Dime Q&A: Duke’s Austin Rivers Rises Above The Headlines

With Twitter and such slashing attention spans and news cycles, our culture more than ever possesses an instant gratification mentality that screams, “What have you done for me lately?” Never mind your last performance, you’re only as good as your last moment.

How else to explain the relentless early-season scrutinization of Duke freshman guard Austin Rivers?

Before Rivers had played five games in college, articles breathlessly harped on the “problems” with his game, pondered whether he was “overrated,” or speculated about his attitude and relationships with teammates to fit a predetermined narrative.

And yet, despite the perversity of launching harsh critiques of Rivers so early into his college career, it’s difficult to imagine it having been any other way for a top 5 high school recruit who happens to be the son of Doc Rivers.

“Austin has been signing autographs for fans and hanging out with his dad’s players and friends in the NBA for years, so he fits right in with basketball’s most nationally televised team as far as fame and notoriety goes,” says Adam Rowe of DukeHoopBlog.com. “If he was at almost any other school, that fame and polarization would stick out like a sore thumb. But Duke and Rivers are seemingly perfect fits.”

In what is hardly a shock for someone labeled a “basketball nerd” by his father, Austin has proved a quick study, fueled by an indomitable desire to get better. It’s not uncommon for Rivers to steal away to the gym for after-midnight shooting sessions, literally improving while everyone else sleeps.

By December, Rivers had found a consistent groove – playing within the flow of the offense, working hard to improve on defense and using his talents to create for teammates. Comparisons to a ready-made Kyrie Irving were off-base – understandably so – but with the luxury of a dozen games under his belt, Rivers had nonetheless emerged as a very good player.

Holding court at his locker after scoring 14 points in Duke’s 90-63 win over UNC Greensboro, the 19-year-old coolly and amiably addressed the media with the polish of a seasoned veteran, no surprise given the environment he came up in. In between questions, he joked with backcourt mate Seth Curry as part of an animated discussion about Young Jeezy‘s new album.

But when asked about the early-season media scrutiny, Rivers’ eyes narrowed slightly but perceptibly, while his words became a bit more pointed.

“I read a couple of (articles), they motivated me, and it seems like the tune has changed now,” said Rivers. “When I first came in, people were saying, ‘Austin needs to do this, Austin’s not doing this,’ and that’s just because I came in with all that hype and they expected (a great deal) early. People don’t understand that I was just getting into it, that I was playing better and better and better.

“And now that I’m playing good, now everybody’s saying, ‘Oh Austin, you’re doing this great, and you’re doing that.’ It just goes through one ear and out the other, because I know I can keep getting better and keep learning. The ultimate goal for me here is just to win, and that’s what we’ve been doing, so I’m doing fine.”

We caught up with Austin for a few minutes to discuss his adjustment to college basketball and life at Duke, his tastes in sneakers and music, and the return of the NBA.

Dime: Were you excited to see the return of NBA basketball?
Austin Rivers: Oh my gosh, you have no idea. I love football and all that, but I’ve been done with football for a good amount of time now. I’m excited to see some NBA basketball and watch other college basketball teams. I mean, I just love watching basketball, period, so I’m very excited to see that.

Dime: When are you going to break out those Air Jordan 14s in your locker? You have the Stealth 3s there too.
AR: Yeah, I’ve got a lot of Jordans. I probably have over 80 pairs of shoes in my dorm, shoes that haven’t even come out yet, so I’m going to be wearing some stuff in ACC play that ya’ll are going to be excited to see.

Dime: You used a fairly appropriate Big Sean song for your introduction at Countdown to Craziness. What else do you use to pump yourself up?
AR: I’m a big rap head, I love rap and hip-hop. My favorite hip-hop artist right now is Drake – Drizzy over everything, shout out to my man Drake. That’s my favorite rapper, it’s all we listen to. Take Care is the best CD of the year.

J.Cole is my man too, but he’s a Tar Heel fan, therefore he comes in second. (laughs)

Dime: What did you think of Quinn Cook‘s season-high 14 points against UNCG?
AR: It was amazing. There’s been times when his (playing time) has been limited this season, and he came in and played great, so now his time is going to keep going up and up and up, and that’s just going to help us. Quinn is a great player, and people got to see it finally tonight. I was very excited for him, and the whole bench was excited, because he’s a character. For him to go out and play great, it was big for us.

Dime: After your first semester, how has college life been so far?
AR: It’s different. It’s a lot different from high school. I’ve always had freedom, my parents (trust me) to do whatever I want, so… it’s not too much different as far as that goes. I like it though. There’s a lot of people around, and Duke’s a great college, so I’ve enjoyed it.

Dime: What’s the environment like at Duke?
AR: It’s crazy, just because people love basketball here. And that’s part of the reason why I came here, because people love basketball so much. Everyone’s always talking about the last game or the next game, and that’s exciting, especially since basketball is my life. So I like talking about basketball with fans, and kids that really have bright futures here. There are kids out here who are going to be doctors and lawyers and all that, so they have their own thing going.

Dime: In terms of going out and shooting around after midnight, what does that do for your focus?
AR: I just like to work out a lot. I grew up watching my older brother and my dad, and since I was young, I’ve had a lot of motivation just as far as being known as my dad’s son. Lots of people used to call me “Doc’s kid,” and it just sort of used to – excuse my language – piss me off a little bit.

So that’s kind of helped me develop that work ethic, and now that I have my own name a little bit, I want to keep it. I want to keep getting better and better, and I’m trying to do everything I can to win for Duke and achieve my dreams. That’s why I work hard every night. And I love basketball, so it’s fun to me to go out at 12 o’clock at night and work out.

Dime: What’s it like being mentored by two of the greatest coaches in the game?
AR: It’s really nice. I’ve never gotten to play for my dad, but he’s such a smart coach and he’s such a good guy. I’m just so blessed to have the father I do, because he’s not just a coach for me, he’s a really good father and he’s always been there for me.

And then Coach K is unbelievable as well. I mean, 903 explains it all. It’s just exciting to play for coaches like that; he makes you want to be better, because you see how intense he is, and the greatness when you’re around him. We could be up by 30 and we mess up, and he’s mad. He just wants to win and get better, and when you see that, it just makes you want to get better.

Dime: Has anything with your adjustment been harder than you expected it to be?
AR: I don’t think so. It’s definitely been hard, it’s been a change, but I figure I prepared myself well just by working really hard in high school, and I think I came to the right place to transition my game fast. Coach K got on me, and (the assistant coaches) helped me, and I’m kind of already used to playing college basketball now.

It just kind of comes easy for me now – not as in, “I score easy” and all that. I think I’m just comfortable. And I’m comfortable with my teammates, they look for me, and I’m having fun. I just play my game, and I play hard, and everything else works out for me.

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