One on one with Austin Rivers

He will always be known for hitting the shot against North Carolina. But Austin Rivers’ career in Durham had so many other storylines from the time he committed to Duke until the time he left for the NBA. We sat down with the former Blue Devil to discuss all of those topics and more.

Kicking off, Austin, how have you felt about how your NBA career has started out?

Austin Rivers: I thought my first year was rough to be honest. I was hurt a lot and then when I wasn’t hurt I wasn’t necessarily playing the way that I wanted to play. It was a different role that I was learning and I couldn’t find my rhythm.

Then, last year, it started out rough again before about halfway through the season it all started changing I felt like. I got a chance to play and I started proving to people that I could play in this league and play at a good level.

This year it’s been even better. The last four or five games I’ve been playing more and averaging double digits, along with four or five assists, and then four or five rebounds. I’ve really just been picking it up more to where by the end of the year, we may even be at that eight spot or so in the playoffs in the West or even better.

The team is playing well and I’m starting to average more minutes, 20-25 minutes a game and I’ve come a long way just from my rookie year. More importantly our team is playing really well, we’ve got a bunch of really talented guys, good guys all around, good guards that help me get better. I’ve learned a lot from some of the guards I’ve been blessed to play with and it’s helped a lot, it’s getting better.

What was the adjustment like for you to becoming a player in the league?

For one thing, I think the biggest thing is just the inner confidence. That’s gotta be there all the time and you can’t waver in that or it’s over. You have to stay consistently confident and I think when I got hurt, that hurt it a lot. I came back and I thought I was going to be playing great right off the jump and it really didn’t start out like that, it took a hit and that can’t happen at the pro level. You even look at the greats in the game like a Kobe Bryant, great players in the NBA, they can go 1-for-12 or whatever and that confidence doesn’t go away, they take the same shots, they have the same confidence and I really think that’s what being a pro is about. You realize that you are a pro and that you are one of the best in the world and you have to know that what you do, whatever you did to get you to that point, that can’t ever change.

I don’t think I realized that at first, I was young and everything was going 100 miles an hour and then things started to slow down and I started to figure it out to where now, I just go out there and play and i’m not worried what he thinks, she thinks or anybody thinks, I just go out there and know that I’m going to play well and play hard for my team. It’s really helped me, that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned.

Have there been aspects of your game that have evolved over time from high school to Duke to now in the NBA?

One thing that has really helped me is being able to find people. I’ve always been able to score, even now, if I have an isolation, i’m going to find a way to score, that’s what I do with the best. One thing that I have learned a lot more to do coming out of college was finding people. It’s something I can get better at and I’m learning how to get better at that. Like I’m learning how to read things better especially coming off pick and rolls, I’m learning where people are going to be and how I can find them, it’s not just about me, it’s about the whole team. So when i’m coming off pick and rolls, I’m finding multiple guys and that’s one thing that I didn’t do well at Duke that I’m learning how to do better in the pros.

You’ve mentioned Duke a few times already so I wanted to ask about your time there. What kind of things did you learn from Coach K and just being there, both about yourself as a person and a player?

I loved Duke, it’s a great school, education wise, basketball wise just everything there is great and it’s unique. Duke is Duke you know, it’s a great school, a great program with the greatest coach in college basketball there. It was amazing to play there every night, it was always big time games every time you played and the stuff you learned there was really stuff you learned from Coach.

One thing you learn is just never to settle. All of the time you see him, every practice, every game, he would have so much passion as if he had never done anything, he was so hungry. That’s one thing you learn there is that because he’s so hungry every single day, I literally have no excuse not to do the same thing, you know what I mean? It’s valuable lessons like that that you learn while you are there, the stuff that he teaches you off the court that impact you in so many positive ways. The conversations you have with him, the life lessons you get, he’s not just talking with me just to talk with me, he’s always talking with me about something that can help me get better and those are the things that you take away at Duke.

