NEW ORLEANS — Doc Rivers walked towards the NBA TV camera room at the Smoothie King Center recently only moments earlier having answered a question about his son Austin’s improvement.
To the original question, the father – and head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers – ultimately answered that his son’s defense was vastly improved.
But as he thought about, he wanted to change his answer.
The biggest change, Doc said, was his Austin’s willingness to pick up the check at dinner the night before.
With all due respect to a coach who has won one NBA title and coached in another league Finals, the first answer might have been the right one, even if less humorous.
Even Austin’s coach Monty Williams agrees with the assessment.
“He’s really good when he’s attacking and finding guys, knocking down his free throws,” Williams said. “But his defense has been the thing that really sets him apart from most second-year guards.”
After sitting out a game with a respiratory infection, Rivers is expected to be back on the court tonight for the Pelicans (31-40) when they host the Utah Jazz (23-49) at 7.
He hopes to pick up where he left off against Brooklyn. Rivers played the entire fourth quarter and overtime, helping the Pelicans overturn a one-time 22-point deficit into a five-point overtime win. While his offense helped, it was his defense that kept him in the game.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound guard has learned how to use and control his frame to stymie opponents.
“He has a confidence and a toughness about him on the defensive end that really helps us,” Williams said.
Late in his second year, the 21-year-old agrees.
“I like to get after it on defense now where in the past, it’s not really what I was doing,” Rivers said. “It’s not that I didn’t want to, it’s just because I didn’t know how. And now defense is one of my strong points.”
It’s easily where he’s improved the most. In a comparison to his rookie season, his output is nearly the same even though he has played about 400 fewer minutes.
As he did his rookie season, he’s averaging two made field goals per game on six attempts. His 3-point field goal percentage is at 32 percent, just like a season ago. He’s averaging 1.4 rebounds per game compared to 1.8 as a rookie.
But in his past 10 games, when the Pelicans have gone 7-3, his offensive stats have improved. He’s averaging 9.5 points on 46.8 percent shooting, getting off nearly two more shots per game. His assists are up to 3.1 per in that stretch.
Still, it’s what he has done on defense that has taken most by surprise.
Including his father.
“I was joking with our staff (that) I’m never going to scout again because I knew eventually he’d be a good offensive player,” Doc Rivers said. “But I didn’t know eventually he’ll be a good defensive player. He has turned into a terrific defender and I’m happy for him because I always thought that he could. I just never saw him doing it and not that he’s doing it, he loves it. He enjoys it.”
“It’s something I take pride in and it’s contagious,” Austin Rivers said. “When you play like that and your teammates see you playing like that, everybody starts playing good defense.”