By Jerry Karpowicz
MILWAUKEE â Of course Austin Rivers gets instruction from David Bailey, his coach at Winter Park (Fla.) High School and the gentleman who sees him play and practice more than anyone these days.
And certainly Rivers gets feedback from his dad, Glenn âDocâ Rivers, who is quite consumed with his job that is coach of the Boston Celtics and is not able to see many of his sonâs games in person.
It would be hard to argue the notion the most important advice the future Duke player gets comes from his future coach, Mike Krzyzewski.
The 6-foot, 5-inch Rivers looked every bit like the top-rated prep player in the country Saturday during the feature game of the Under Armour Brandon Jennings Invitational at Marquette high School. He scored a game-high 35 points, which included at least two of his four three-point baskets from well beyond the NBA distance and 11 of 12 from the free throw line. Rivers played all 36 minutes, but it was not quite enough to keep Winter Park, 28th in the Powerade Fab 50 / ESPN Rise rankings, from a gut-wrenching 81-79 overtime loss to 36th-ranked Boys & Girls of Brooklyn, N.Y. The winning points came on a rebound basket that went through the hoop as the buzzer sounded (the game is scheduled to be shown by Fox Sports on Feb. 1; check your listings).
Rivers went into Saturdayâs game averaging 30 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.9 steals a little under one blocked shot and 2.7 turnovers. He was shooting 54 percent overall (67 percent on two-point tries and 34 percent on threes) and 67 percent from the free throw line.
âRight now, the only thing they tell me I need to do is be even more aggressive,â Rivers said after the game when asked if he has been getting input from the Duke staff. âCoach K said I needed to be more aggressive and get to the basket and shoot the ball more. They want me to get really aggressive because thatâs what theyâll have me doing there. Be more aggressive, not just for myself, but for the team. They donât just mean shooting the ball. They mean driving, getting other people the ball. So they just mean everything, really.â
Rivers did his share of directing traffic and not forcing play. The Wildcats got off to a slow start, falling behind by double digits early. Rivers missed his first three three-point tries before making one and finished the first quarter with six points (three on free throws). He added 12 points in the second quarter as Winter Park closed to 43-40 at halftime. His only two third quarter points came on a layin off a press break, and Winter Park took a 58-57 lead into the fourth quarter. His straightaway three-pointer sent the game into overtime at 71. He scored seven of Winter Parkâs eight overtime points.
Throughout, he sprinkled in steals, assists and rebounds (official statistics were not kept in those categories, and I did not keep track).
There was never a period where he appeared to be pressing. Sometimes it looked as though he was acting as a decoy. When asked if that was the case, Rivers turned back to his aggressiveness.
âTonight, I think I should have been way more aggressive,â said Rivers, who was very cordial following the tough defeat. âI settled a little bit too much. I let the game come to me, which is sometimes good, but sometimes youâve got to go get it.
âI think, tonight, if I was talking to Coach K and them if they were here, I think one thing they would have said to me is that I need to go get it a little more. I kind of sat around and stared, instead telling them, âHey, give me the ball.â At the same time, Iâm not working to get the ball that well, so if anything, I think I need to be more aggressive.â
I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with Rivers on Friday afternoon at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Milwaukee. The Wildcats arrived Friday morning and were greeted by weather that was about the polar opposite of what Rivers is used to â emphasis on polar. It was the coldest day in two years, with the temperature failing to reach 10.
Rivers was the only person I saw in a crowded lobby who was wearing a T-shirt. He was accommodating, frank and candid, and very generous with his time. He is clearly at ease.
âItâs a lot more relaxing now,â Rivers said. âI can actually just concentrate on basketball and being a kid. The recruiting, things were kind of crazy as far as what school I was going to go to, with people trying to talk me into going to their places. After I found my home at Duke, everything kind of smoothed over and this is all about getting better, instead of where I want to go.â
Bailey, his current coach, has seen a difference since Rivers made the commitment to Duke.
