To many, New Orleans Pelicans second-year guard Austin Rivers still needs to justify being selected with the 10th pick in the 2012 draft after his freshman year at Duke.
While No. 1 pick Anthony Davis was showing steady progress and enticing with his promise as a rookie, Rivers struggled through a first-year campaign that was often painful for fans to watch and drew the ire of the national media.
As Rivers enters his second season, Pelicans management said he need not prove — nor disprove — anything concerning how high he was selected or whether it was wise to leave Duke and Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski so soon.
General Manager Dell Demps and coach Monty Williams selected Rivers at age 19, knowing he would need to be seasoned like a good pot of red beans.
“Austin will get there,” Williams said of Rivers, who turned 21 in August. “He works hard. He needs to continue learning and growing. I wish you could participate in our film sessions and see the difference in his play from last season to now. It’s like night and day.”
His draft spot and whether he deserves to be on the Pelicans roster (or in the NBA at all) is on Demps and Williams. Rivers has bigger redfish to fry. On a team loaded with guards primed to contribute — Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Brian Roberts and Anthony Morrow — Rivers must prove he deserves playing time.
Getting there likely will take showing he is making progress in all phases of the game. Rivers, almost endearingly, remains confident. He hedges his bet on his skill base, diligence and competitiveness, which teammates say are legit.
“I just have to keep working,” he said. “I go against Jrue in practice, against Eric, against Tyreke all the time, and Brian, and I’ve learned a lot. Coach is going to go with different matchups, depending on the opponent we face, and things happen. It’s a long season. There are injuries. The key for me is to just keep getting better.”
Rivers, whose shooting mechanics have a herky-jerky look, made just 34.4 percent of his shots and 57.6 percent of his free throws in the preseason. Last season, he shot 37.2 percent from the field.
Worse, he made just 54.6 percent of his free throws, way too few for someone whose job it is to handle the ball and who loves driving to the basket.
Even that has not been impressive.
“I would like to see Austin finish at the rim a lot better,” Williams said. “Last year, he would get to the rim but miss the shot. That’s certainly something he needs to work on, and he’ll get there.”
Demps and Williams have shown their confidence in Rivers, picking up his contract option for the 2013-14 season.
“I have this season and one more year,” Rivers said.
That is, to prove himself.