If you listened close enough, you could hear the vitriol-laden opines of the peanut gallery when Austin Rivers was re-signed by the Los Angeles Clippers. It wasn’t a fully cheap deal, either. Rather, the team opted to let him test the free agent market and then, when the offers weren’t really there, decided to give him two years and $6.5 million. For a player who has never really done much – a player who has been labeled a "draft bust" by some who don’t even understand what the phrase means – in his career outside of a few bright spots here and there, the team was taking a chance; again. It’s a chance that appears to be paying off.
When the Clippers acquired Doc Rivers’ son last season, a trade that saw the team send out former first round pick Reggie Bullock, there were some in the basketball community who ridiculed the move. They cited such things as how the Clippers gave up too soon on Bullock, how this was just a move for Doc to get his son on the team, or any other random musing they could find to throw at the wall in the hopes it would stick. Yet, since his arrival, all Austin Rivers has done is do good things. Sure, he’s prone to the inevitable blunder every now and then, but it’s best to be reminded that he’s still just 23 years old. He’s still learning. And, now, he’s in a situation conducive to said learning.
Rivers has worked a lot on his game this offseason, from improving his jumper with the aid of assistant coach Sam Cassell to shooting in practice with guys like J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, and Chris Paul. It’s no secret that the better players or teachers you have around you, the better chance you have at success if you’re willing to put in the work. For now, Rivers does appear willing to put in the work on the offensive end to hone his talents a little bit more. He already looks more confident when shooting jumpers. We saw it during the preseason and have already seen it during the first two games of the year. But Austin has been working on the other end of the floor just as much, if not more. His defense has been great since he’s suited up for the Clippers. And that might be his calling card with this team.
Small sample sizes are one of those things you have to watch out for early on during the year. As evidence of that, Austin Rivers currently sports the second best Defensive Rating among all individual players on the Los Angeles Clippers. His 88.0 mark in 41 minutes trails only DeAndre Jordan (86.8) right now. It’s best to keep all of that within a certain amount of context, though. Is Rivers the team’s second best or second most impactful defender? Of course not. But how much further down the list is he? One could make the argument that Rivers might even be the team’s second best perimeter defender behind Chris Paul.
The one thing Rivers has always been able to provide on the defensive end of the court is athleticism and hustle. He tries; a lot. Just the other night in Sacramento against the Kings, Rivers chased down and blocked All-Star DeMarcus Cousins. Later on in the game, Rivers stole the ball with 90 seconds to go by making a heady read and darting into the passing lane. It’s one of those things that show you the kind of player he can become defensively. Rivers will never get a fair shake from people simply because of who his father is, who he plays for, and how his career started out. It’s just one of the things he’ll have to overcome.
However, right now, Austin Rivers has become a really good defensive player and it seems like no one is taking notice of it. It said a lot about how the team views Austin’s defensive ability when he was the player of choice thrust into that Sacramento game late and not someone who has a reputation of being a better defender – i.e. Lance Stephenson. Maybe it was a sign that Rivers, not Stephenson, is the team’s second best perimeter defender after, of course, Paul. We might even start to see a few more lineups with the Paul-Rivers backcourt in an effort to get even more defense on the floor during certain situations.
Make no mistake about it, Austin Rivers will never live up to his draft position and hype in the eyes of those around the league or those who follow it. He just has to keep grinding away, whether that be on offense or on defense. Rivers has the skills to be a capable rotational guard in this league for quite a few years. He’s already shown that he can make a positive impact for the Los Angeles Clippers during his already brief amount of time here. His exploits in Game 4 on the road against the San Antonio Spurs, Game 1 on the road against the Houston Rockets, and Game 3 at home against the Rockets were just some instances of the magical run he had with the team last season. He made a difference. And he’s still attempting to.
Rivers plays hard, and that’s pretty much all you can ask of a young player at this juncture of his career. He’s now in his fourth season, but still has the youthful age of 23. He’s learning from the best players he’s ever had the pleasure of playing with. Whether people like it or not, Paul, Redick, and Crawford are, by far, the best concoction of backcourt talent he’s ever suited up alongside. This past offseason was one he was able to fully embrace and it appears, so far, to have helped him get even more comfortable with the team and their cast of characters.
With his career seemingly getting better right now, Rivers has to keep grinding defensively. If he’s already earned the trust of the coaches to garner pivotal minutes in a closely contested game, then perhaps more is in store for him. Rivers is grinding. He’s learning. He’s still growing as a player. There’s no telling what Austin Rivers can turn into for this team. For the future, he has a player option for next year that he could or could not exercise. That’ll be up to him this offseason. For now, he’s become one of the top defensive options on the perimeter. That flash of talent he’s shown there could be what catapults his confidence and opens up a whole new world of possibilities for himself. He’s no longer just a coach’s son. He’s a difference maker.