Austin Rivers has some big shoes to fill, but that’s nothing new for him.
The high school player of the year last year, Rivers begins his Duke career as the crown jewel of the Blue Devils freshman class. The last freshman to arrive on campus with such buzz was the number one pick in the NBA Draft this past June—Kyrie Irving.
Irving started from his very first game, and Rivers appears on the same track. He started every game on Duke’s China trip and was the only freshman to receive significant playing time. The comparisons are inevitable, although Rivers meets them with a shrug.
“I’m just going to play my game,” says Rivers. “People can have their comparisons. For the rest of my life, I’ll be compared to somebody.”
“Besides,” Rivers adds, “I’ve been compared to my father my whole life.”
Doc Rivers was, of course, a 13-year NBA point guard and former All Star.
Rivers now coaches the Boston Celtics. He’s a former coach of the year, a former world champion, and, assuming the NBA ever suits up this year, he’ll match his longevity as a player with his thirteenth season on the bench.
Like the comparisons to Irving, Rivers doesn’t concern himself with comparisons to his father.
“Our games are different,” he says. “I don’t know how to describe his style, really. “He had a lot of stuff from his career at his house. I saw video of him trying to guard Jordan.”
Rivers fights off a sly grin after that last jab, hinting that perhaps he’s a little more competitive with dad than he lets on. Despite the family rivalry, Austin leaves no doubt that growing up Rivers benefitted him immensely.
“He’s always giving me advice,” Rivers says, “but in the end, he lets me do my own thing.” That includes the biggest decision of Austin’s life so far—the choice to attend Duke. “Mom and Dad stayed out of that decision and let me pick the place that was best for me.”
“He taught me how to act and not to act,” Rivers says of his father. “Plus, I got to observe guys like Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Shaq. I learned what it takes to be at that level.”
Reports from his first few months on Duke’s campus put Rivers in the gym at all hours of the day and night indicating that hard work is one of the lessons he learned from his NBA upbringing.
Putting in many of those hours with Rivers is the latest subject of comparisons—Kyrie Irving, who is on campus taking courses during the NBA lockout. The star freshman from last year is helping this year’s version make the transition to college.
“Austin’s not as ready as Kyrie,” says Krzyzewski. “The point guard position probably can be ahead of any other position, coming into college. It’s basically the same as high school as far as responsibilities, and you have more weapons up here. Austin’s more of an off-the-ball player.”
“We’re both playmakers,” Rivers says of the inevitable comparisons with Irving. “We both came in with a lot of accolades. He told me people are going to try to tell me what I can and can’t do, but I should just go out and play my game.”
“We got close to each other during my recruiting last year,” Rivers continues. “I talked to him a few times a week since then. Now I play one-on-one with him all the time.”
And who wins those showdowns? The question draws the same sly grin from Rivers, but unlike the jab at Doc, he refrains from taking a shot at Irving.
“About half and half,” he says. “I win sometimes, and he wins sometimes.”
When a reporter suggests that it sounds like a very safe, political answer, Rivers’ grin widens. “Yes,” he says. “It is.”
Rivers has had comparisons to people that came before him all his life—first his father, then Irving. The competition with his mentors have helped to strengthen him and prepare him for the next level.
The one-on-one games with Irving might remind Rivers of a previous opponent, someone he stopped playing against as a freshman in high school.
“I beat my dad,” Rivers recalls, “I think it was something like 10 to 1.” When asked if he considered taking it easy on the old man, Rivers grins and says, “No way.” Father and son both agree that they didn’t play after that.
Still, dad might have gotten the last laugh. Like his son, Doc made the McDonalds All American Game roster coming out of high school and outscored Austin 20-14 in the games, separated by 21 years.