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NBA AM: Austin Rivers Sheds “Bust” Label

Once considered a “bust,” Austin Rivers’ disappointing rookie season is now far, far behind him.

Joel Brigham

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Ask most rookies about how their year is going, and they’ll tell you that they’ve never had more fun. Sure, it’s hard, and it takes a while to adjust to the speed and power of the NBA game, but many rookies see their first seasons as their dreams coming to fruition. They’re experiencing unprecedented fame and unfathomable influxes of cash. They’re playing with and against their childhood idols. The rookie year is a sports rite of passage, and it’s something most players look back on with some measure of fondness.

Not Los Angeles Clippers guard Austin Rivers.

“That was probably the most frustrating time of my life, my first two years in the league,” Rivers told Basketball Insiders. “I had surgery right after summer league, but I rushed back because I was a rookie and wanted to play so bad. So even when I was playing, I wasn’t right yet, but I kind of started to play well again, started to feel it, then boom. I went down again. It left a bad taste in my mouth.”

Rivers played in only 61 games his rookie season, but he assumed that when he came back the following year, he’d find himself implanted into a larger role. That didn’t happen. The rebranded Pelicans showed how much they valued the former lottery pick by bringing in two more starting-quality guards in the 2013 offseason, effectively banishing Rivers to the back end of the guard rotation.

“Before I could even prove myself that next year, they brought on those guys that were supposed to make New Orleans a good team, but it didn’t happen that way. They brought in Tyreke (Evans) and Jrue (Holiday), it was like all these guards that came. So I never even got a chance there, and it was frustrating. I was really mad at the time.”

And with good cause. Rivers saw his minutes drop from 23.2 per game in 2012-2013 to 19.4 in his sophomore campaign. He still failed to play 70 games, started only four, and seemed to drift further and further out of the team’s rotation. The word “bust” got tossed around pretty frequently.

“That was first time in my life people were like, ‘You’re not good enough to be here. You’re not the best. You’re not that good. You’re a bust,’” he said. “People were calling me that. I was tagged that my first two years, and that s— was awful. It was terrible. I was a lottery pick, and I wanted to be such a great player. It wasn’t working out. I wasn’t healthy. People don’t care if you’re healthy or not, they just see how good you’re playing. No one’s giving you the benefit of the doubt.”

Social media, he said, didn’t make things any easier on him.

“Brutal. It was brutal. People were killing me. So I’m just like, ‘Man this is no fun. This is not what I thought the NBA was going to be like.’”

That criticism stood in stark contrast to what Rivers expected for himself coming into the league in 2012. Two years earlier, Rivers was one of the top three prospects in high school basketball on all of the reputable prospect rankings services. Rivals even had him ranked #1 overall, ahead of Anthony Davis. He was recruited by Mike Krzyzewski to play at one of the most storied college basketball programs in NCAA history. Then he was a top-10 pick in the NBA Draft. It’s easy to see how he’d view the world as oyster-shaped, particularly coming into the league as a bright-eyed teenager.

“Oh you think you’re unbeatable. You think you’re invincible. That’s how I was,” Rivers admitted. “I thought, my rookie year, ‘I’m going to be Rookie of the Year. The team’s going to go to the playoffs with me and [Anthony Davis].’ You’re so oblivious to really anything.

“Prior to that, you’ve really never struggled, you’ve always been the best player, the biggest kid, the quickest kid. I was always the best player in high school. Even at college, I was better than everybody as a freshman. I felt that way, and you don’t realize until you get to the league, like, ‘Wow, I got a lot of work to do.’ You get punched in the face, and if you’re unfortunate enough that you get injuries tagged with it, it can really be hard. It was hard on me.”

Despite the struggles, Rivers says he honestly is grateful for the way his first two seasons in New Orleans played out.

“It made me—I swear to you—it made me so much stronger,” he admitted. “I worked so hard in the coming summers, and it made me just get to the point that I had to just trust my hard work. I couldn’t come out and try to please people. The coach I was playing for, I was trying to please him instead of just f—— hooping and playing.

“I don’t take any of it back,” he added. “I don’t.”

Now in his fifth season, Rivers has seen more success than at any other point in his career. When the series of trades occurred his third year in the league to land him with his father in Los Angeles, there still were plenty of people criticizing him. When he started a couple of games in 2015 because of a Chris Paul injury, for example, plenty of fans and media were vocally incredulous.

Filling in for Paul this season during the All-Star’s extended absence, those same criticisms were gone. Rivers is averaging a career-high 12.2 PPG and 2.9 APG this season while playing a career-high 28.1 minutes a night. He’s not an All-Star, and he may never be, but he’s proven himself to be a credible NBA player worthy of big minutes on a good playoff team.

Slowly, surely, the criticism is quieting, and Rivers can feel the shift.

“Now I’m at a point where I feel like I have the possibility to be a (full-time) starter soon, and the levels can just keep going up,” he said. “A lot of that was just thick skin, patience, hard work and people that believed in me. Honestly, I think most of it was due to the failures I had. I think you have to have some type of setback in your life. You have to have at least one. All the great players have one. You use it, and then once you learn from it and get better from it, you won’t have to go through it again.”

More than anything, Rivers feels as though he has taken back control of his own destiny.

“When I was struggling, I wanted to blame everybody else,” Rivers continued. “I was like, ‘No, it’s his fault, it’s his fault.’ Eventually you just got to man up and be like, ‘you know it’s my f—— fault, ain’t nobody gonna help me out here. People like to see people fail, especially people who are making money. Ain’t nobody gonna feel bad for me, so I had to figure out a way to get out of that and learn from it, and I was able to do that.”

