Class of 2011?

While Kyrie Irving unfortunately announced last week that he will be entering the 2011 NBA Draft, he also speculated that Duke might be adding one more phenom to its already stellar Class of 2011, DeAndre Daniels.  Only time will tell if Kyrie is right.  Let’s hope he is.

3. Austin Rivers and Quinn Cook Shine in the Nike Hoop Summit

Two future Duke freshman participated in the annual Nike Hoop Summit this past weekend and helped lead the USA squad to victory.  Cook had 12 points and 3 assists, and Rivers finished with a game-high 20 points and was named MVP.  We just can’t say enough on how excited we are for this incoming class.

…And in other news, Bismack Biyombo is a total beast.  Look for him to go high in this year’s NBA Draft.

4. J.J. Redick Likely to Return for NBA Playoffs

Redick has been sidelined since early March with an abdominal strain.  Things are looking up though, and he looks to be back in time for the playoffs.  That’s certainly good news for the Magic, who definitely miss his presence on both the offensive and defensive ends.

5. 2012 Commits Doing Their Best to Sell Duke

Alex Murphy and Rasheed Sulaimon are doing all they can to produce their own version of the Fab Five.  They’ve been working hard to sway Shabazz Muhammad, L.J. Rose, and Tony Parker to join them in Durham in the fall of 2012.  Check out what Muhammad has to say about that in his latest HighSchoolHoop Diary entry.  Also, be sure to take a look at some analysis of a few of these high school stars from the Nike EYBL Session #1.

6. Mark Gottfried Not Afraid of Challenges

Last week, Mark Gottfried was named the new head coach of the N.C. State Wolfpack.  Let’s see if he has better success against his in-state rivals than Kool-Aid Man did.

That’s it for this week’s edition of Deviled Eggs.  Hope you enjoyed them!  Be on the lookout for the latest offseason news here at Crazie Talk!

Au Revoir, Kyrie

Kyrie Irving has announced his decision to enter the NBA draft and forego his final three years of eligibility at Duke.

 

Kyrie's last game against Arizona was one of his best in a Duke uniform. (courtesy of BluePlanetShots.com)

Kyrie leaves behind a difficult-to-digest legacy, as he only competed in 11 of Duke’s games this season. This writer, having been abroad in the fall semester, never got to see Kyrie play in Cameron, or in a live game at all. Although it’s incredibly disappointing to see him go, we cannot blame Kyrie for chasing his dream of playing professional basketball. He is still a Blue Devil, and always will be.

We wish him a great and healthy career wherever he ends up playing, and we hope he comes back to Durham to cheer on his team, as he did throughout his difficult injury.

UPDATE: Kyrie talks about his decision in this video from GoDuke.com:

Enjoy these highlights from Kyrie’s first huge performance on a national stage–31 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists against Michigan State.

And then maybe this video on Duke’s upset of UNLV in 1991 will help ease your aching spirits. Yes, it was an upset, Seth Davis.

 

C-T Experts: Should Duke Retire Kyle and Nolan's Jerseys?

 

Kyle and Nolan--Blueplanetshots.com

Kyle and Nolan hoisted a lot of trophies together at Duke. Should Duke hoist their jerseys to the rafters? (courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

Should Duke retire Nolan and Kyle’s jerseys?

by Brandon Godwin

It’s a simple question, but the answer is very complex.

Current Conversation on the Web

On a straw poll of 100 Duke fans, no doubt that at least 90% would answer in the affirmative –Retire their jerseys! But we often over-value the present to the devaluation of the past.

Duke fan and media forums have picked up the topic as well, as have a number of local, regional, and even some national media sources.
After spending multiple hours over the last couple months reading through forums and Web articles, here’s what I’ve discovered. Most people are reasoning whether Nolan and Kyle’s jerseys should/shouldn’t be retired based on the following factors:

1. Career Stats & Rank

2. Comparison to other Duke jersey retirees

3. Rabid fan emotion

A Different Measuring Stick

One problem, though — what if numbers and statistical comparisons aren’t the main criteria in measuring whether to retire a player’s jersey or not? What do I mean? Well, it’s “known,” almost as folklore or legend, in the Duke community that there are two main criteria for a player having his jersey retired.

Graduation and National Honors

Players like Elton Brand were no doubt headed for jersey retirement, but chose not to stay four years. Other players like Trajan Langdon had four good years, but no national honors to show for it (only 2nd team All-America).

Let’s define “National Honors“– (a) 1st Team All- America (b) National Player of the Year (c)National Defensive Player of the Year
(2nd/3rd team All-America as well as Conference or NCAA Tournament awards are not considered true national awards in this discussion.)

Kyle’s Resumé

A quick glance at Kyle’s resumé is quite impressive. He is top 5 in so many major stat categories (scoring, rebounding, etc.), including being only the 4th player in Duke history to score 2,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds. Obviously, winning the championship in 2010 sets him and Nolan apart from many other Duke classes.

Potential Problem – No national award. If this is really a requirement for jersey retirement,how does Singler’s get retired? Maybe it’s an unwritten rule that is more of a guiding principle.Honestly, I’ve never found anything written in stone. But the legend says it’s necessary.

Nolan’s Resumé

All statistical discussions aside, since one of the only statistical categories he breaks the top10 is in FT percentage, Nolan had a dominant senior season. One could argue Kyle never had adominant season (though 2010 was darn good).

Nolan already has a national award with the 1st team All-America honor. He’s also a candidatefor several NPOY awards.

Potential Problem: Career stats

Note: Merely winning a national award and graduating do not guarantee jersey retirement at Duke.

(Bob Verga & Chris Carrawell won 1st team AA honors; Tommy Amaker and Steve Wojciechowski won NDPOY honors)

Note: Every player to graduate and win National Player of the Year has had his jersey retired.

Decision Time!

So, where do I land?

Nolan and Kyle, other than sharing the National Championship, have had very dissimilar careers–Singler, the ultra-consistent 4-year standout player, and Smith, the ever-evolving player withthe dominant senior season and the All-America nod.

Package Deal? I wouldn’t be surprised if Nolan and Kyle are a package deal, meaning, either they both get retired, or neither does.
I mean, if only one goes, how do you distinguish between them? Nolan has the national award with the outstanding season, while Singler has the career stats.

Only time will tell. Regardless, Nolan and Kyle will forever be two of the most beloved Duke players.

Brandon Godwin is the first writer in our Crazie-Talk Experts series. (#CTexperts on Twitter). Check him out on his Twitter–he’s an excellent Duke fan like (most of) you.

Check Crazie-Talk every Friday for a new #CTexperts article. Our loyal readers will discuss Duke, the ACC, the NCAA, and all the greatness of college basketball.