Austin Rivers entered and left Duke with an eye on the NBA

Duke standout grew up dreaming of following in his famous father’s footsteps

CorrespondentJune 28, 2012 

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Duke guard Austin Rivers (0) heads upcourt as the ref signals a three pointer good and the Blue Devils upset UNC 85-84. Duke battled UNC at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com

  • Double dose of Duke For the second consecutive year – and sixth time overall – Duke could have two players selected in the first round of an NBA draft. Austin Rivers is a first-round lock tonight, and Miles Plumlee has climbed into the possible range. Here’s a look at the previous classes:
    Player Pick Taken by
    2011
    Kyrie Irving 1 Cleveland
    Rookie of Year averaged 18.5 points, 5.4 assists.
    Nolan Smith 21 Portland
    Averaged 3.8 points, 1.4 assists in backup role.
    2006
    Shelden Williams 5 Atlanta
    Now with seventh team, averaged 4.6 points, 6.0 rebounds in sixth season.
    J.J. Redick 11 Orlando
    Career backup averaged career-high 11.6 points, hit 42 percent on 3s.
    2002
    Jay Williams 2 Chicago
    Motorcycle accident after rookie season ended NBA career.
    Mike Dunleavy 3 Golden State
    Injuries affected career after he averaged career-high 19.1 points in 2007-08.
    1999
    Elton Brand 1 Chicago
    Two-time All-Star averaged 20 or more points six times in career.
    Trajan Langdon 11 Cleveland
    Started just five games in 3-year NBA career but flourished overseas.
    Corey Maggette 13 Seattle
    Averaged 20 points or more 3 times in career. Bobcats traded him Tuesday.
    William Avery 14 Minnesota
    Like Langdon, lasted just 3 seasons in NBA. Started two games.
    1986
    Johnny Dawkins 10 San Antonio
    Averaged 11.1 points, 5.5 assists in solid 9-year NBA career.
    Mark Alarie 18 Denver
    Started 41 games and averaged 7.5 points in 5-year career.

— Even when Austin Rivers was making a name for himself as a Duke freshman, leading the Blue Devils in scoring and hitting a memorable game-winning 3-pointer at North Carolina, he never hid the fact the NBA shaped his basketball perspective.

With his father, Doc, enjoying a long playing career before becoming a successful coach with the Boston Celtics, Rivers was weaned on the professional game. Doc and Austin have said repeatedly that Rivers grew up wanting to play for the Knicks or the Celtics or the Hawks, not necessarily the Blue Devils.

After Duke’s arduous early season travel last year from Hawaii to New York to Columbus, Ohio, Rivers was asked if he was looking forward to a couple days back in Durham to recuperate. He said he wasn’t tired and actually enjoyed the travel because it reminded him of the NBA.

Rivers’ professional career will begin to take shape Thursday night when he hears his name called at the NBA draft in New York. He seems likely to be taken in the first 20 picks, and has been projected in some mock drafts to go much higher.

With his big moment almost upon him, Rivers said he’s finding it hard to sleep. In a matter of months, he’ll be sharing the court with the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Garnett and his idol, Kobe Bryant.

“My whole point of going to the NBA is because I want to compete at this level,” he said Wednesday. “I love the game of basketball. This is what I’ve been doing since I was 6 years old. So my goal was to play at the highest level and compete at the highest level. And when I had that opportunity ahead of me, I just couldn’t say no.

“I talked to my mom, my dad, (Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski), and they all felt like I could compete. And they felt like I was ready. And if I didn’t feel like I was ready, I wouldn’t have come out. But it’s not about anything else – fame, money, anything. I just wanted to play in the NBA and play against these guys.”

Rivers averaged 15.5 points and made 36.5 percent of his 3-pointers at Duke. One shot will define his legacy – his game-winning 3-pointer over North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller at the Smith Center.

As easy as it was to daydream about the NBA last year, Rivers said he tried to stay in the moment.

Sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn’t.

“At the beginning of the year, I was so nervous because I wanted to impress, but toward the end of the year, I just started playing better and better and better because I just stopped thinking about it,” he said. “I just started thinking about winning and having fun in college.”

While Rivers’ brief college career finished with a loss to Lehigh, he felt confident enough to leave after one season, becoming the second Blue Devils player to do so in as many years. Before Kyrie Irving did it in 2011, Luol Deng was Duke’s lone one-and-done player.

Krzyzewski said last week the staff realized when it recruited Rivers the allure of the NBA likely would prove irresistible. They also recognized that Rivers had the skills to make the jump after one year.

“We’re proud of the fact that the kid is here for a year, especially if he can go pro and he’s a lottery pick; he’s a high pick,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s good for your program. You would hope that the guys that stay would be in position to be looked at in a favorable manner.

“We feel real good about what both Austin and Miles (Plumlee) are doing in their workouts and what’ll happen in … the NBA draft with both of them.”

Both reportedly had good workouts and moved up draft projections. Plumlee could go anywhere from the late first round to the early second.

Duke has produced multiple first-round picks in five other drafts, including last year, when Irving went No. 1 overall and Nolan Smith followed at No. 21.

A 6-foot-10 forward. Plumlee impressed scouts with his athleticism, posting the second-best vertical leap and fifth-best score in the agility drill in the pre-draft camp in Chicago, according to his father, Perky.

His athleticism appears to be only half the story in his rise, however.

“The feedback we’re getting from general managers is that he’s a basketball player,” Perky said. “The coaches at Duke work on a lot of stuff that might not show up on game night. They trained him well.”

While some might look at Plumlee’s numbers from last season – 6.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game – and question his future in the NBA, Krzyzewski thinks his game is transferable.

“Basically he’ll be a complimentary player, like most of the guys in the NBA are complimentary players,” Krzyzewski said. “At 6-10, 6-11, 255, 260 – he’s an incredible athlete, and I think is still growing as a player.

“But he’ll only be asked to do things that he does well – he can run, he can play defense, he can rebound. He doesn’t have to be a great shooter … but he can physically play right away, and he can do the things that you’d ask a complimentary player to do because he can run.

“Kids in college get all caught up in how much they’re scoring or whatever. There are a few guys who will be picked to score. But most of them will be picked on how they play and how they complement the key players.”

Staff writer Andrew Carter contributed to this report.

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