Duke’s summer trip to China and Dubai provided answers to several questions about the basketball team.
Ryan Kelly will be one of the most improved players in the league. Seth Curry can run the point.
And the black hat fits Austin Rivers well.
Rivers hasn’t played a college game yet, but his combination of talent, attitude, and fire has already earned him notoriety.
Like the Laettners, Redicks, and other Duke assassins that came before him, Rivers seems to relish it almost as much as a game-winning shot.
Consider the “How I spent my summer vacation” essay Rivers could write since his Winter Park High School team won the Florida State championships in early March.
In March, he was interviewed by The Sporting News, telling them “I was hated before I stepped on the court.”
Later that month, he wrote an article for ESPN, declaring Duke “the most hated school in college basketball … Public Enemy No. 1.”
In June, Rivers announced on Twitter that he would wear the number 0 at Duke, then gave himself a nickname inspired by a Mortal Kombat villain.
“My nick name is going to be subzero!” he Tweeted. “Cause of number and because my moves freeze people, got ice in my veins!!”
Then Rivers took the court over the summer and showed that the icewater in his veins is rivaled only by the fire in his heart.
During the N.C. Pro Am, Rivers went nose-to-nose with an N.C. Central player on the other team and had to be separated by teammates. His body language and inability to bring his game and temper under control earned him a postgame lecture from Jerry Stackhouse.
In China, Rivers showed why he earned a starting spot, with a Iverson-esque crossover and fearless drives. His reliance on those moves while ignoring the rest of the game plan then quickly earned him a spot on Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s bench.
“I think Austin has a great deal to improve on,” Coach Krzyzewski said. “He’s really good, and we love him, but we’ll love him even more, and he’ll love himself even more when he learns more.”
The learning experience could end up making Rivers’ freshman season a very long year in Durham, as Krzyzewski tries to mold Rivers’ considerable talent into something that fits in with the current team and the Duke way of doing things.
The China games may be a microcosm of the season to come. Rivers led the team in assists and tied for second in scoring, but he also led the Blue Devils in turnovers and personal fouls.
“He has to learn that every play doesn’t have to be hard,” Krzyzewski said. “It shouldn’t be that difficult. You’re running a play and, if you go a certain way, it’ll be there, then don’t go the other way. That’s making it hard.”
“He’s talented when he gets the ball … He wants to learn,” Coach K added.
Those are the two sides of Austin Rivers—the fire and the ice. He’s a coach’s son, but he’s also the son of an NBA All Star.
He spent high school as the best player on the court, which earned him the chance to try to be part of the best team in college.
“High school ball is more like the NBA. There’s a lot of one-on-one play. College is different,” Rivers said.
That means working on jump stops in the summer instead of crossovers, and finding the open man instead of the highlight-film finish.
It will be a struggle, for both Rivers and Coach K. It will involve breaking down and building up. There will likely be some practices where Rivers is sent to the showers early, some harsh words on the sidelines as he takes a seat on the bench.
But there will also be clutch shots and ankle-breaking crossovers. Before long, the hugs will outnumber the glares, and his play on the court will draw shouts of frustration from opposing fans exclusively.
Once he’s done learning, Austin Rivers can put his black hat back on, and dare the rest of the ACC to knock it off.