âThe thing that I noticed most is that heâs been more relaxed and not as guarded when heâs talking about colleges or future plans, and I think thatâs been a good thing for him,â Bailey said. âHe was glad to make his decision, sign at the school and then have the opportunity to enjoy that, be done with the whole process and just concentrate on playing basketball in his last year in high school.â
Bailey said any issues he had during the recruiting process never resulted in negatives while Rivers was playing.
âNo, not on the floor, because on the floor Austin is about as focused and as driven as any player that Iâve ever had play for me,â Bailey said. âIâm sure that like players at that level, he doesnât let things off the court affect his play on the court. The place he enjoys the most is being out there performing, the challenge of the game against the competition, and he always rises to that occasion.â
Rivers watched the Blue Devils rise to the occasion when he attended the Virginia game Jan. 15. The was his first game in Cameron (he was on hand for Countdown to Craziness).
âIt was a fun game,â Rivers said. âThey played bad the first half and the second half it was fun to see the crowd go crazy and stuff like that. Itâs just fun to be around my future teammates. I had a good time hanging out with them.â
He has become tight with Kyrie Irving.
âIâm real close to Kyrie,â Rivers said. âIâve become close to him the past year and a half, two years. Iâm friends with Kyrie. First met him at a skills academy, and then ever since an Elite 24 game (in August, 2009) when we played with each other weâve kind of become real friends.
âI call him, he calls me, I text him, he texts me, back and forth. Plus Josh (Hairston), I played with Josh on the USA team this summer. I met Tyler (Thornton) up there. Iâm close with all the people up there. I text Seth (Curry) all the time. Iâm pretty close with most of the guys up there. Of course the coaches, I talk to them all the time now that Iâm signed. Iâm real close with them, too.â
Shabazz Muhammad, a 2012 point guard target, also attended the Virginia game. They talked, but Rivers is not a recruiter.
âIâm not the type of guy who tries pushing someone towards a decision, because they already get enough of that,â Rivers said. âI just tell them, personally, why I chose Duke, and the strong points of Duke. I donât tell them any weaknesses because I donât see that Duke has any.
âI just tell them why I like Duke, and let them make their own decision because at the end of the day itâs a really big decision.â
It is a different story with future teammate Quinn Cook. He says he is very close to Quinn.
âI talk to Quinn about once or twice a week,â Rivers said. âSometimes on the phone, or I text him, or weâll call each other before each otherâs big games,â River said. âSo Iâm really close to Quinn. I think itâs always important to be close to your point guard, or a guard next to you, because thatâs the guys that gets you the ball.â
Rivers flashed a big smile after that last sentence.
While Rivers will not lean on recruits to commit, he will offer his opinions to Irving. It is widely believed Irving will leave for the NBA after this season.
âWith that, Iâm definitely going to try to get him to stay,â Rivers said. âI get that question like, a million times a day. Kyrie-Austin, Kyrie-Austin.
âThatâs a tough decision for him. Heâs an NBA player right now, in my opinion. Heâs a great player. At the end of the day heâs going to do whatâs best for him and his family, and Iâll support him either way.
âWould I love to play with Kyrie, and would we be the best back court? I think yes. I think we would be by far. I think Duke would be the best team next year if Kyrie stays and with the Plumlees and Quinn and all those great players. I think weâd be really hard to stop.
âBut I know he has a tough decision to make, so Iâll support him either way.â
Rivers said he did not have any inside information on whether Irving would be able to play again this season.
âAs far as him coming back, I have no clue,â River said. âI really donât know. I ask him all the time, but heâs just like, âI donât know. When my foot gets healthy.â So I donât know.â
When it came down to making his decision on his college choice, his dad, and mom Kris, gave the best advice.
âI kind of just made my own decision,â Rivers said. âPeople gave me guidance, and I listened, but at the end of the day my parents told me that I need to do whatâs best for me and my future. I thought Duke was the best place for me to go and improve my game and get better. So at the end of the day, I chose Duke. Not because of anybody else, just because of myself.â
The was one factor that pushed him over the top.
