Commentary

Not expecting Rivers family union

Still, NBA draft presents plenty of intrigue for coach Doc and prospect Austin

Updated: June 25, 2012, 5:04 PM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

The Shot was a nerveless, textbook, step-back, buzzer-beating 3-pointer delivered by a freshman to decide a meeting in one of the most storied rivalries in college basketball.

Before tipoff, 19-year-old Duke guard Austin Rivers had publicly vowed, "I will make an impact on this game."

And there he was, cradling the ball, down two against North Carolina in the Dean Dome, with the game clock ticking down to three, two, one …

[+] EnlargeAustin-Doc Rivers
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreDoc Rivers expects to be crafting a defense to stop his son Austin next season rather than coaching him.

As NBA prospect Tyler Zeller charged at him, Rivers retreated behind the 3-point line and let it fly over the 7-footer's outstretched arms.

Swish. Buzzer. Ballgame.

Yet the perspective of the coach's son in the wake of his heroics proved to be stunning to die-hard ACC zealots. Told he had written a new chapter in the legendary Tar Heels-Blue Devils annals, Austin merely shrugged.

"I was just thinking about a chance to play well against a good team," he said.

"Austin was fired up to beat North Carolina," said his father, Doc Rivers, "but not because it was this great rivalry. Not because it was Carolina.

"He was barely aware of those things. He almost could care less. He was fired up to beat them because it was the next game.

"You've got to understand. Austin didn't grow up wanting to play for Duke or Carolina. He grew up wanting to play for the Atlanta Hawks or the San Antonio Spurs or the New York Knicks."

Austin's NBA dreams will be clarified Thursday in the 2012 NBA draft, where he has been projected to be taken in the first round, anywhere from eighth to 15th.

Austin played just one season with the Duke Blue Devils before declaring himself eligible for the draft.

That ignited immediate chatter that Boston would maneuver to secure Doc's second son. In fact, a couple of theorists suggested Rivers signed a lucrative long-term extension with the Celtics last summer so he could rebuild with Austin as one of his centerpieces.

"Ridiculous," Celtics boss Danny Ainge declared.

"Nonsense," Doc concurred.

Boston has the No. 21 and 22 picks and, according to team sources, has no intention of breaking its back to move up and grab the coach's son.

Austin said he hasn't talked to anyone in the Celtics organization, nor was he asked to work out for them. He attributes that to two factors: He will likely be gone by the time the Celtics pick and they already know his personality and his game.

Rivers I'm lucky to have been around someone who knows so much about the game. But I'm also lucky to have a dad who lets me be me.

-- Austin Rivers

"I think it would be interesting and cool to play for my dad," Austin said. "Obviously it would require us going from a father-son relationship to a coach-player one, but I'd love it. I'm not expecting it to happen though."

That doesn't negate the truly intriguing nature of this draft for the Rivers family. No one knows Austin Rivers' most potent strengths and most glaring weaknesses better than his dad. Austin honed his lethal first step under the watchful eye of one of the most respected coaches in the NBA. Doc Rivers never formally coached his son, but he has been nearby throughout the process.

"I'm lucky to have been around someone who knows so much about the game," Austin said. "But I'm also lucky to have a dad who lets me be me.

"My dad has let me make all my own decisions: which college to choose, when to go pro, which agent to go with. I know he's probably wanted to help me more. I'm sure, especially because of who he is, it has made it even harder for him to let me find my own way, but he's done that."

The father understands his son has been labeled a "tweener" by some, neither a true point nor a prototype shooting guard. He's heard the criticisms that Austin is too ball-dominant, that his defensive intensity is, ahem, underwhelming at times.

But Doc Rivers is just like all the rest of us, when it comes down to it. He sees the best in his child.

So I asked him point blank: Given the chance, would you like to coach your son?

"I don't even let myself think about it," Doc answered. "If it happens, we'll figure it out. Talent-wise, if I remove the fact he's my son, he'd be a very good fit."

Mike Dunleavy Jr. was drafted as the third overall pick by the Golden State Warriors in 2002. One season later, his father, Mike Dunleavy Sr., was hired as coach of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Over the next seven seasons, father and son faced each other regularly on the court and were nearly united via a number of proposed trades.

"From my standpoint, I'm glad it didn't happen," Dunleavy Jr. said. "Especially earlier in my career. I thought the dynamics would have been too weird."

Mike Jr. said his father was more interested in them joining forces than he was.

"If he wasn't my father, I would have loved to have played for him," Mike Jr. said. "He was a really good coach.

"But I kept thinking about sitting in the back of the bus after a tough loss and having the guys second-guess this and that, which goes on all the time.

