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It’s far too early to rule on Duke’s Austin Rivers

Nov 23, 2011, 10:45 AM EDT

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There’s one thing that needs to be made clear: Duke’s Austin Rivers is a very skilled basketball player.

You don’t become the number one-ranked player in the nation, get named a McDonald’s All-American, and become the ACC’s Freshman of the Week in your first seven days on the job if you’re not skilled.

And following Rivers’ performance in the first two rounds of the Maui Invitational, games in which he averaged 19 points in two Blue Devil victories, the 6’4” freshman guard has become an interesting case study in how the flashiness and athleticism of a high school star can mesh with the controlled, calculated system of head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Through the first six games of Rivers’ college career, his straight statline looks good: 15.1 points, 2.5 assists per game. It’s a deeper look, though, and a dissection of what doesn’t show up in the box score that reveals the struggles of this Florida native.

Take a look: he had five turnovers in Duke’s 77-76 win over Belmont. He shot 1/7 from the field against Michigan State. It took him 15 shots to get his 18 points against Tennessee and another 14 shots to get 20 points against Michigan.

The flashes of brilliance that have shown themselves in Rivers’ first six games have been tempered by some harsh freshman realities that, many times, plague star freshman guards.

Rivers is undoubtedly Duke’s best weapon to attack off the dribble, slashing to the basket, collapsing the defense, and getting to the free throw line.

But for every hopstep into the lane that ends with a shifty layup at the basket, Rivers has a rushed, out-of-control floater that leads to a run-out and easy points for the opponent.

From high school, his strong handle and quickness have translated. He can still get by defenders and get into the lane. What Rivers still needs to understand is twofold: 1) there are big men who will step up to defend in the paint 2) there are other viable options on the floor who can be relied on to score the basketball, those whose names are not “Austin Rivers.”

With outside threats in Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, along with the Plumlee brothers and Ryan Kelly inside, Rivers’ ability to find the open man after he gets into the paint will mark his growth and maturity during his freshman year.

As his ill-advised and forced shots decrease, his lightning-quick first step and deceptive moves in the lane will become more effective, as defenses will have to compensate for his court vision.

In the first half of Duke’s win over Tennessee in Maui, Rivers drove into the lane and came to a jump stop. Defenders converged and he found Mason Plumlee for an alley-oop slam. Well done.

Not two possessions later, he drove into the lane, spun, and threw a hard layup off the glass that led to a run-out and transition points for the Volunteers. Freshman mistake.

The struggles are partly amplified by Coach K’s system at Duke.

Rivers is accustomed to a fast-paced, one-on-one style game, where defenses are spread out in transition and he can wreak havoc.

Krzyzewski’s system slows everything down, manufactures shots, and is devoid of the flashiness Rivers typically brings.

Take a look at recent Duke point guards: Nolan Smith, Kyrie Irving, and even Rivers’ classmate from 2011, Quinn Cook.

What do they all have in common? None are exceptionally athletic, but they fit well into Duke’s system and, within it, have and will thrive.

Rivers is different.

Would he have been more immediately effective at North Carolina or Kansas, two other schools he was considering? Perhaps.

But Rivers’ time at Duke could prove to be a blessing in disguise, as growing his game in the half-court is like a tough medicine to swallow; something that may be difficult to adjust to in the short-term, but beneficial in the long run.

To his credit, he has the overwhelming confidence to work through difficult stretches, so long as it doesn’t become his downfall.

After the aforementioned out-of-control layup against Tennessee, Rivers came back with two rise-and-fire, no-doubter three-pointers, part of his 11 first-half points, and 18 total, for the game.

There will be overreactions on both sides. Some will call him overrated. Some will venture to call him the best Duke guard since Jay Williams.

Both, for now, are unproven.

For now.