âI just think it was the history there,â Rivers said. âThe success they have with their players, and as far as winning. A lot of their players go the NBA, which is a plus. And they win. And theyâre the prime time school. When you think of college basketball, you think of Duke.
âI committed to Florida when I was a freshman. And itâs a great school, great coach, great program there. But when you think of the Florida Gators, you think of Florida Gators football. I think of Tim Tebow and all those players. When you think of Duke, you think of Coach K, and Jason Williams and the greats who have been there. I want to be one of those guys, when people say âDuke basketball,â they say âThatâs where Austin Rivers wentâ. I want to leave a legacy like that, no matter how long Iâm there for. Thatâs why I chose Duke.â
Rivers said Coach Kâs involvement with USA basketball, once thought to be a detriment to recruiting, did nothing to sway him.
âIt didnât make a difference to me,â Rivers said. âThatâs a popular question. People always ask would that push me away or pull me toward. I just see that as another thing he does to help the game of basketball. It just shows how great of a coach he is. He coaches basketball and wins at Duke, he goes and coaches in the Olympics and wins a gold medal. That drew me to him, just how good of a coach he is.â
Boys and Girlsâ defense was similar to the way a lot of schools have played Winter Park this season. The Kangaroos (15-3) played Rivers tight and physical. It can get frustrating, like when Rivers, while on his back after getting knocked to the floor on a drive but not getting any help from the officials, asked âWhereâs the foul?â
âThatâs every game,â Rivers said of the physical play. âThat doesnât bother me. Every game theyâre pulling on, talking trash, trying to get in my head, but that doesnât bother me.
âI keep going. If I stop, that messes up my whole game.â
Riversâ motto is âMan on a mission.â He will not rest on the fact he is the top recruit in the country or will attend a college basketball powerhouse. There will always be work to be done.
âAt the end of the day, in my mind, I havenât done anything,â Rivers said. âIâm still a high school player. I donât pay the bills at my house. I donât have a job. I get no income. So at the end of the day, Iâm just off to a great start, and thatâs just how I try to look at it, right now.â
Saturdayâs defeat dropped Winter Parkâs record to 15-6, with each of the losses coming to schools ranked in the top 50 in the country. The Wildcats, 8-0 in district play, next month will begin to pursue a second straight Class 6A state title.
âThereâs only thing you can do, and thatâs learn from it and improve,â Rivers said when asked how he deals with losing a game. âIâm real angry we lost, especially to a team I think we could have beat, a team that was talking. Teams like that that talk trash, you hate losing to them but when that happens, I canât say anything to team. I canât talk back to them. They beat us. At the end of the day, theyâre the ones walking around with smiles on their faces.
âPostseason, weâre getting toward the end, weâve got state coming up. We need to kind of get it together. And I think we will. Weâve got a really strong team. For a team that doesnât recruit, I think we do pretty well for ourselves. But thereâs no excuse. Theyâve got five guys on the court and so do we. Weâve just got to keep our head up.
âAll the teams that we lost to have been ranked. But weâre ranked, too. Size kills us. Itâs not a knock on (teammates). Weâve got guys playing out of position. I canât say theyâre not good big men, because theyâre not big men in the first place. Weâve got wings playing centers, because we lost all of our big men last year. Weâre just trying to battle. They won on an offensive rebound. Guy threw up a shot, got his own rebound. Theyâre just taller than us. We try our best. Weâll figure it out.â
To close this out, a short trip back to the topic of aggressiveness.
It was suggested the Duke coaching staff wonât let Rivers not be aggressive once he arrives on campus. Rivers smiled.
âOh yeah, Coach K and them are going to stay on me,â he said. âThatâs why I chose there. I didnât take the easy way. At Duke I think itâs the hard way. I think itâs going to benefit me, whether Iâm there one year, two years, no matter how many years Iâm there. Thatâs the hard way. Itâs going to benefit me.â
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