WESTWEGO, La. – The Hornets aren’t wasting any time seeing how quickly Austin Rivers can learn to play point guard in the NBA.
The former Duke shooting guard is working at the point on the Hornets’ Las Vegas summer league squad that opens play this weekend. He’s also in line to see a lot more playing time at that position in the regular season because of this week’s trade of starting point guard Jarrett Jack to Golden State.
“Now is his time to grow. We’re putting the ball in his hands, putting the ball in the summer in his hands to see what he’s got,” said Hornets assistant James Borrego, who is acting as head coach for the summer league team.
“Hopefully, Austin’s that guy that can take that point guard position and run with it,” Borrego said. “There’s some things he (has) got to learn as you go, but I think we’re all confident he can get there.”
The Hornets took the 6-foot-4 Rivers 10th overall in last month’s draft, making him the club’s second pick behind top overall choice Anthony Davis.
Rivers, the 19-year-old son of Boston coach and former NBA point guard Doc Rivers, was a slasher at Duke. He averaged 15.5 points for the Blue Devils, often scoring off the dribble.
When the Hornets ran through late-game scenarios with the summer league squad during the end of practice Thursday, Rivers took the ball up the floor, slanted along the perimeter toward the right sideline and then exploded toward the paint, putting up a driving floater that swished through as the buzzer sounded.
Rivers described himself as “an attacking point.”
“It’s not necessarily scoring. It’s not necessarily just passing. It’s just reading the defense, just go in there and attack looking to make plays for my teammates and myself and just look to attack and score and get people open,” Rivers said. “Just push and if someone is ahead of me, getting them going and reward the big (men) if they’re running.”
Heading into training camp, Rivers will likely be the backup point guard behind veteran Greivis Vasquez, but will have the opportunity to push for as much playing time as he can earn.
“He’s a natural scorer. As a point guard, he can make it work though,” Borrego said. “He’s got to get better and he will. He’s putting in the time. He’s teachable. He’s coachable. He understands the game, which you want in a point guard. His instinct is to score but we’re trying to slow him down, learn our offense, learn our pace, learn our rhythm and I think those are things he’s going to get.”
The Hornets don’t want to slow Rivers down too much, though, seeing how Oklahoma City has succeeded with point guard Russell Westbrook as its second scoring option behind Kevin Durant.
If the Hornets retain restricted free agent Eric Gordon by matching Phoenix’s four-year, $58 million offer for him, as they’ve indicated they will, Gordon and Rivers could be a tandem of a similar style.
“That’s a guy I would love to play with. I look at a someone like Eric, just his attacking and scoring ability. It’s unreal,” Rivers said. “I would love for him to come here and play with us. I think we have a really good team ... but I think with him we’ll be a lot better, obviously. He’s a guy I could help just with the attention on him. A lot of attention could be on me, too, as well, and Anthony (Davis) and the other guys. It could just help him get free. Hopefully he comes back.”
Whatever happens with Gordon, Hornets coaches envision Rivers, eventually, as one of their primary scoring options in the late stages of tight games.
“There’s a confidence about him, a feel of the game that you can’t really teach or coach,” Borrego said. “He just has it. There’s a poise he has about himself in the game where he can get his own shot. So we’re excited to have a player who feels confident in that area.
“Maybe the last two years, sometimes we’ve had that and sometimes we haven’t, and last year we struggled,” Borrego continued. “Fourth quarter, when we needed a bucket, who do we go to? We saw that with Eric Gordon (when he returned from a right knee injury late in the season). ... You put that with Austin Rivers and some other pieces, we like our chances in the fourth quarter now.”