BOSTON — Austin Rivers‘ first professional game against the Celtics came with all the hoopla the occasion merited. For only the fourth time in NBA history, a player was facing a team coached by his father, and the moment was special for anybody with “Rivers” in his or her name.
Austin Rivers’ presence at the TD Garden was not all that made the night somewhat surreal for Celtics coach Doc Rivers, however. While Kevin Garnett and other Celtics players felt their age in playing against a rookie they remember as a kid, hanging out at their practices, Doc Rivers got to match wits with New Orleans coach Monty Williams, a player he befriended and helped guide for three seasons with the Orlando Magic.
“This whole thing is strange, even for Monty and me,” Doc Rivers said. “It’s funny, you raise your kids, you want them to do well and you want them to make the pros. That was Austin’s goal. But you don’t plan on the other stuff. Coaching against him is not something I ever really thought about. I never thought about it, until the moment he was drafted, who was going to coach him. Because I have so many friends who coach, I never gave it any thought. Now it’s all happened. Austin’s struggling right now, and that’s part of being a rookie. He’s learning, and it’s good to have Monty around him.”
Austin Rivers scored eight points and the Hornets defeated the Celtics on Wednesday to win for the sixth time in their last seven games, but this season has been far from easy for the Hornets and their rookie guard. Whereas No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis has been solid whenever he has been on the court, Rivers has had one of the roughest first seasons of any top-10 pick in recent memory.
Predictably, according to those who know him, Austin Rivers has not been deterred by his struggles. The 20-year-old from Duke has never lacked for confidence. His brashness — some would say “cockiness” — has been one of the most cited characteristics in his scouting report, going back to his days as a nationally ranked player at Winter Park (Fla.) High School.
On any other team, with any other coach, that could lead to a touchy situation. Austin Rivers began the season as New Orleans’ starting two-guard, but as Rivers’ shooting percentage sank, Williams had no choice but to remove him from the starting lineup. Rivers regained his starting spot in early December and briefly busted out of his slump by scoring in double figures in three straight games, culminating in a career-high 27-point performance against the Timberwolves on Dec. 14. Less than a week later, Rivers was back to misfiring more often than not, and he has come off the bench in the last seven games.
Yet there has not been a peep out of New Orleans about Austin Rivers being unhappy with his inconsistent playing time. As a coach’s son, maybe he would not dare to criticize his own coach anyway, but the familiarity with Williams cannot hurt their relationship. Indeed, Williams is not sure how many coaches would be able to accept and laugh off Rivers’ more impetuous traits.
“To be honest with you, I wouldn’t want Austin to play for anybody but me, because it is different,” Williams said. “There’s no other way to put it. It’s a different deal. I’ve known him since he was three years old, so to be in my care right now, I think, is a good thing for him. I’m probably more willing to put up with his confidence, which is pretty high on most days, but it’s also the thing that makes him pretty good.”
Austin Rivers seems just as content with the setup. He boldly placed his father alongside Gregg Popovich as the top coaches in the NBA, although he did note that Williams was quickly building a resume of his own. It is interesting to think how a taskmaster Jerry Sloan — who, perhaps owing to the changing nature of the sport, is no longer around to torment rookies — would have approached a young player as sure of himself as Rivers is.
In all likelihood, Austin Rivers’ story will end up being about more than one game against his dad. The Hornets still have high hopes for Rivers and Davis to form an inside-outside foundation for the franchise. They are fortunate to have Rivers’ development in the hands of Williams, who can help keep Rivers’ chin up when he struggles, but just as importantly keep him somewhat humble as he starts to realize his vast potential.