Austin Rivers said his first NBA game felt "good."
He knew that was not true.
Rivers had a rough go of it in his professional debut, bricking
eight of his nine shots and committing three turnovers in the Hornets' loss to
the Spurs on Wednesday. The combo guard out of Duke never displayed his usual
swagger in 24 minutes, turning down shots he hit with regularity in college and
consistently making the correct pass a split-second too late for his target to
do anything constructive with the ball.
His shaky debut was overshadowed by a surprisingly
competitive showing by the young Hornets against the veteran Spurs, as well as
an encouraging performance by fellow rookie Anthony Davis. The top pick in this
year's draft had 21 points and seven rebounds, but most of all he did not look
out of place alongside Tim Duncan. Davis was every bit as good as advertised,
stalking Spurs' penetrators on defense and instinctively executing
pick-and-rolls with point guard Greivis Vasquez on offense.
One game obviously is nowhere near a large enough sample
size to project a player's long-term impact. That did not stop critics from
shouting "I told you so!" after Jeff Green's disappearing act on
Tuesday, or did it prevent the James Harden fanboys from exulting at the star
guard's stirring opening act with the Rockets on Wednesday. The vastly
different debuts for Rivers and Davis served only as a reminder that some rookies
have farther to go than others. The only players from the last draft who could
have suited up and performed reasonably well in an NBA game the very next day were
Davis and Damian Lillard. Everyone else from the class of 2012 has work to do.
Rivers' first game was not disappointing, though. In fact,
Rivers confirmed most of the things said about him coming out of college. He
misfired on two 3-point attempts and did not have the lift to finish in traffic
at the rim. He played his rear end off, as expected, and hit the hardwood in
pursuit of a loose ball. Scouts said Rivers would need to be shifty and
creative to generate his points in the pros, and that is certainly how it
But the most obvious difference from Rivers the Hornet and Rivers
the Blue Devil was his unfamiliar tentativeness. He seemed caught between
taking his own shot and setting up his teammates on Wednesday. Such
indecisiveness was never a problem during his stellar freshman season at Duke,
yet it was understandable given that he was getting his first glimpse of the
greater speed and complexity of the NBA game. As he becomes more comfortable,
he should stop second-guessing himself.
The biggest question regarding Rivers therefore is not limited
to his play alone. Hornets fans are getting a little restless awaiting the
arrival of their supposed savior, Eric Gordon, who has been limited to nine
games in the last calendar year. One New Orleans scribe termed Gordon's health
issue "the most severe minor knee injury in modern athletic history." The Hornets matched the Phoenix Suns' four-year, $58 million contract offer
this summer for Chris Paul's nominal replacement, who the team keeps saying is
close to getting healthy only to repeatedly push back his targeted return date.
Aside from the health concerns, the hang-up with Gordon is that there is some
disagreement whether he is a scoring point guard or a playmaking off-guard.
That happens to be the debate with Rivers, too, which
creates some interesting possibilities and problems for Hornets coach Monty
Williams when (or should that be, "if"?) Gordon comes back. Davis
will have the full attention of the organization and the freedom to exercise
his diverse skills on the court, but once Gordon returns to the backcourt
Rivers will have to find a way to fit in.
In a way, Rivers has the most unenviable position of any
current rookie. He does not need merely to adjust to a new style of play in a
new league and justify his status as a top-10 pick. He also needs to do it
while everyone is oohing and ahhing over his NBA-ready teammate. Any progress
by Rivers will probably seem slow by comparison to Davis.
Davis, like any rookie, is far from a finished product. Yet
even first-year players of similar ages are at varying points in their
developments, and Wednesday's game illustrated that Davis is entering the
league with a bit of a head start.
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