Welcome to the big leagues, Austin Rivers.
Coming into the 2011-12 college basketball season, Duke Blue Devils freshman, Rivers, was heralded as the next big thing. Aside from being the seed of one of the most respected NBA coaches in all the land, the youngster also had the seemingly ideal balance of talent, intuitiveness, confidence and hype to make a splash in the NCAA pond.
Well, with his Blue Devils officially at 5-0 following a 77-67 victory over the Tennessee Vols on Monday, America’s love affair with Rivers can finally be deemed over.
If you go by what the annoying critics say, he's a bust. He’s turnover-prone. He’s inefficient. He’s inconsistent. He’s overrated.
He’s not even ten games into his college career, you clowns.
This ridiculous process shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, really. Building a player up way too quickly only to rip him to shreds upon seeing the first chink in the armor has become a time-honored sports tradition. In the 24/7 sports media cycle, letting a guy develop and grow before rushing to judgment one way or the other has gone the way of the video tape.
Before Monday’s outing, Sebastian Pruiti of, well, absolutely everywhere fame, completely tore into Rivers on Grantland. He examined every single nook and cranny of the freshman’s small body of college work, and proceeded to offer a detailed analysis of the long climb ahead before he can officially be proclaimed great. Now, to be fair, Pruiti was entirely on the mark with his analysis and closed things off by noting that if Rivers addresses the problems he had outlined, he would indeed live up to the hype.
The problem is, it’s been five games (four in the case of that article). How could folks legitimately expect Rivers, regardless of his high school hype (and even that is open to debate), to be able to make a flawless transition into the college ranks in five games?
Rivers finished Monday evening with a team-leading 18 points on an admittedly unimpressive 6-of-15 shooting. Of course, given his one-of-six start to the game, there is a case to be made that he became increasingly more efficient as the show went on. For the year, he bumped his average up to 14.2 points per game on 44 percent shooting – good enough for second on the team behind Seth Curry.
Ironically, he also did exactly what Pruiti said he had a tendency of doing when he opted not to take wide open jumpers throughout the game, instead proceeding to get to the basket and take what were undoubtedly more difficult shots.
This, in turn, lends itself to the theory that maybe the critics are right to judge Rivers early, given that he is making the mistakes they say he’s prone to making, and he is underdeveloped in the areas they say he’s underdeveloped in.
But there is just something premature about the way some of the pundits -- who, as opposed to Pruiti, have a flare for the dramatics -- are writing Rivers off. How can anyone call him overrated after seeing him shrug off an ineffective start and sink two smooth 3-pointers to close out the first half? Heck, even Rivers’ head coach, Mike Krzyzewski admitted that it was impressive.
"He ended the half pretty well for us," Krzyzewski said after the game. "The main thing for Austin, as any freshman, is to learn to play defense and offense. He can be a great defender. When you're a freshman, you start evaluating what you're doing and sometimes you're a step slow to the next thing and that's because you care. You want to be good. You just have to get through it. We played a really tough schedule. This is our fifth game in about 10 days and he's learned a lot. He came through. He's not afraid. He's going to be a terrific player for us."
Rivers has a certain natural swagger, a particular innate flair when he takes the court that causes everyone to stop what they’re doing and pay attention. Some attribute that reaction to media hype, but that’s not where it actually stems from. It stems from the way Rivers makes it clear that you might be witness to something special whenever he gets the rock in his hands.
The kid is a freshman playing for a marquee college basketball program for the most respected coach in the land, of course there will be growing pains. And, along the same lines, of course those growing pains will be magnified ten-fold by the Duke-obsessed media.
At the same time, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Critiquing Rivers substantively as Pruiti did is fine and an intricate part of college hoops analysis, but the more bitter and low-brow attacks about him being “overrated” are getting a tad bit old.
It’s been give games.
Let the kid live.