Another top recruit enters Tobacco Road
Can Duke's Austin Rivers take lessons from the freshman season of Harrison Barnes?
Last month, at the Nike Skills Camp in Chicago, the two most important active players in the most famous college basketball rivalry in the country finished their workouts together. As they ambled off the court with the familiar "I just played basketball for two hours, and my legs are now made of jello" limp, a camera-wielding TV crew asked them to stand side by side and answer a few questions. Together.
North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, typically stoic and businesslike, cracked a smile. Duke guard Austin Rivers, Barnes' 2011-12 replacement in the touted Tobacco Road hype machine, grinned from ear to ear.
This should have been awkward. Duke and North Carolina? Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams? Bloody noses and buzzer-beaters? "To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever?" In the same interview?
Instead, these two appeared to be enjoying themselves. In fact, if you didn't know any better, you'd think Barnes and Rivers were -- gasp -- friends.
"We're definitely cool," Rivers said. "We were cool before [the camp] and we got to know each other a little bit through this whole process, and I'd definitely say we're cool now.
"I know we're supposed to be rivals or whatever. But we don't really talk about that stuff."
Not that the two don't have plenty to talk about. This season, they'll be the centerpieces of two teams with yearly aspirations at national titles. As you might have heard, both will play in the same basketball-berzerk corridor of central North Carolina. As you might have heard, both are backed by respective fan bases that prefer to reserve their most spirited disdain for members of the other.
Earlier this spring, Barnes turned down a likely spot in the top five of the NBA draft to chase a championship with his UNC mates. Rivers is arguably the most touted freshman in the country, one expected to pick up where recent Duke stars Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith -- not to mention every great one-and-done player of the past six years -- left off.
If that dynamic isn't a conversation-starter, at least the two have plenty in common. Frankly, the similarities are striking.
Both are the sons of former players. (Harrison's father played four years at Iowa State; Rivers' father is Boston Celtics coach and longtime NBA guard Doc Rivers.) Both spent most of their prep careers as the top-ranked players in their respective classes. Both chose to attend powerhouse programs in hoops' most heated rivalry. Both are likely to be among the first players chosen in next year's NBA draft, assuming they make the leap.
Both have faced the weight of outside expectation for as long as you've known their names, and probably longer. This fall, both will carry that weight onto the college court. Once there, both will meet all the scrutiny, intensity and intrigue of the promise of a new season -- not to mention a new season in the 11-mile stretch that separates Durham, N.C., from Chapel Hill -- entails.
The other key difference between the two? Barnes has been there before. Now it's Rivers' turn.
So, Harrison, any friendly advice?
"I can't really offer any," Barnes said. "The biggest thing is that it's a long season. You just have to keep your head down, stay in the gym, and keep working."
That might seem like a ready-made soundbite, but in Barnes' case, it fits.
Last year he was the first freshman ever selected to the AP Preseason All-America first team. As his early struggles piled up, the choice was roundly mocked; at one point, even Williams chided the media for placing unrealistic expectations on his unwitting player.
Throughout it all, Barnes remained poised, diplomatic and earnest. He never complained, never blamed teammates, never showed overt frustration despite how acute that frustration must have been.
Then, when Williams inserted freshman guard Kendall Marshall into the lineup in January -- giving Barnes and forwards Tyler Zeller and John Henson the much-needed distributor their games craved -- the freshman adapted his attack, caught fire and helped propel his team to a massive turnaround. The Tar Heels were minutes away from the Final Four before an Elite Eight loss to Kentucky, and they are the favorites to cut down the nets in 2012.
"You can't get too down on yourself," Barnes said of the lessons he'd learned from his freshman season. "You can't worry about the outside stuff. All you can do is work on your game. If you're focused on that, the outside stuff sorts itself out."
Rivers' arrival in Durham will be just as heralded and just as scrutinized -- though it's doubtful sportswriters will be selecting any freshmen to the preseason All-America list again this season -- and he'll have to put up with the same harsh criticism if his play disappoints.
