Winter Park, Fla. -- On a rare weekend when every member of his far-flung family was home last month, Austin Rivers declined a chance to play a final round of golf with his father Doc and headed to a gym at nearby Rollins College. Working alone, the New Orleans Hornets’ first-round draft pick lifted shot after shot, imagining there was a defender in front of him. First Derrick Rose. Then Deron Williams. Then Russell Westbrook, all players he’ll face in his rookie season in the NBA.
Only after taking almost 1,000 shots, and with sweat cascading down his young face, did the 19-year-old carefully place the balls back on the rack, lock the door and head home.
Rivers, 6 feet 4, 200 pounds, is blessed with coordination, speed and skills, but it is his drive that got him to the NBA. Nothing has mattered more to him than excelling on the basketball court.
That drive has fueled him since he was 9. Establishing an identity separate from his world-famous father, Boston Celtics Coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers, is another motivation.
“I was never concerned about being popular or becoming the homecoming king in high school,’’ Rivers said last month. “You have to sacrifice things to get to places. I wanted to be a normal kid. But in basketball I didn’t want to be normal. I wanted to be better than everybody.
“You got to understand that I’m not the fastest nor do I jump the highest. I’m not the tallest or the strongest; nobody is. So what separates you from everybody else, my whole thing is my work ethic. That’s what got me here.’’
And the combo guard said he’s always pushed to be independent.
"I just wanted to be my own man, have my own life and have my own dreams and it’s nothing against my dad,’’ Rivers said. "I’m blessed to have the father that I have. One thing about my dad, he let me figure out everything. He lets me do everything now. He let me pick my agent, pay my own bills. ... He just lets me do everything on my own. During my pre-draft workouts, he never came to any of them. He wanted me figure it out on my own.’’
Those close to Rivers are not surprised he was selected as the No. 10 pick in this past June’s draft by the Hornets, who are about two weeks away from opening the 2012-13 season, their first full season with Tom Benson as owner.
Rivers’ success started early, as he won his an AAU national championship when he was on a 10-and-under team. At 15, Rivers was offered a scholarship to Florida, becoming the youngest player to make a verbal commitment to Coach Billy Donovan’s program. As a junior and senior at Winter Park High School, he led the school to back-to-back state 6A championships.
As a senior in 2011, Rivers was rated as the No. 1 recruit in the nation by Rivals.com after ending his high school career as the second-leading scorer in Florida history with 2,926 points. In his only season at Duke, Rivers became just the third freshman to lead the team in scoring with a 15.5 average.
“To make it to the NBA is all he wanted,’’ said Therion Joseph, his AAU coach. "He probably was over-excessive with basketball. He probably had two or three good friends and one girlfriend throughout high school. You always saw him with a ball in his hand working in the gym.’’
Although Rivers was one of the most popular students, he rarely went to parties or even to the movies. Instead, Rivers was in the gym.
A few years ago, Doc and his wife, Kris, planned a two-week family vacation to the Cayman Islands. But they ended up canceling because Austin said he wouldn’t go because they had no access to a basketball court.
“He’s skilled as hell, but he’s got a mean competitive streak in him,’’ Doc Rivers said last month. "I think to be great you need to have that. I remember sitting many nights in my office and I look out the window and see Austin pulling in after 11 or midnight and getting out with his two basketballs sweating because he’s been at the gym. I never had to tell Austin to go work. But I’ve said Austin you have to slow down.’’
Rivers frequently watches highlights of NBA stars then goes out on the asphalt basketball court at home trying to duplicate their moves.
“Basically, it’s what I’ve done my whole life – I still do it all the time,’’ Rivers said. “I go watch Derrick Rose, Deron Williams and others. You can always learn from your peers and the people you are playing against. Each one does something better than the other.