The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Austin Rivers was supposed to be the Wizards' bench scorer. Instead, he’s their top defender.

Scott Brooks is looking for more out of guard Austin Rivers with John Wall out. (Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
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INDIANAPOLIS — Expectations followed Austin Rivers to Washington. After a trade this past summer, Rivers was advertised as someone to help foster the team’s plan of moving up and down the court as well as being the backup who could create a formidable three-guard lineup with John Wall and Bradley Beal.

He was pegged to be the team’s best bench scorer, but during the Wizards' shaky start to the season when nothing has truly gone as planned, Rivers has actually emerged as their best defender. On Monday against the Indiana Pacers, Rivers performed in this role in the Wizards' 109-101 loss as he made his second start in place of Wall, who missed the game because of left heel soreness.

The Wizards trailed by 26 points with 4:02 remaining in the third quarter when Rivers, along with a lanky lineup consisting of Kelly Oubre Jr., Bradley Beal, Markieff Morris and the newest player in the locker room, Sam Dekker, closed the quarter on a 19-0 run. During the stretch, Washington submerged the Pacers under strong defense, forcing six missed shots and four turnovers. Although the Wizards eventually pulled to within 98-97 with 4:45 left in the fourth quarter, the Pacers responded with an 11-4 burst to close the game.

Beal, who was named the Eastern Conference player of the week, led the team with 30 points. Oubre poured in 23 points and added three steals, while Rivers finished with 13 points and four assists. Washington (11-16) concluded its four-game road swing with two straight losses after consecutive wins to open the trip.

After the Wizards' morning shoot-around, Rivers, in his colorful way of communicating, expressed the importance of not sulking just because he entered Monday night averaging the lowest scoring total since his third year in the league (7.0 points per game). Rather, he was focused on finding more ways to be productive.

“I believe when we get to the playoffs, I’ll have big scoring games. I have no doubt in my mind. I’ve done it for years — three or four years of doing that s---,” Rivers said. “So I have no doubt in my mind I’ll do that. But what else am I going to do on the floor? What else am I going to contribute here?

“If you aren’t having a good night, are you just done for the night and just go sit on the bench? Or can you still help the team win?” Rivers continued. “I feel like I have the ability to be an elite defender, so whoever’s the other’s best player, I want to guard them. That’s it.”

In his time in Washington, Rivers has been an offensive wallflower. Even his 6.6 shot attempts entering Monday ranked among the lowest of his seven-year NBA career. Earlier in the season, Rivers attributed his struggles to learning how to fit in and not stepping on any of the other scorers' toes. Since the calendar has turned to December, however, he has learned to find whatever’s available on offense.

“I understand here I’m not going to get as [many] looks as … I had in L.A. I get that,” said Rivers, who started 61 games last season with the Los Angeles Clippers. “Everything rolled through me, Lou [Williams] and Tobias [Harris] last year. The ball just found you naturally. On this team, we have a lot of options and sometimes you have to come in and figure it out. What I’ve figured out is there’s nothing to figure out here, if that makes any sense. You just go out and play, man.”

Though Rivers may appear to be a tertiary figure within offensive sets, his confidence shines on the other end where he comes close to approaching that “elite defender” status. Rivers entered Monday surrendering only 0.778 points per play, according to Synergy Sports, best among the Wizards and in the 88th percentile of the NBA.

During his first start of the season against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, Rivers held Eastern Conference rookie of the month winner Trae Young to two points on 46 possessions. On Saturday night, Cleveland Cavaliers rookie point guard Collin Sexton torched the Wizards while matching his career high with 29 points, but Rivers limited him during their one-on-one matchups. In the 14 possessions against Rivers, Sexton scored just three points, according to stats.

“He’s been solid defensively. He hasn’t had the consistent offensive shot-making that he eventually will get,” Coach Scott Brooks said. “We’d like to have it ... but his defense, he [has] played well on that end. So he has to continue to do that and eventually, I think his shot’s going to start falling for him.”

There is no doubt in Rivers’s mind that his offense will tick up eventually this season, but for now he’s finding a niche on a team stocked with scorers but starved for more defenders.

“I just go play hard and try to compete. We’re just trying to get back in the playoff race at this point. I could give a s--- about my individual stats,” Rivers said. “We’re just trying to get back in the race. You can get numbers and if you don’t make it to the playoffs, no one takes you seriously. So, that’s all it’s about.”

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