For much of his time in the league, Los Angeles Clippers Guard Austin Rivers has been a punching bag for pundits and critics who felt he wasn’t good enough to be in the NBA.
Some have argued that because Rivers is coached by his father, Doc Rivers, nepotism, not talent or skill, is the reason Austin Rivers is getting an opportunity. However, if you have seen Rivers play in the past two seasons, it is clear that not only does he deserve his opportunity, but he has become an solid NBA player and an excellent role player for one of the best teams in the league.
Austin Rivers is not simply some undrafted free agent or a D-League call-up being given an undeserved shot. Rivers has excelled at every level he has played at. At Winter Park High School in Florida, Rivers led the team to back-to-back state championships and was named Naismith Prep Player of the Year. Rivers was a 5-star recruit in every reputable publication and was ranked the number one recruit in the entire country by Rivals.com
Rivers went on from being the top high school player in the nation to starring at Duke where he averaged 15.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1 steal per game. He was also named ACC Rookie of the Year and a Third-Team All-American selection as a Freshman. He even delivered another entry to the storied rivalry between North Carolina and Duke with a game-winning three pointer at the buzzer to stop North Carolina’s 31-game home win streak.
After being selected 10th in the NBA Draft by the New Orleans Pelicans, Rivers struggled to get acclimated to the NBA, battling surgeries on his ankle and wrist during his rookie season, along with struggling to find consistent minutes behind starter Jrue Holiday.
In his time in New Orleans, Rivers showed brief flashes of his potential, including a 27-point outburst in his rookie campaign, but overall he struggled shooting the basketball and lacked confidence in his inconsistent minutes. These struggles led to the widely believed perception that Rivers couldn’t cut it in the NBA.
Not all players, however, have an easy transition into the league. The game is faster, the players are stronger, and the lights are brighter on the biggest stage in the basketball world. Look no further than Rivers’ current teammate, JJ Redick.
Just like Rivers, Redick was a college standout from Duke. In fact, Redick was one of the greatest college basketball players of all time, but upon making it to the pros as the 11th pick in 2006, he struggled mightily. Redick failed to average double-figures in points until his fourth season in the league, didn’t earn a start until his third season in the league, and didn’t become a regular starter until his eighth season in the NBA. It wasn’t until his 9th season in the NBA that Redick posted his highest scoring average of his career at 16.4 points per game.
While Rivers and Redick are different types of players, the comparison of two players trying to find their identity in the league holds true. In his first full season with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2015-16, Rivers raised his scoring average from 7.0 the previous season to 8.9, while also raising his shooting percentage from 41 percent up to 44 percent. These may seem like insignificant increases, but for a player coming off the bench and averaging 22 minutes per game, these improvements are impressive.
Along with the offensive improvement, Rivers has made himself a solid rotation player through his stout defense. Last season Rivers posted a defensive rating of 103.3, a top 40 rating in the entire league, and better than that of noted strong defenders Jimmy Butler, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and Patrick Beverley.
In a sports culture that values performing in pressure situations, Rivers should also be commended for his strong showings in the playoffs. In his first trip with the Clippers in 2014-15, Rivers played an instrumental role in dethroning the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.
With the Clippers down 2-1 in the series on the road, Rivers delivered with 16 points off the bench on 7-8 from the field. Rivers once again rose to the occasion days later with the Clippers trailing 3-2 in the series, helping secure another road victory to force a decisive Game 7 that the Clippers would go on to win. Rivers then exploded vs the Rockets, pouring in 25 points in Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals
The following year, after the Clippers had already lost their two best players in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to injury, Rivers delivered his finest moment. After being bludgeoned by an accidental Al-Farouq Aminu elbow, Rivers returned to the game looking more like Rocky than an NBA player. Rivers endured 11 stitches to the eye and returned to score 21 points while dishing out 8 assists and nearly pulling off a tremendous upset on the road.
Rivers playoff numbers on a Per 36 Minute basis indicate just how strong he has been in the postseason: 16.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.2 steals. Rivers parlayed that phenomenal performance into a new 3 year $36 million dollar deal with the Clippers. But in case you haven’t been able to tell by now, that’s not because of a free pass given by his father. The Houston Rockets, New York Knicks, and Brooklyn Nets were all interested in signing Rivers this past offseason as well.
The early returns of the 2016-17 season show that Rivers is continuing to develop and earn his new paycheck. Rivers led the Clippers with 19 points in an 88-75 win over the Utah Jazz on Sunday afternoon and is currently averaging 11.7 points per game on 57 percent shooting from the field for the 3-0 Clippers. Rivers has also raised her PER from 10.3 in 2014-15 to 11.1 last season, and up to 12.4 in the early moments of the current season.
He may not turn into a starter who averaged 16 points per game like JJ Redick. He may not become an All-Star like his father Doc Rivers. He may never be anything more than a solid player off the bench.
But Austin Rivers belongs in the NBA, and he deserves your respect.