"You know those guys would feel like they'd have to watch what they said around me, so now you've isolated yourself. It would have been awkward."

Austin Rivers has given the potential uncomfortable moments some thought, too. But, he said, he wouldn't let that deter him from playing for his dad.

"I have really thick skin," he said. "I'm sure that's one of the many challenges a kid -- I mean, a man -- would have to deal with if his dad was coaching him.

"It would be interesting to talk with someone who has done it. I don't know what it would be like. My dad couldn't even tell me. He's never coached me before."

[+] EnlargeAustin Rivers
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesAustin Rivers showed his nerve and shooting ability with a game-winning 3-pointer that lifted Duke past North Carolina.

Austin initially was targeted as a late first-round pick, but once he began attending workouts and conducting interviews, he was able to dispel some of the negativity surrounding his demeanor. His 6-foot-7 wingspan, his articulate, thoughtful answers in interviews and his explosive offensive performances caused his stock to rise.

Austin ended up working out for five teams: Portland (No. 11 pick), Cleveland (Nos. 4 and 24), Toronto (No. 8), Washington (No. 3) and New Orleans (Nos. 1 and 10).

The skinny on Rivers reads something like this: explosive first step, able to create his own offense, gets to the line, mediocre foul shooter, better scorer than facilitator, disinterested at times defensively, supremely confident. And yes, the word "cocky" has dogged him throughout the process.

After Rivers' workout with the Wizards, a YouTube post showed him toiling through the "seven drill," a shooting exercise in which the player goes from elbow to elbow and must hit seven consecutive shots. Austin, clearly laboring, struggled to make three consecutive shots, never mind seven. Each miss required a lay-up and additional make. It was not a highlight for the Rivers portfolio.

"Washington was one of the best visits I had," Austin explained. "I killed the workout and had a great interview with those guys. What you saw on YouTube was after the workouts. It was a conditioning test, which is why I looked so tired.

"Everybody struggled with it because we were so exhausted by that point. Nobody shot well. If I did that drill again I'd make seven in a row. It just so happened that the media came in as I was shooting, so they watched me and said, 'He's not going hard, he's not shooting well.' There's nothing I can do about that."

Various mock drafts project Rivers going to the Blazers, the Raptors, the Suns (No. 13) and the Sixers (No. 15), which would land him with family friend Doug Collins. It was Collins' son Chris, an assistant with Duke, who helped recruit Austin to play for the Blue Devils.

Doug Collins said he's had many discussions with Doc Rivers about Austin's unique situation.

"There's a part of you that thinks, 'Man, I'd love to coach my son,"' Collins said. "But there are so many dynamics that go with it. And, just for a minute, factor in Kris, Doc's wife. If Austin isn't playing as much as he'd like, or Doc is being tough on him, then you've got Mommy to worry about. It could make things complicated at home."

The more likely topic in the Rivers abode will be how father and son adapt to playing opposite one another. It could be just twice a year, if Austin lands with a Western Conference team, or regularly (and possibly in a playoff round) if he winds up in Philly.

"One Sunday morning I was sitting at breakfast thinking about all of it and I said, 'This is going to be fun," Doc said. "I get competitive, and I know how competitive Austin is. I started thinking, 'If he starts against us, he's going to try for 70 [points].'"

Austin has considered what it would be like to walk into the Garden and veer away from the locker room where he has spent so many of his teenage years. It will be odd to purposefully avoid the coach's office where his father will be drawing up defensive schemes to thwart him.

He's already made up his mind he will approach his father, give him a hug, catch up on family gossip, then "talk a little trash."

"That's already started, by the way," Austin reported. "For the past few weeks, Dad's been saying, 'When we play you next year, you're not going to get a single basket.'"

No matter what transpires Thursday, Doc Rivers has already tucked away the gift of being present at that dramatic Duke-Carolina game, when, because of the NBA lockout, he was able to sit in the stands with his daughter Callie and watch his son hit the game winner.

"After Austin hit one of his 3s in that game," Doc said, "Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] told me, 'I was really envious. I looked at you in the stands and you were celebrating, and I still had to worry about a timeout and setting our defense.' Coach K said, 'It must have been neat just to jump up and down and enjoy it.'

"And he was right. It was. Because now I'll probably never get to do that again.

"If I'm coaching against Austin, I'll be trying to stop him. And if I'm his coach, I'll be screaming at him more than I'll be cheering for him."

The coach and the player agree there is plenty of room in the NBA for two Rivers. Both expect their careers to flow in different directions at the start, but Austin is only 19, and Doc plans to be coaching for a long, long time.

"Let's see what happens," said the father.

"I'm ready for anything," said the son.

Even the family barbs from the back of the bus.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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