Postcard: Duke trying to transform Rivers, remake backcourt
Mike Krzyzewski doesn't think Austin Rivers is as ready as Kyrie Irving last season
Rivers seems to take direction well and is clearly the most talented Blue Devil
Duke will be a strong team offensively, but is likely to take a defensive hit
DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke has the best-shooting perimeter crew in the country; I'm convinced of that. Duke could have the best backcourt in the country; I'm just not certain if that will be the case, because Duke isn't certain it will be the case. Whereas one can go to rival North Carolina this fall and see a fully formed team and know how it's going to look in games -- like last year's ACC regular-season champs but better -- the Blue Devils, with their reformulated backcourt, are a very intriguing TBD.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski is still reshaping things, as he does almost every year, and he has a pretty good track record, given that he's two wins away from Bob Knight's alltime Division I record of 902. But as Krzyzewski told his team in a mid-practice lecture this week, after he'd become dismayed by their lack of intensity, and questioned whether they felt "entitled" by wearing the Duke uniform: "I haven't proven anything with this team yet, and you haven't proven anything yet."
To estimate just how good combo guard Austin Rivers is going to be right away as a freshman, balance what the recruiting rankings suggest -- that he has the talent to be one of the country's best scorers and a one-and-done Lottery Pick -- with the language Krzyzewski uses about the McDonald's All-American. Before Kyrie Irving had even arrived at Duke in 2010, Krzyzewski said Irving had the ability to "transform" the Blue Devils' offense. That was 100 percent accurate. Before Irving suffered a toe injury eight games into last season, he was the best player in the country. He completely changed Duke's offense, and went on to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
While the Blue Devils were stretching at the beginning of Tuesday's 8 a.m. practice, I asked Krzyzewski what kind of player Rivers would be, and the coach said, "I don't know."
He said that the team's August trip to China was huge for Rivers' development, but he needed to continue to improve. When I noted the difference in descriptors used for Irving and Rivers, Krzyzewski said, "He's not as ready as Kyrie was." While offering the caveat that it was easier for Irving to "transform" the team from the point guard position than it would be for Rivers from the off-guard spot, Krzyzewski added, "Part of it is that [Rivers] needs to learn to have fun with other parts of the game than offense -- with defense, with rebounding, with communicating."
It did not take long during practice for Krzyzewski to begin giving Rivers reinforcement. Early in a drill where the first-team offense was attacking a 2-3 zone, Rivers drove from the left wing, into converging defenders, and was divested of the ball before he could make a play. He hung his head and didn't engage in transition defense, at which point a whistle was blown. It was made clear that Rivers' body language was not going to be accepted, nor was his carelessness with the ball. "It's not an AAU game -- it's a Duke basketball game at the highest level," Krzyzewski said. "Every possession is important."
What impressed me was how quickly Rivers changed course. On the next two possessions, he took exactly what he was given -- open looks at threes -- and drilled them both. Soon after, he followed his own miss with a put-back floater; he stole a pass to start a fast break; he attacked the 2-3 with controlled aggression; and he kept a possession alive by flying in from the weak side to tip a rebound away from the much larger Miles Plumlee. Krzyzewski enthusiastically praised the latter play in front of the team. Rivers is the most talented Blue Devil and is almost unguardable off the dribble. If he can become the complete, disciplined player Duke wants, he'll be special; if he lapses too often into his electric-but-sloppy state, he's going to have problems.
The promising thing is that Rivers -- despite his AAU-scene hype, and his upbringing in an NBA culture, as the middle son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers -- seems to know what he needs. Rivers said that from talking with Irving, his former teammate on the U.S. Under-18 team two summers ago, he's aware that "you can't just come in to Duke, be lackadaisical, and act like you're going to run s--- when you still have to learn everything." His response to being yelled at by Krzyzewski, he said, "was just to turn it up, and from then on, make sure he didn't yell at me again for the rest of practice."
Sweet-shooting junior Andre Dawkins was matching Rivers' three-point output on Tuesday, but the guard missing from the first-team lineup was junior Seth Curry, who's being converted to the point in place of the graduated Nolan Smith. Smith was in the second row of the bleachers, as an observer stuck in the NBA lockout, and Curry was in front of him on the bench, nursing an ankle injury. His performance in their Blue-White Scrimmage four days earlier -- scoring a team-high 28 points to beat Rivers' squad -- had been impressive, and coaches insisted that practice runs much smoother with Curry at the helm. "Seth is a calming influence to our team," assistant Jeff Capel said. "He allows Austin to do what he does best, which is be a playmaker."
Duke has thrived for the past two years using converted two-guards at the point, with Jon Scheyer leading them to a national title in 2010 and Smith winning ACC Player of the Year after taking over for Irving. They hope Curry -- whose more famous older brother, Stephen, also switched to the point as a junior at Davidson -- can have an equally smooth transition. "I'm naturally a scorer," Curry said, but he envisions himself running the team in the Scheyer mold by initiating the offense, then working without the ball to set up scoring opportunities.
Curry's role will be far different from the last time he was the focal point of a team -- his freshman year at Liberty, when he took 33.0 percent of the team's shots and "did whatever I wanted." That situation wasn't fulfilling enough. "I transferred to Duke," he said, "to play with the best players in the country, against the best players." The Blue Devils need him to score, but they also need him to help Rivers mature and thrive, to get Dawkins open threes and to get the Plumlee brothers involved. Curry is the one charged with making this all work.
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