There are lottery busts every year. In that 2012 batch, for example, Thomas Robinson has struggled to find a home in the league while Kendall Marshall is currently in the NBA D League. That could just have easily been Rivers, but he persevered through harsh criticism, worked his tail off to prove his doubters wrong, and now finds himself a much more serviceable member of the NBA community than many thought possible three or four seasons ago.

At the very least, no one’s calling him a “bust” anymore.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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NBA AM: Was Watson Setup To Fail or Just Ill Equipped?

Was Phoenix’s Earl Watson setup to fail or did he just not have the tools and experience to overcome the tenuous job of a rebuild?

Steve Kyler

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Set Up To Fail? Maybe

The Phoenix Suns have parted ways with head coach Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season. Associate head coach Jay Triano is expected to be his replacement as interim head coach.

Some have suggested that Watson was set up to fail, but let’s be honest for a minute. Was Watson really the best option the Suns had after parting ways with Jeff Hornacek during the 2015-16 season? Watson was well liked and that an easy and intoxicating concept, but even as an interim coach Watson won just nine games in 33 tries.

It’s not as if Watson took the team in a totally new direction; the Suns were a bad team when they took the gamble on Watson. Moving the needle wasn’t exactly likely when the massive inexperienced Watson took over the team. Is anyone really surprised he couldn’t make it work?

Sure, the roster and the priorities of the franchise were an uphill climb, but let’s be real for a minute: The Suns couldn’t have expected Watson to have the tools to bring it all together. Rebuilding is hard all by itself, and doing so with a head coach that has never coached isn’t exactly smart. In fact, it rarely works out.

It’s easy to say Watson was set up to fail, but equally easy to say he never had the experience to believe he’d be successful. It was a gamble on the Suns’ part, a gamble that ran its course.

So What Next?

The Suns are not very good, as three straight blow out losses have proven. It’s possible that Triano can make enough changes to at least get the Suns to compete, but the word in NBA circles was the Suns locker room had basically quit after three games, so Triano’s task may be tough for even a coach that been around the block a few times.

Like Watson, Triano is incredibly likable and approachable, but unlike Watson, Triano has experience. Triano has experience not only as a head coach, having coached the Toronto Raptors for three years, but he is the head coach of the Canadian National Team and has been on the Team USA and Portland Trail Blazers staff as an assistant. While Triano’s stint in Toronto looked a lot like Watson’s stint in Phoenix, the big difference is Triano has been around a lot more situations and may be better equipped to put a system and structure in place that could yield improvement, or at least that’s the newest bet the Suns are making.

With Triano at the helm, it’s also likely that the front office will have a better relationship than what’s emerged in Watson’s time in Phoenix. General Manager Ryan McDonough and Watson haven’t exactly been on the same page, and Watson had grown emboldened enough to make it clear in the media somethings were not in his control, often taken subtle shots at decisions made by the front office.

It is rare for inexperience and dysfunction to yield success. The hope is Triano will smooth some of that over.

“I Dont wanna be here.”

As news of Watson’s firing began to leak Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who had a very good relationship with Watson, took to Twitter to announce “I Dont wanna be here.”

Bledsoe has been a constant name in NBA trade circles for the last few years, and with Watson out of the picture, Bledsoe seems to be looking for the door too.

The 27-year-old Bledsoe has two more seasons remaining on his deal, $14.5 million this season and $15 million owed for next season. The Suns have listened to offers on Bledsoe off and on for some time, with many in NBA circles believing this would be the season the Suns would finally trade him.

With Watson, a long-time champion of Bledsoe, out of the picture, there is a belief that Bledsoe’s role is going to decrease, which is likely why Bledsoe took to Twitter.

Pulling off a trade three games into the season seems highly unlikely, especially given that Bledsoe has likely killed his own trade value. There have been several teams over the last two seasons with interest in Bledsoe; the question is, will the Suns close this chapter or try and see if Bledsoe can help them right the ship under Triano and rebuild some trade value when the trade market opens up in December?

$41.11 Million

Of the Phoenix Suns’ $85.448 million in guaranteed contracts, $41.11 million belongs to Bledsoe, injured guard Brandon Knight and center Tyson Chandler. You can toss $10 million more for injured forward Jared Dudley. While Bledsoe and Chandler have played in all three regular-season games, both are not part of the long-term future of the team.

The question becomes, what role will they play under Triano?

The Suns are truly a tale of two teams. There is the old veteran squad that is clogging up the top of the Suns salary cap chart, and there are rookie scale players that are the future, and not coincidentally the players performing at their worst so far this season.

Will the Suns just let the $41.11 million owed at the top just sit, or will the Suns try and fire-sale some of those veterans? The belief is they would like to do the latter.

As much as people may want to say Watson was set up to fail, the evidence in the situation is he was never proven enough to succeed.

The Suns are in a dreadful no-man’s land of bad contracts and underperforming players. Maybe a more proven established coach could have set this situation in a better direction, but the reality is Watson was never experienced enough to handle a rebuild like this because getting the most out of players while losing is a very tough job even for the most experienced of coaches.

Watson, like many before him, will find another job in the NBA. Maybe like Triano who is replacing him, he can take the lessons learned in Phoenix and become a better coach somewhere down the road and get a shot with a team that wouldn’t require as much as the Suns desperately need.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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