He's been described as fearless and confident, able to beat just about anyone off the dribble. He demands the ball and works tirelessly to make sure he's up to the challenge when he gets it.
After just a handful of games under Coach K, he's shown that he's one of the most exciting young players in the league.
He is Kyrie Irving, and he's making an early case for NBA Rookie of the Year in Cleveland.
Irving went pro after one year—a year where he missed more than half the games due to injury. Early indications are that it was the right call, as he's tearing up NBA defenses at 19 years old.
Of course, there's another player currently residing in Durham who also could be seen in the first three paragraphs. Freshman Austin Rivers made an immediate impact with the Blue Devils, and, while his shooting seems to have hit a bit of a freshman wall in recent games, there's no question he's the front runner to win ACC Rookie of the Year and land on one of the postseason all-conference teams.
Their games have some similarities, as do their pedigrees. Irving arrived at Duke as one of the top recruits in the nation. He started from day one and had an NBA-ready game.
Rivers was also one of the most sought-after recruits and became an immediate starter. His father coaches the Celtics, and Rivers clearly is heavily influenced by the NBA.
There's no question Rivers will play in the league in the very near future, likely long before his classmates finish their senior years on campus. It's tough to project where a college freshman would go in the draft in mid-January of their first year, but two things appear to be true at this point:
- Austin Rivers isn't Kyrie Irving, and
- That's okay.
Rivers quickly proved that he wasn't that far off, however.
He's the only ACC freshman averaging in double figures and has led the team in scoring seven times. He's saved some of his best performances for the biggest stages. He scored 18 in a dogfight with Tennessee in Maui and 20 against Michigan the next night. In the blowout loss to Ohio State, he put the team on his back, scoring a career-high 22 and showing poise that eluded some of the older players as the game got away from Duke.
At this point, he's played in six more games that Irving did in his freshman year, and logged 200 more minutes. A comparison of stat lines isn't entirely fair, since Irving missed the entire ACC season—in three conference games, Rivers is averaging 7.7 points against tough physical defenses. Still, even if Irving suffered a similar dropoff, he has the edge in several categories:
--Shooting: Irving shot .529 last year, including .462 from three and .901 on free throws. Rivers is at .436 / .377 / .675 respectively. Coach K said that Irving was a better shooter after one year of college than Derrick Rose was when he entered the league, a claim that NBA GM's backed up.
--Physical play: Irving is an inch shorter than Rivers and about 10 pounds lighter, but he still averaged nearly one rebound more per game at Duke: 3.4 to 2.5. He also had six blocks. Rivers has one.
--Ball handling: Irving ran the offense for the Blue Devils and had 14 more assists than Rivers in significantly less time. Irving's assist to turnover ratio was nearly 2 to 1, while Rivers has more turnovers than assists.
None of this is meant to slight Rivers. It just puts numbers on coach K's claim that he wasn't as NBA ready.
There's a lot of season left, however, and Rivers' game has been evolving as the year goes on. In the beginning, he drove to the hoop just about every time he got the ball. In recent games, he's picked his spots, working to find open men instead of always charging into the teeth of the defense.
He's also been working on cleaning up his defense. After flirting with foul trouble several times in his first month at Duke, Rivers has only finished one game with as many as three fouls since the new year while still averaging a steal a game. He's taking fewer threes and far fewer ill-advised shots.
In short, he's learning, and his recent shooting struggles have been evidence of the learning curve. Once things click into place, expect Rivers to move to a new plateau. And at that point, the question of whether he's ready to make the jump or not may carry a little more urgency.
Austin Rivers doesn't want to be the next Kyrie Irving. He's just trying to get the first Austin Rivers ready for the big show.