The competitive nature (in guard Austin Rivers), I don’t know what coach wouldn’t want that. I’ve been around guys who aren’t competitive, and they just make you want to vomit.” MONTY WILLIAMS, New Orleans Hornets coach
NEW ORLEANS — As rumors flew and Austin Rivers’ draft stock fluctuated, so did his mother’s nerves.
All along, Kris Rivers had one place in mind for her son.
“I would always panic that they weren’t going to take him,” she said.
But as the clock began counting down to the No. 10 pick at Thursday’s NBA draft, the good news came.
Austin would be a Hornet.
“It was always No. 1. Always. There was nowhere else,” Kris said.
Rivers added: “It’s nice to be drafted by the team you wanted to play for. It usually doesn’t work like that.”
Most of the time, being drafted and handed millions of dollars by any team is a dream come true, but Rivers-to-New Orleans is especially so. Yes, playing for his father, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, would have been a storybook turn of events, but working under Hornets coach Monty Williams isn’t far behind.
Williams and Doc were NBA teammates, and Williams later played for Doc with the Magic. The two formed a long-lasting friendship, beginning in Williams’ rookie season with the Knicks, when he would go over to the Rivers household and keep Austin and his siblings busy while Kris cooked.
Years later, Austin is in Williams’ care again, a situation the coach calls “a weird deal.”
But exciting, too.
As much as the Rivers family wanted to see Austin play for their old friend and alongside the likes of Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon, Williams wanted Rivers, too.
His high-profile prep career and big season at Duke — where he became just the third freshman to lead the team in scoring — had a lot to do with that, as well as the label that comes affixed to the rookie guard: “Made in an NBA Family.”
Growing up with Doc Rivers as a father was pretty normal, said Callie Rivers, Austin’s sister and a former volleyball player at Florida.
But sometimes, he couldn’t help but let his coaching nature come out.
“After games, he would tell me all these things I could do better, and sometimes they were things you can’t even do in volleyball,” Callie said. “I was like, ‘You can’t do that,’ and he’d say, ‘I don’t know; I have to check the rules.’
“He always was just trying to improve us in everything, even beyond sports.”
That left a group of kids always striving for perfection and fostered a highly competitive atmosphere.
A frequent game at the dinner table was a homemade version of “Jeopardy.” Doc played the role of Alex Trebek, and the contestants had to bang on the table to buzz in and give an answer. Points were totaled up, and the winner got dessert first.
Then there were the races between Austin and Callie to the top of the stairs, and countless card and board games.
Who won more often?
“Me, for sure. It’s not even close,” Callie said.
Most recently, things got heated between the two over a game of Scattergories.
“If you watch me and my sister play a game of cards, there will be all kinds of names thrown out,” Austin said. “To be completely honest, that’s just how our family is. We get really competitive, and that’s why we all push each other and are in the right place.”
In addition to Austin and Callie, oldest son Jeremiah played basketball at Indiana and is hoping to make an NBA roster this summer, and youngest son Spencer is playing high school ball.
While Williams said he doesn’t understand how the Rivers family managed to live together peacefully, he’s happy to have that mentality on board. If anything, he expects he’ll have to rein in Austin a bit to prevent burnout during a long season.
“The competitive nature, I don’t know what coach wouldn’t want that,” Williams said. “I’ve been around guys who aren’t competitive, and they just make you want to vomit.”
There are other areas where Williams can see Doc’s imprint.
Rivers has the same big hands, runs the pick-and-roll just like his dad and sports a wide frame that Williams expects the 19-year-old to fill out much more as he develops.
Then there’s the athleticism, which matches the version of the Doc who averaged a double-double while playing guard for the Hawks in the 1980s.
“He doesn’t look like it now, because he kind of walks like George Jefferson now, but Doc used to go upstairs and put it on your head,” Williams said. “The only thing Austin doesn’t do that Doc did back then was, Doc fouled more than a flock of birds. It was embarrassing how much he fouled in practice, and I know Austin doesn’t play that way.”
From hype to here
Williams followed Rivers’ career since middle school, when Doc told him that his son had a chance to one day be an NBA talent. Later, Williams saw highlights on YouTube, and he was blown away.
He sees Rivers as a talented scorer who can create his own shots, as well as a skilled ball-handler who’s already with the NBA’s elite in that department.
He made sure to test that theory during a pre-draft workout in June, when he played close defense on Rivers and put him through a few rough drills.
Rivers never complained, and Williams couldn’t pick his pocket.
“I’m OK at taking the ball from people, and I had a tough time just putting my hand on the ball,” Williams said. “There are very few guys in the NBA who have command of the ball. They can dribble, but they don’t have command of it. And I think he has pretty good command of the ball.”
That skill — another one Williams says comes from Doc — led to speculation that Rivers will play point guard for the Hornets, even if it isn’t a natural fit. For now, Williams is content to call him a combo guard, along with Eric Gordon.
For his part, Rivers said he has played the point at times and would be comfortable there, but he has no illusions of stepping into the role and becoming an All-Star right away.
That’s another benefit of having an NBA father for a coach: the understanding he has plenty of work ahead.
“I got to see how it is firsthand of how you need to prepare for games,” Rivers said. “I see how many hours my dad watches film and how many pages and pages of plays he draws up, how he prepares, gets sleep and eats right.
“All those things that an athlete has to do that we get away with in college, you can’t do now.”
That was part of the advice Doc gave his son as he prepared for a pro career, as well as telling him to relax and enjoy the ride. Doc was the calming influence for the family Thursday, as he sat by Austin’s side rather than the Celtics’ draft room in Boston.
Doc was the first to hear that Rivers was New Orleans-bound, via text message, and he broke the news with a warm, calming smile.
Once it became official, there were no more nerves, just elation that Rivers had landed in exactly the right spot: with Williams and alongside Davis.
“It’s beyond special,” Kris said. “It’s an enormous blessing. I trust Monty with everything I have, and I’ve told the Davises that.
“He will absolutely make both of our young men better men and better basketball players.”