Those are the same things i’m sure Kyrie took away in his one year there, Jabari took away, Jahlil is going to take away I’m sure with him likely being there one year. Those are just lessons you take with you.

There were some questions from Duke fans when you were coming in about the possibility that you and Kyrie were going to potentially play together. When you were coming in, was it a no-brainer 100% for sure commitment that you were going to play one year there and then go pro?

My goal was to be in the NBA but it didn’t have anything to do with being one and done. People probably don’t believe that because I was a top player in high school, and I had a good year at Duke, people were happy probably that I was a lottery pick all that stuff, but that was never my mindset. My mindset when I was at Duke was to learn and to have fun and get better. I mean you are going to Duke, you are playing every game in great games, on ESPN every game and somebody is always trying to beat you because you are Duke.

Every game, it’s college basketball, it’s great there…every game is sold out, it’s just a great place to play and there are fun things that happen there that may not happen at every school. Those are the things I remember, I was just having fun, going out there and getting better and just playing my butt off to be honest with you. Now if it led to me being one and done then it led to me doing that, but I never thought about it like “Oh man, the scouts are going to be here, they are going to be watching me so I have to play outstanding.” I never knew or cared that a scout was there, that just wasn’t the focus.

So what then was the process for you as you were evaluating leaving Duke and going pro?

Basically, that process is really simple. First off, you have to have that conversations with yourself and honestly ask yourself, do you want to make that jump, are you ready, is that something you want to do, or do you honestly want to stay in college, do I want to graduate or stay 1, 2, 3 or 4 years? Then you have to know for yourself will it hurt me to stay or will it help me to stay, what would I gain by either staying or leaving, those are all questions I had to ask myself and I wasn’t saying that everything was going to be perfect, those are just the things I was saying to myself as you are real with yourself.

After all of that you have to ask your family, your friends, and most importantly your Coach. Coach K was just completely honest, he brought me in the room just like he brings all the guys that play a lot, guys that have a chance to go to the league…he’ll bring all those guys together and he will talk with every single player in end of year meetings. Every coach at every level ever year will have an end of the year meeting and he brings the guys that might go and he just gives you his opinion, he’ll say “I think you do this or do that” but he will also say at the same time that you don’t have to do either or, it’s entirely your decision, he just gives you his advice.

What was his advice for you?

With me he was just honest, he said, “From what I hear, you obviously will be a lottery pick. Is that something you think you can and want to do because I think you can do it.” He had my complete support and then when I thought about it, I talked with my dad, my mom and they felt like it was an opportunity I had been dreaming of and so I made the decision and never looked back because I’ve gotten so much better from doing that. If I went back to Duke and had my rookie year all over again, I would have had an unbelievable year but now, that’s over with and I know I didn’t play well and that’s the bottom line.

Even if I could change that I wouldn’t because I have learned so much from that, I had to grow up so much. I really went from being a college player in the NBA to becoming a college player that is turning into an NBA player, it’s been all good to go through that.

How did you work through that first year in the league from a confidence or emotional standpoint?

What I did and this might sound silly, but I went and looked at videos of myself. My dad told me, he said for me to go watch video of myself, go see what you can do in the beginning. You shouldn’t be doubting yourself one bit, so why don’t you go on Youtube, type in your name and go watch yourself and then tell me that you can’t do what these other guys are doing in the league. Tell me if those guys on a Friday night at 8:30 go into the gym and get better, even after a loss. Tell me how many guys after practicing who will still go work out for another two hours. If they aren’t doing that and you are, then why not you?

That’s when I started looking at it like, “why not me ?” Why can’t I do what these guys are doing, I’m just as good as any of these guys and listen, every guy has a different role, some guys are drafted to do different things and struggle and work through lower minutes while other guys are drafted to play 40 minutes, that definitely helps but the bottom line is that is not everybody, everybody has a different situation and that really helped me. When I realized that I can do anything that anybody else can do, you just have to believe in yourself, that’s the way I feel and it really helped me because I just kept working at it man, I just kept working at it, getting better and I had a lot of faith in myself and in God and it’s really helped to have that strong foundation around you.

