- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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Will Austin Rivers be a bust?
I’ve been asked that question a lot over the past few days.
I’ve pored over game tape, talked to several NBA scouts and GMs and sifted through the various analytics available before coming to a conclusion: Given his rise on draft boards -- in some cases as high as No. 6 overall -- he’s being overrated.
And I’ve said as much in various places recently.
In my look at the 10 biggest questions in the 2012 NBA draft, I asked whether Rivers was more likely to become the next Kobe Bryant or Jerryd Bayless. I picked Bayless.
During ESPN’s "First Take" draft special, I took issue with Skip Bayless' declaring that Rivers should be the No. 2 pick.
And in a 7,900-word draft debate on Grantland with Bill Simmons, we had the following lively exchange on the difference between Weber State’s Damian Lillard and Rivers:
FORD: Lillard is a willing passer. Rivers isn't and will never be. Lillard made dramatic improvements from year to year. I thought Rivers was the exact player in college that he was in high school. Lillard is a team player. He was the second most efficient player in college basketball DESPITE being the only decent player on his entire roster; teams game planned to stop him and him alone every night. I just don't see Rivers ever being anywhere near as unselfish or efficient. I think Rivers will be shocked at the athleticism and length at his position. He'll try to do the same things at which he excelled in high school, spend a lot of time on the bench, get into it with his coach and teammates, get traded in a year or two to a desperate team, put up huge numbers for a cellar-dweller for a year or two, make some money, and eventually, teams will realize he can't be the alpha dog on a winning team.
SIMMONS: Other than that, you're a huge Austin Rivers fan.
FORD: I honestly think Rivers is the one guy I wouldn't touch in the lottery. Too toxic for team chemistry, doesn't have the same physical tools to make it worth it.
Put all of that together and it sounds like I’m piling on Rivers.
But the perception is there. Rivers’ former head coach at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski, even called me up concerned that I or someone else was questioning Rivers’ character.
I’m not. I’m questioning how his mental approach to the game, combined with his skills and physical tools, translate at the next level.
To be clear, I’m sure Rivers is a nice young man and I don’t have concerns about his character. In fact, Coach K believes that Rivers’ ultracompetitive personality is what will help him at the next level.
“He is an alpha dog. I think he will succeed in the NBA because of that,” Krzyzewski said. “He believes he’s going to be great. I’d rather have a guy like that than a guy who doesn’t believe in himself.”
He also acknowledged that Rivers, like every young prospect, still has a lot of work to do.
“He needs to be a better rebounder and a defender on and off the ball,” Krzyzewski said.
“Some players, they learn one punch. When you take that punch away, they get knocked out. He needs to use that aggressive mentality to work on new things about his game.
“When Austin came to Duke, I told him that every player is like a house: The more skills you learn, the more windows you have on your house. When he came to Duke, he had one really big window. He was an amazing scorer. The goal was to add more windows to his game. He’s in that process right now.
“I hope he gets a demanding coach at the next level who pushes him to keep adding to his game. That’s how he’ll become great. If he reverts back to just doing the thing he does well, his chances lessen that he’s a good player in the NBA.”
He also noted that despite rumors to the contrary, he liked working with Rivers.
“He was very coachable and he’s a very good young man,” Krzyzewski said. “I like him. He was never a problem. He fit in well. He likes the game. He was a good kid to coach.”
Coach K said that any chemistry issues with the team this past season, which ended with the No. 2-seeded Blue Devils being knocked out in the first round of the NCAA tournament, probably had more to do with its lack of seniors. He said that as players get older, they get more secure in who they are and what they can do and don’t feel as threatened by newcomers with the skills of someone like Rivers.
“We had a young team, maturity-wise, this year,” Krzyzewski said. “I would’ve rather had him playing with Nolan Smith and Kyle Singer. I think they would’ve reacted better to his aggressive attitude. We didn’t always use his attitude properly.”
Fair enough. Other than his father, Doc Rivers, no one knows him better.
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