Entering his third NBA training camp, New Orleans Pelicans guard Austin Rivers appeared to have found himself in yet another role.
As a rookie, he was slated for an apprenticeship as the team’s point guard of the future by playing in a backup role. But his struggles and Eric Gordon’s return from knee surgery had Rivers playing both guard spots, sometimes starting at shooting guard.
Last season, he made progress but couldn’t beat out Brian Roberts at backup point guard. But Rivers showed he could be trusted on defense and was better on drives to the basket.
This season, coach Monty Williams seemed to signal that Rivers’ point guard experiment was over.
“I want Austin to get back to his strength, which is scoring,” Williams said.
With Tyreke Evans able to slide over from his starting small forward spot to his natural role of having the ball in his hands and attacking the basket, he is the de facto backup point guard, leaving few minutes at that spot for anyone else.
That meant Rivers was slated for backup shooting guard, but Jimmer Fredette had a good preseason shooting the ball off the bench. It looked like there would be few minutes for Rivers — just a lot of time on the bench in a key year for him contract-wise. The team has to make a decision on whether to retain him next season at more than $3 million.
With the regular season beginning Tuesday against Orlando, Rivers seems to have carved out a niche.
“I’m not a backup. I’m not a 2 or a 3,” he said. “I’m just a player. That’s how I look at it. I told Coach, ‘I’m going to defend, talk on defense. I’m going to make plays for everybody else, and I’m going to find my place and be aggressive. When it’s time to score, I’ll score.’ ”
That’s fine with Williams. Having Rivers adjust and play differently as a shooting guard and a point guard “is exactly what I don’t want,” he said. “I just want him to play.”
With Evans having moved into the starting lineup after coming off the bench to bolster the second unit last year, Rivers said he took a page out of Evans’ book as far as how he will play this season.
“I’ve just been in attack mode,” Rivers said. “I’m coming to make plays on both ends — not just offensively, defensively. I’ve been learning from Coach and getting better. You figure out what you can do in this league as it goes on.”
And he obviously has been heeding Williams’ call for more rebounding by the guards. In Thursday’s 88-85 victory against the Dallas Mavericks in Bossier City, the team’s preseason finale, Rivers pulled down five rebounds. It was the third consecutive game he reached that figure.
“It’s something Coach has stressed, and I’m a big guard,” said Rivers, who’s 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds. “It’s something I’ve been focusing on — that and continuing to play good defense.”
Although things may have been confusing initially for Rivers, Williams said he has seen improvement from last season. He is not as afraid to make mistakes and has more of a take-charge attitude.
“He made a play (against Oklahoma City) where he grabbed the rebound and brought the ball up,” Williams said. “He made the right read on the defense, drove the lane and kicked it out for a 3. Last year, he wouldn’t have made that play.”
Although Rivers said he is ready to take the game as it comes, being effective as a scorer likely will be a challenge. In the preseason, he shot 15-of-41 (36.6 percent) after shooting 37.2 percent as a rookie and 40.5 percent last season. And he shot just 70.4 percent on free throws. In seven preseason games, he averaged 8.5 points and 4.2 assists, second on the team.
“I think my play was good,” he said. “I’m surrounded by shooters, so when I get in the game, I want to get the ball to them. I’ll make shots. I think I’ve been transitioning great. I think there’s more minutes out there for me. My job is to make Coach play me more.”
NOTES: The Pelicans exercised their fourth-year option on power forward Anthony Davis. The move was expected, and the Pelicans had until Oct. 31 to do so. The team still has to make a decision on whether to pick up Rivers’ option by the Oct. 31 deadline. … The Pelicans waived forward Kevin Jones and guard D.J. Stephens, cutting their roster to 15. Both appeared in three preseason games. … The Pelicans will have an open practice Saturday at the Smoothie King Center. It’s free to the public and will run from 10 a.m. to noon. The team will be divided into blue and white squads for a scrimmage.