I even remember Coach K calling me up and telling me just to keep going, you are only 20 years old man, at the time i was 19, just turned 20 years old and he would ask me, “Man, you just turned 20 years old, what are you stressing about? You should not be out there stressing every game, you are still a teenager in the NBA, so relax, you have plenty of years ahead of you.”

I’ve just played since then and I feel like right now, this is my rookie year, I know that sounds crazy but that’s how I feel and I don’t mean that practically, I mean that mentally that now I feel like this is my official start, actually since the All Star break last year to now is the official start of my NBA career and I just look at it that way and I just focus on the positives, all the negative stuff I can care less about. I had to look back and I know it’s just going to keep getting better and better and I’m going to keep working hard, keep improving and keep learning and that’s how I feel.

Going back to your time at Duke—was there anybody there that you developed a close bond with?

You know it’s tough man, it’s tough because that’s one of the things you don’t get when leaving early…you don’t really have those close relationships. To be honest with you I’m not really close with anybody on that team and I don’t mean that in a negative way. I’m friends with everybody but I’m not calling up Seth Curry and saying “Hey, how are you doing” or anything like that. That’s not because he’s not a great guy, he is, Andre Dawkins is a great guy, Ryan Kelly is a great guy, Mason Plumlee is a great guy, it’s just because I wasn’t there long enough to develop a close relationship with any of them.

I would say that I am close with, two guys that I stay in touch with are Quinn Cook and Alex Murphy. Those were my two guys that I really kind of cling too as far as friends goes. I message Alex at least one a month, text him, me and Quinn stay in touch and I’ve also gotten close over the last year or so with Rasheed Sulaimon since we went through some of the same stuff. Like he’s a four year guy, he’s a good guard but he went through the stage that I went through where I don’t know if you remember the game that Coach K benched me and I had to come out and figure out a way, I didn’t look at it as a negative, it actually inspired me to push me to get better. Rasheed went through that same type of situation in getting benched and then having to figure out how to come back and play, so I reached out to him, just to say I was there, just to let him know I understood. Jabari went through the same thing last year too, so I just tried to help out with them, so Rasheed’s a good friend, Quinn’s a good friend, but it’s tough man when you leave early with relationships.

Did your relationship really start with Alex and Quinn on the pre-season trip to China and Dubai, or did it get going later?

Yeah yeah, it’s crazy after I left I actually became closer with everybody. Once I left I think I grew up a little bit. It was a tough situation for me as a freshman because you come in as the number one player and I was so focused on just being great that year and just putting in work and being great and for the team to be great and I had all my dreams and then I declared for the draft, everything happened so fast that you don’t have the time to really sit back and get to know everybody.

So, when I left and then every time I went back to Duke, it wasn’t like I was just working on my game, I’m in the NBA now, I’m working to get better just for my game, I was also back to talk with everybody and really stay in touch with a lot of guys. Since I’ve left, I think when you are there for one year, I think Kyrie went through this, I think Jabari went through this, I bet they are way closer with some of the guys after they left, it’s weird that way but I think that’s how it is when you are one and done.

What are your thoughts seeing Quinn now being a senior captain for this year’s team?

I’m so proud of him man, I am just so proud and happy for him because he has come so far. Listen, I roomed in the room right next to him and we basically roomed together because even though we were in different rooms, we hung out so much together and we both used to come in and we’d be talking about the new hip hop mix tape that was out or we’d play video games, we just liked the same type of stuff and so I was always just like with him all the time.

I’ve seen so much growth in him. People really don’t understand the types of conversations I used to have with him and how down he used to be his freshman year. He was just frustrated all the time. He wasn’t playing much and then when he did, he’d be getting yelled yet and it just didn’t seem like he was doing anything right. He was getting yelled at and people would be saying this and that, and “Quinn is doing this and that” and I just remember Quinn used to say a lot that “this was it”… “this was going to be it”.

