The story of this off-season for the Minnesota Timberwolves was its blockbuster move to acquire three-time Defensive Player Of the Year Rudy Gobert. While it may be easy to forget everything else when a move like this transpires, the Wolves had an off-season to remember. Moves like bringing in veteran guard Austin Rivers may not have made media headlines. However, Rivers brings an underrated skill set to the table for the Wolves – perimeter defense.
“I think I’m one of the baddest (best) defenders, perimeter, in the league,” Rivers claimed during the Wolves Media Day, “I’m willing to go up against anybody to prove that.” Rivers also added that he doesn’t “get any credit for my defense, I really don’t. It bothers me.”
I’ll be the first one to admit when the Wolves first obtained Rivers, I didn’t view him as an above-average defender. I just saw him as an end-of-bench guy who can check in, hit shots, and hold his own on D. However, after taking a deeper look at Rivers’ career and some notable performances, it doesn’t take long to realize he offers more than just offense.
Rivers had an impressive college career at Duke. He won ACC Rookie of the Year and the Naismith Prep Player of the Year, and teams had high expectations for Rivers in the draft. The New Orleans Hornets took him 10th overall back in 2012, leading most people, including Rivers, to view him as a volume scorer in a starting role. However, that’s not how Rivers’ career has panned out.
His best statistical season was back in 2017-18 with the Los Angles Clippers, where Rivers averaged 15 points per game, 2.4 rebounds, and 1.2 steals. Injuries have hampered his career, preventing him from reaching his full potential. Despite an underwhelming career considering his failed draft expectations, Rivers has always been aware of his role with every team he’s been with and executed it perfectly.
“He’s really figured out the last few stops he’s been at, how to get on the floor and make an impact,” Chris Finch said, explaining what Rivers brings to the team. “He just fits in where you need him. … He’s obviously a great defensive presence, which is important for us.”
Rivers last played with the Denver Nuggets. Like when he signed with the Wolves, Denver didn’t get much attention when they initially brought him on. However, he proved to be a crucial scorer, defender, and high-tempo guard in the playoffs in the past two years.
Upon coming to Minnesota, Rivers will compete for a spot in the bench rotation.
That’s easier said than done, though. The Timberwolves are dealing with a log jam at the guard positions off the bench again heading into this season. Chris Finch and Tim Connelly knew they needed to find playing time for Jaylen Nowell ahead of the new season. They did just that by dealing Patrick Beverley and Malik Beasley. However, Minnesota is back at square one with newly acquired Bryn Forbes and Jordan McLaughlin still in the mix.
Rivers isn’t going to be Minnesota’s sixth-man this year. But he can be someone who checks in at big moments to get crucial stops and moves freely on offense. Last year, he did that remarkably well against the Golden State Warriors during the first round of the playoffs.
“If you go watch those Warriors games last year in the playoffs, you can’t tell me I’m not the best defensive player on the floor,” Rivers expressed during Media Day.
Rivers’ primary defensive assignment, Steph Curry, averaged 22 points through five games against Denver in the first round. But Rivers’ fearlessness on defense made him a threat. It’s never an easy task to step on the best shooter in NBA history. Still, Rivers did that with no trepidation whatsoever, the skill that separates a good defender from a great one.
Rivers seems to sign deals with teams with few expectations, then turns into one of the most crucial players on the roster. The same looks to be true this season with the Wolves. Rivers may go days or even weeks without seeing playing time. However, Rivers will put in the effort to prove his worth, whether he’s filling in for someone in the starting five or being the 10th man off the bench.