It's not exactly easy to feel sympathy for a hyper-talented 19-year-old college basketball star. Really, it's the life. Not only do you get to be in college -- an enviable existence no matter what -- but you get to be young and famous and soon-to-be-rich and very good at a sport most of us play just because we love it.
But the life of the hyper-talented 19-year-old college basketball star has its challenges, too. Among them? Living up to the immense hype that awaits you before you ever take a step on a college basketball court. In an ideal world, we'd all sit back and say: Well, hey, he's a freshman. He may struggle for a bit. It happens. He'll probably figure it out. Give him time. But because the exceptions are what we remember -- the Kevin Durants and John Walls and Kevin Loves and Michael Beasleys and Jared Sullingers -- we expect Mr. Highly Touted Freshman to be brilliant from Day 1. If he is, he's the next big thing. If he isn't, he's a bust. We rarely allow for the middle-ground.
Imagine this kind of scrutiny being paid to your activities as a 19-year-old. "Brennan, a touted student entering college, has disappointed thus far. He clearly didn't do his reading before PoliSci 202: Political Parties and Interest Groups, was obviously unprepared to answer Prof. Hershey's questions, and had to ask the girl setting next to him if he could borrow a pen and a sheet of paper for notes. If Brennan keeps this up, professional scouts will be sure to take notice." See?
Duke freshman Austin Rivers is a study in this dynamic. Rivers arrived at Duke accompanied by immense prep hype. His first few games were struggles; his decision-making drew analytic question marks; his feel for the game (easily the biggest question mark for NBA scouts at the Nike Skills Camps I attended this summer) wasn't quite adjusted to the collegiate level. Some were quick to bust out "bust." Duke fans eagerly leapt to Rivers' defense. It was practically a repeat of last year's early-season Harrison Barnes doubts, this time cast upon UNC's hated rival.
"I never ever worry about it," Rivers said. "Those people's jobs are to critique. The coaches and my teammates are happy with the way I'm playing. It's sports and there's nothing I can do about it. I'm not going to call ESPN and be like, 'Hey, can you stop that.' " [...] "I see it as motivation and they will be wrong by the end of the year," Rivers said of his critics.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Rivers -- or maybe it's the debate in general -- is how polarizing he seems to be. Either Rivers is a bust, or he isn't. Either he's Duke's next great guard, or he isn't. The reason for this duality is simple: Rivers can be mercurial on the floor. At times, he can make the spectacular look simple. At other times, he can make the simple look silly. He takes and makes long 3-pointers, but they aren't always good shots. He destroys defenders with lightning-quick crossovers only to force a bad shot once he gets in the lane. If you're looking for a specific quality in Rivers' game, whether that quality is negative or positive, you're likely to find it.
But here's the thing, after seven games -- including wins over Belmont, Michigan State, Tennessee, Michigan and Kansas -- Rivers is neither a bust nor a star. Basketball Prospectus and ESPN Insider scribe John Gasaway described it best in his Big Ten/ACC Challenge preview:
Forget Austin Rivers, if only for a moment. He’ll be drafted before any of these other guys he’s playing with, but right now he’s more solid than stellar. Rivers is shooting 37 percent on his threes, 46 percent on his twos, and 65 percent at the line. For a freshman to do that at Duke while attempting 28 percent of his team’s shots is certainly noteworthy, but at the same time it confirms what Mike Krzyzewski told Luke Winn in October. Seen in context Rivers has been great, but he suffers from invidious comparisons to a certain predecessor. He hasn’t been instant-sensation Kyrie Irving-great. With the likes of Irving, Wall, Rose, and Durant, context is never invoked.
In other words, Rivers has been good so far this year. Not bad. Not great. Good. Solid. Better than average. Insert your preferred synonym here.
He's another good player on a team full of good players, particularly on the perimeter. Duke's early success this season has something to do with Rivers, but it also has to do with Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry's hot shooting, Ryan Kelly's immense improvement and Mason Plumlee's strength in the low block. Just because Rivers hasn't quite been Irving doesn't mean he's a bust. Just because he's been solid doesn't mean he's a star. There are more than two ways to look at Rivers' game. To this point in the season, the label dichotomy doesn't apply.
Chances are, by the end of the year, Rivers will be right. He will continue to improve. His decision-making will get sharper, his drive-kick-score instincts more refined. Those who called him a bust in early November -- and really, this number has to be small -- will have been proven wrong.
In the meantime, though, it's something to keep in mind. Rivers isn't a star yet, nor he is a bust. His play to date deserves classification in that wide expanse of middle ground -- a middle ground we fans and writers all too often ignore. But it exists all the same.