Since then, he has just grown up so much and kept getting better and better and better and now I see him and you don’t even recognize him out there on the court from when I was there because he just looks so comfortable out there out there when he plays. It’s crazy to see the other guys on the team, they look to him and I can only go off of what it was like when I played with him. When I played with him it was the complete opposite, Quinn was just out there when he was on the court and we didn’t know what Quinn was doing to where. Now, Quinn’s the guy out there that they all look to, they ask him what should we do next, he’s the leader. He’s embraced it and it’s just good to see that, it’s just really cool to see your peers grow up too and you can just see that he has grown up and become the player that he wanted to be and he’s becoming that and I’m just so proud of him.

You and Quinn also shared in some ways as you mentioned having increased attention on you as players—from media and fans alike. What was that like for you and how did you handle that?

I mean I loved it but I’m not talking about the attention, I’m talking about the pressure. I loved that stuff, I don’t get nervous about the big TNT games or the big ABC games or the big ESPN games. I really love that stuff, those are the games you look forward to. The pressure, all the attention, the media looking at you, I could really care less about that… I just love the big stuff and Quinn is similar. Quinn loves the big stage and that’s why I think he’s been able to handle that stuff so well and be comfortable with it. Guys that are able to handle that kind of attention is because they are able to be comfortable in the midst of the attention and pressure, they don’t waiver like guys who aren’t comfortable with those types of situations, that’s when it can really affect you. When you understand that it’s just basketball, that’s all it is. It can be the best team playing against Duke or your NBA team and it doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, it’s two baskets, it’s 5-on-5 and there’s one ball.

I’ve been doing that since I was six years old, I’ve shot over a million shots, left handed, right handed, I’ve put the ball through my legs a million times and when you realize that it’s all the same thing, when everybody tries to add up all the pressure and all that, but I could really care less about all that because I know I have a million fans who love me and a million fans who hate me and it doesn’t change no matter what you do. Even LeBron has the same thing, there’s a ton of people who love him or hate him even though he’s the greatest player in the world, so what does it truly matter?

When you truly understand those concepts, it really doesn’t bother you anymore and I think that’s what Quinn grown up to understand, He’s just playing now and he doesn’t care what people think about him, he understand who he is and people who don’t know him like I know him don’t understand that Quinn is a great teammate and I think he’s handling it better.

Thinking back to you deciding to go to Duke—did you pick them because they were a big stage type of program, or were there different reasons?

That was maybe one part of it to be honest. The biggest part for me being honest was playing for Coach K. That’s the reason I committed there and it wasn’t committing for him, it was because of him being there. After talking with him I knew, this is the guy coaching Team USA, he knows what he’s doing, he’s coached the best players in the world, why in the world wouldn’t I want to play for him?

It’s a big stage, it’s Duke, the guys there they don’t let you get away with anything, they push you to the breaking point. They really do push you to become great and I’m not going to lie, there were times when I was there that I just wanted it to be over, but then after a while I realized that I understand why he did that. I’m so glad I went there, the big stage is just one part of the reason why I went there.

What were your thoughts on the process you went through of de-committing from a program and ultimately committing to Duke?

I’ll be honest man, that process was really hard. To be honest, it wasn’t that long ago, I can’t act like I’m 30, I’m only 22 years old, man. I still should be a senior in college. On the one hand it wasn’t that long ago but from what I can remember, I remember really not liking it because I just really wanted to have my school, that’s my school and I could just work to get better for that school, you know what I mean?

