Coach, teammates notice second-year guard has made big strides since rookie season
Austin Rivers finds himself in a totally different situation in this training camp compared to last year’s.
New Orleans’ 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft after his freshman year at Duke, Rivers was brought along in training camp, then thrust into the starting lineup when starter Eric Gordon’s right patella was injured during precamp workouts.
He struggled most of his rookie year before coming on near the end, when his hand was broken, ending his season.
Now, the Pelicans’ remade team is deep at guard, and Rivers won’t have such a prominent role. That may give him time to develop more.
Through summer workouts, pickup games, training camp and preseason, coach Monty Williams said Rivers is coming along well.
“If you watch film with us, you could see he has grown,” Williams said. “He’s (21). He’s right where he needs to be.”
Heading into Thursday night’s preseason game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Tulsa, Okla., Rivers is averaging 11.8 points — although on 36.4 percent shooting — plus 4.0 assists and 1.75 turnovers, playing a team-high 31 minutes per game while seeing time at both guard spots.
He’s most pleased about the strides he’s made at point guard.
“I just think my pace — I’m not going 100 miles per hour any more,” he said. “I rarely turn the ball over, too, which is a good thing if you’re going to run the point. I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve gotten better at this summer.”
Guard Anthony Morrow said he’s watched Rivers improve almost daily.
“He goes against Jrue (Holiday) and Brian (Roberts) at point guard and me, Eric and Tyreke at shooting guard,” Morrow said. “That’s good competition for him. And, he works really hard, staying after practice every day.”
Going against Holiday, the team’s starting point guard, has given Rivers lessons in pace, he said.
“Sometimes, he looks like he’s barely moving, but then he scores or makes a play,” Rivers said. “Then, other times, he’s going super quick. I’ve learned that I have to change speeds to be effective.”
With Gordon just returning from conditioning work and Evans still out after spraining his left ankle against Houston on Oct. 5, Williams announced before the Oct. 13 game against Atlanta that he was putting Rivers in the starting lineup to get a look at him other than coming off the bench.
Rivers shot just 3-of-10, scoring 10 points, but made four of five free throws, had five assists, four rebounds and four steals in 35:33 minutes. He appeared to handle himself well at both guard spots and played aggressively, which Williams loves about him.
“He competed,” Williams said.
Rivers kept perspective.
“I just tried to come out and bring energy, play the game and have fun,” he said. “It didn’t really make a difference, whether I started or not. Once Eric gets back, he’ll be back at (shooting guard). And, we’ll be running with Tyreke. I just filled in an tried to have fun.”
Rivers said that the important thing is that the Pelicans, 4-0 in preseason are playing well. They face their toughest test of the preseason against one of the top three teams in the Western Conference in Oklahoma City (3-0), although All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook has missed training camp after having a second knee surgery.
“I think this is our first real test of the preseason,” Rivers said. “We played Houston, but that was our first game.
“We just watched OKC on film (Tuesday night). (All-Star forward) Kevin Durant scored 36 points in 23 minutes (against Denver). We haven’t played against somebody like that.”
The Pelicans exercised third-year options for next season on power forward Anthony Davis and Rivers.
Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, is following his first-team All-Rookie season with an excellent preseason.
Power forward/center Jason Smith was held out practice for the third consecutive day, with doctors having diagnosed his hip injury. Williams said Smith won’t play Thursday night against the Thunder.
“He has an impingement,” Williams said. “It’s something in his hip, and we just want to continue to be smart.”
Smith’s hip was injured late last week in practice.