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.
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