The whole part of where should I go, where am I going people asking me all the time, once I de-committed, every single day I would get calls asking me where was I going. I was getting letters, just tons of letters every single day, just hundreds upon hundreds of letters asking me to come there, come visit, do this, do that and I just got to the point where I was like, “I just gotta pick a school that I know I like”. I narrowed it down to my favorite schools and then I narrowed it down to Kansas and Duke, those were the final two schools that I narrowed it down to and I knew that I was going to go to either Kansas or Duke. I met with Coach Self, he was great and when I met him, I loved him and he was great. Then I met with Coach K, and once I met with Coach K, I knew for myself that this was the guy, this is where I need to go and then I chose to go to Duke.

What was it about Coach K and Duke that solidified for you that you wanted to go there?

Just the confidence in himself and in the program and in what it’s able to do for itself and for the players in it. I mean, the program, it speaks for itself and just all the stuff he’s done with the USA team and just stuff with basketball in general, he’s Coach K, it’s really hard to put into words, it was just that simple.

How much did your dad help you through that process when you were deciding on Duke?

He definitely helped me and people think that he didn’t because he’s Doc Rivers, he played in the NBA, and he coaches now. But, away from that he acts like a normal dad and he was just like any other parent, he was involved. He told me when I was down to Kansas and Duke that this is your decision, we will support you whatever way you decide to go and let me know if you need any more help, it was really that simple. He was busy coaching, I was busy playing but I knew he had my back and all I had to do as ask and all he asked was that I talk to him again before I was ready to make my final decision. When I was ready to choose Duke, he told me it was a great decision and to go for it and go there and play your tail off, it was really that simple.

Shifting to you playing at Duke—how much if anything do you remember about your last second shot during the UNC game at North Carolina?

Every year when they play North Carolina that will always be remembered. ESPN will also replay that shot every year for a long time. The shot itself, it was a big shot, but to be honest, that’s not what I remember. What I remember is that it happened so quick but I really remember the game itself. It was such a great game and it was a win we weren’t expected to get.

I don’t want to sound corny, but we weren’t supposed to win that game if you really look at it. We were down like 12 with like three minutes to go against arguably the second best team in the country that year aside from Kentucky and we won the game. That’s what I remember man, we won the game and those last three minutes. I think that was the best three minutes of the entire year for us. If you had to take any three minute series from any of our games that year, that was the best one. We came back, we just kept playing and kept playing and we won and I had a chance to seal the deal and I did, that’s what I really remember and take away from it.

In wrapping up Austin—what’s your vision for yourself in the future, both on and off the court?

Yeah absolutely, I have huge goals because what’s a man if he doesn’t have goals?

I have big goals for myself with the first being I want to be in the playoffs. I’ve been a few years in the league and I know that half of the team I’m with is guys who have been in the league for longer than eight years and haven’t been to the playoffs, but we are right there for the eighth spot and we have the guys to do it, that’s my first goal. That looks like so much fun and that’s where guys are made and paid and that’s where guys achieve their dreams in the playoffs, That’s my #1 goal, I want to be in the playoffs and compete for a championship.

Secondly, in the next year or couple of years, I want to be in the running for Most Improved Player in the NBA. I think this year I’m making steps to get there and I’m going to keep making steps every season towards that goal. You look at Jimmy Butler, he’s gotta be the Most Improved Player in the league right now, he’s absolutely killing it out there. I look at him and at his numbers and I see how he went form averaging like 4 points a game to now he’s averaging 20 points a game in a span of like 3 years and he just kept improving every single year. I’m not saying that I just want to average 20 points and think that’s great, I’m just using that as an example to set a big goal. I want to be in the playoffs, I want to be the Most Improved Player.

Off the court, i want to start a foundation for abused children in the next year or so that my family can help me with and I want that to be huge, I want to have some partners and some players help me with that off the court. I’m going to have a basketball camp I’m going to start in the next year or two in Winter Park. I’ve got an AAU program that I’ve already started that’s really blowing up right now, we’ve got some of the best talent in Orlando and in Florida in general that are starting to play for my AAU program. Things are starting to go, just gotta keep getting better and keep growing.

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