Thursday, February 9, 2012

Austin Rivers Hits Thrilling Shot, But Still Bearing Growing Pains

Austin Rivers, at the end of a college hoops spectacular, was mobbed by his teammates, his father, Doc Rivers, among them, went nuts watching his son drill a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer to beat rivals North Carolina 85-84 Wednesday night in Chapel Hill.

As the clock trickled, he pulled up, launched a rainbow three-pointer and stunned the Tar Heel folks, taking the air out of a building that suddenly went silent -- an instant classic to send the Duke Blue Devils right back to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference. He is, indeed, a true freshman with much promise, choosing to play for an institution where basketball is truly a tradition on Tobacco Road in Carolina.

He could have chosen North Carolina, a school eight miles away from Duke, but he had the motive to play behind legends, the popular athlete on campus until he eventually ventures off for the NBA. As of now, Rivers has NBA qualities, drilling threes from professional range with guard capabilities -- scoring a career-high 29 points after providing the unbelievable finishing touches.

"This is the best feeling I've ever had on the basketball court," Rivers said. "This is the best feeling I've ever had."

And yes, this is one of the best finishes we've ever witnessed in college hoops. This appears to be more relevant, all because it happened during rivalry week, a moment when Duke and North Carolina-- the best rivalry in college basketball -- battled in an epic theater on a night that Rivers generated much buzz after making magic happen in a hostile territory where Duke is always unwelcome on their rival's home court.

And now, after that incredible buzzer-beater, he is most believed for developing into an athletic sensation and perhaps the top young player in the nation. Fitting enough, he plays for a school that produces artistic, admirable guards. The growth of Rivers, a more polarizing player in the nation maybe for the uniform and colors he wears, has led to an abundance of progression in Duke's sudden rise -- in position to be an overweighing factor in March.

In the meantime, he is playing his best basketball and might be the fundamental piece if Duke is indeed in contention during the madness in March. For this young group of guys, it could either turn out as March Happiness or March Sadness, but as we all know, anything is possible in a tourney of underdogs and spectacular basketball. It's a month of surprises, a time that we pencil in our teams on those elusive brackets, predicting on what teams are worthy of the Final Four. The rare athleticism is what separates Rivers from most players, and it wouldn't surprise me if he leads Duke in the NCAA tournament.

Without a doubt in our minds, he is a scorer and that alone tells us he's a star player at a prestigious university, where Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski and a well-known basketball program have produced many NBA stars. It's hard to ignore weaknesses, as it might be a mistake not to address Rivers' fundamental flaws often underestimating his deficiencies as a player.

This, then, means he must learn to play within a team and not individually and mature over time. If so, and imagine if he does, Rivers will become the most dynamic offensive player in the nation and will generate buzz all over the country -- maybe even more so that he wears a Duke uniform when the vast majority of its games are broadcast nationally for the world to embrace and see.

What if he does forgo his college career after this season? This is a sampling of a future NBA star aiming for the professional ranks, and Duke suddenly has become a school of one-and-dones. He's the most terrifying and supernatural 18-year-old, reaching his potential at a school where the expectations are largely vital and where losing is considered a failure in the business of tradition and an abundance of legendary athletes who once played for Duke amid historically a few incredible runs. But I have to wonder about Rivers, because in truth, he's a pull up shooter and hogs the ball.

If you can pinpoint his downside, it would be his lack of commitment to play defense, and without him working diligently on defense, Duke is not such a well-balanced, skilled team. There's no denying that he's a flourishing player. The flaws, though he won it remarkably for the Blue Devils, eclipse his strengths, an almost punitive measure to keep him from excelling as the best player in the country.

It's that one shot, the game-winner that might be historic and go down as one of the exciting classics in sports. Good as he is, Rivers must mature a bit if he desires to become an efficient and complete ballplayer in Duke history, taking over for Kyrie Irving as the best athlete on the court. While the product of Duke is exhilarating and fun to watch, in the perfect atmosphere being in the presence of Coach K -- who is a teacher of the game and has cultivated his kids over the years with his craft and brilliance of coaching the game, Rivers still has to improve his shot selection and decision making. The excitement and emotion of Rivers' style on the court is from him pushing the tempo, driving to the rim, and distributing the ball to his teammates for open shots -- a dimensional guard to Duke's offense.

Without him, the Blue Devils are only, at best, an average basketball program. In most ways, he plays the role as a combo guard and his maturation has gently polished. The electrifying shot that everyone raved about immediately after Wednesday night when it took many by surprise -- reducing the volume in a noisy environment -- created enough buzz for one night. And everyone is waiting to see how he produces in March, in what would be Rivers' first NCAA tourney, a chance for him to strive for an NBA livelihood. Or he can opt to stay in school and elevate his collegiate status at Duke, as many before him have done in previous years. It's all up to him. It's his call. But, even though he's somewhat NBA-caliber, he still needs much improvement before he jumps into the NBA.

One shot doesn't confirm that he's ready to take on a tougher, harder task on the professional level. Maybe considering he's ultra-talented player who is a scorer and has ultimately a unique shooting stroke in his arsenal. And that's fine. But he's just inexperienced and an undersized shooting guard at 6-foot-4 who has to play more aggressively on defense. He's far from it, not even close to being a complete shooting guard, nonetheless, a work in progress as a freshman. He has to be more than just a deep-range shooter, if anything, and be well-rounded in every department -- performing through the emotions and getting past the challenges of stiff competition.

It's not the lack of potential or skill that is slowing down his process of establishing himself as the best player in the country, but it's the thought that he hasn't fulfilled much experience and defended his opponents, giving up too many points to the opposing team. Clearly, he committed to the right program and now is playing for Krzyzewski, who has built a bond with his players giving them unconditional love and opportunities to grow as he cultivate and groom his players.

There's undoubtedly a reason that Rivers decided to commit to Duke, not only for the education, but also for the noteworthy program where he can expand his style of play with one of the well-respected basketball coaches. While folks are reliving that thrilling, game-winning buzzer-beater -- Rivers -- and Duke as a whole -- are bearing with growing pains as they adjust to a completely new style. But he may have had his signature moment with a come-from-behind victory over No. 5 North Carolina -- trailing by as many as 13 points in the second-half.

The Blue Devils were on the brink of dropping a conference game against their rivals, but never stopped playing and continued to battle, pulling off a miraculous rally near the end that led to a gratifying finish with 13 seconds left. When North Carolina's Tyler Zeller missed a free throw for what would have been a three-point advantage, it was Rivers who received the ball, and certainly, he hurried down the floor and launched it from the perimeter. Sure enough, it dropped in. This happened after his teammate Seth Curry, who had 15 points, scored a three that cut the lead within four with 1:48 left. And then, moments later, Ryan Kelly hit a jump shot off his own missed three that made it 82-80. That created magic of a celebrated rivalry.

"Obviously this is my favorite win I've ever had in my entire life," Rivers said. "And it's because we were down the whole game. The whole game, we were down. They just kept it on us - 10-point lead, 10-point lead. And then there was 3 minutes left and probably everybody thought we were going to lose, and we just kept fighting. To get a W, it's amazing."

However, he's still a work in progress.