For all his talent -- as Barnes said, and YouTube can confirm, Rivers has "so many different moves off the dribble" -- there are some concerns about the kid's game. Like Barnes, who at times looked like a power forward playing shooting guard in 2011, Rivers doesn't fit a preconceived positional notion. At 6-foot-5, he's always been more of a scorer, but he's also used to dominating the ball on the dribble. He's also not a pure catch-and-shoot 2-guard.
He's either a point guard or a shooting guard. Or he's both. As one NBA scout at the Nike Skills Camps said, "Clearly he can play. But what is he? Sometimes I can't tell."
"I think I'm a shooting guard and a point guard, to be honest with you," Rivers said. "I'm a combo guard. I think I'm best at getting to the rim and finishing, but I can set up my teammates too, and there are going to be times next year when Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins are hot. It'll be my job to make sure they stay that way."
Fortunately for Rivers, he'll be entering an offensive system that was run by a combo guard in Smith for much of 2011 after freshman star Kyrie Irving suffered a toe injury. That system will allow Rivers to create in the open floor, and he'll get plenty of high screens to use in attacking the rim and creating defensive gaps for open shooters on the wing.
The other bit of a good news, at least for Duke fans, is that Rivers has the unique perspective afforded by growing up in his father's NBA home.
"He's been around it his whole life," said Burney Hayes, who coached Rivers for four years in Florida's Each1Teach1 AAU program. "He has people in his life who can be totally honest with him about his game, who can tell him what he needs to do to get to that level, because they know. And if his dad doesn't tell him, the players his dad coaches can tell him.
"Austin's the kind of kid that, if the Celtics were playing, he'd rather be in the gym working out. He has a tremendous work ethic. He always has. He'd rather go to a Celtics practice than a Celtics game." In the meantime, Coach K has sought to downplay the expectations for Rivers in his freshman season.
"I think he'll be fine, but there's going to be a period of adjustment," Krzyzewski told ESPN.com's Andy Katz this week. "He's learning how to become a complete player. You can't compare the competition and intensity and organization to playing pickup. Every freshman gets knocked back a little bit and that will happen for Austin and he'll learn what needs to happen and make those adjustments.
"The bottom line is he wants to be really good and he wants to be the best. Give him time. I remember, Kyrie the first week of practice he wasn't big-time. Austin will be fine. He has the desire to become outstanding. He's great kid and obviously very talented."
Despite all that, Rivers won't have the benefit of a long grace period. Much of Duke's attack will rely on just how well he picks up that competition, intensity and organization, how well he meshes his considerable talents with Duke's versatile batch of young talent.
In the meantime, the specter of North Carolina -- loaded with talent from top to bottom -- will always be just around the corner. The rivalry is always there. Is Rivers ready?
"It's going to be intense, I know that," he said. "But I haven't really felt much of it yet."
Rivers considers this for a moment, then continues.
"The thing is, I don't hate North Carolina," he said. "I know we're rivals now, but I almost went there. For me it was UNC or Duke. So I love that school. And at the end of the day, the rivalry stuff, that's just fun. It's still a game, and that's the stuff that makes it fun."
It's a welcome bit of perspective from the newest high-profile member of the Duke-UNC saga. It also echoes Barnes, who narrowed his choices to Duke and Carolina before eventually picking the Tar Heels.
Chalk it up as one more similarity between the past two seasons' most-hyped college freshmen. Friends, AAU acquaintances or just plain "cool," the two most important players in college hoops' most heated rivalry share quite a bit in common. They may not share trade secrets, but it's hard to think Rivers hasn't learned something from Barnes -- whether he knows it or not.
"You can't play worrying about, like, what will other people say about me," Rivers said. "That's not how I've ever approached the game. It's a 30-game season, and guys in college are big, strong, athletic and they're playing to show you what they can do to win every single game. The rest of that stuff you can't really worry about. It's not in your control."
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).