NEW ORLEANS — Since coming to the Hornets as the 10th pick in the 2012 draft, Austin Rivers’ short tenure with the team has had the look of one big struggle.
From not being able to fully play the point guard position the Hornets envisioned for him, to foot and ankle injuries during the summer and training camp, to an atrocious shooting percentage (29) nearly one quarter through his rookie season, it seemed Rivers, son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, had erred coming out of Duke, and away from coach Mike Krzyzewski, after his freshman year.
However, Hornets coach Monty Williams said the key with Rivers was patience — for him and those watching. Not many 20-year-old guards come into today’s NBA and stars quickly, Williams said.
“He needs to just keep working hard to get better, watching more film, and he’ll do that,” said Williams, who played under Doc Rivers with the Orlando Magic and has known Austin since he was a toddler. “Austin is a competitor, and that’s what we want on this team. One thing he is not short on is confidence.”
Through it all, Rivers showed that to be the case with an endearing self-confidence, persistence and work ethic, often saying: “I just have to remain aggressive and keep learning.”
Williams’ belief was rewarded Friday night when Rivers broke loose for his best game as a pro, scoring 27 points, although in a loss to Minnesota. Rivers shot 9-of-14, including 5-of-6 on 3-point attempts, and made all four of his free throws. He’d already had his career high by halftime — 19 points on 6-of-7 shooting, 3-of-3 on 3s.
It wasn’t just the points, but how he got them, driving aggressively, knocking down 3s, that cocky kid from Duke competing, fighting.
“The past couple of games, I’ve started to be more consistent, and I’ve been playing well,” Rivers said after the game. “I’ve been scoring a lot more and making plays. ... I came in thinking I’ve got to be aggressive and make plays for my teammates, whether that’s scoring or getting someone else a shot, whatever it may be. Tonight, it was scoring, and I’ve got to continue to do that.”
The performance came in Rivers’ third game back in the lineup. He had been switched to the bench for nine games as Williams, who continues to tinker with the lineup and rotation looking to find the right fit on a young team, sought to get the team started faster with veteran Roger Mason in the lineup.
Williams said the breakout performance against the Wolves was the result of Rivers’ work after practice with assistant coaches Fred Vinson and Dave Hanners, and Rivers’ “rescuing himself,” which the coach said all players have to do at some point.
“Coach Fred and coach Dave worked with him on jumping straight up and down on his shot, and he knows his spots now,” Williams said. “He’s making his 3-pointers much more consistently.”
Rivers set up this performance with his previous career-best 15 points against Memphis on Dec. 7, in which he shot 7-of-13. Before that, however, he’d gone 3-of-23 in his previous four games, including 0-of-5 against the Lakers two days before the Memphis performance and 0-of-5 against Milwaukee two days before that.
After the Memphis game, he was asked how he was able to keep his chin up.
“I mean, I’m a rookie,” he said. “This is the NBA. I’m going to struggle. But coach Monty talks to me, and I just keep working at it, and hopefully I can become more consistent. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
After the Memphis game, he scored just five at Miami the next night, but bounced back with 11 on 5-of-8 shooting against Washington on Dec. 11 in his first game back as a starter and 12 at Oklahoma City.
Asked if his decision to put Rivers back in the starting lineup was based on his play against Memphis, Williams said no, that for every good thing Rivers did, he’d make a rookie mistake like committing a foul after a turnover. Then there was the five-second count on an out-of-bounds play that ended all hope for the Hornets at the end against the Wizards.
But Williams said he’s seeing improvement.
“When he makes mistakes now, he knows why they are mistakes,” Williams said.
“He’s starting to gain confidence. This is what we thought we’d get from him.”