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Rockets restart player previews: Austin Rivers

Austin Rivers is the unsung hero of the Rockets.

Houston Rockets v New York Knicks Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Austin Rivers

History: It’s fun to think about how far removed we are from the Austin Rivers of a little over a year-and-a-half ago.

Not only did this current, productive Austin Rivers have a beef with Chris Paul and the Houston Rockets, but he was struggling to find himself on a team. In 2018, Rivers was traded by his father in the summer, traded by the Washingston Wizards in the winter, subsequently cut by the Phoenix Suns the very next day, and flew under the radar enough to get signed by his nemesis.

Now, Rivers is a heel-turned-fan-favorite with a new image. Rivers went from unfairly being criticized as a beneficiary of nepotism, to a gritty, hard-nosed commodity that every team could use. One that snitches on his dad too.

Outlook: Rivers is very much an unsung part of this Rockets team. If Eric Gordon is the engine that keeps the bench moving (also, is he still coming off the bench?), Austin Rivers is the lifeblood. Despite the fact that Rivers was a former No. 10 overall pick add once averaged 15 points a game, he probably plays his role just as well as P.J. Tucker has.

The guard, listed at 6’3”, has made a name for himself in Houston as a vital perimeter defender. While he’s always been looked at as a solid defender, Rivers has made it a mission of his to be a really good on-ball defender and a disruptor of sorts. He’s typically in the middle of something.

Offensively, Rivers can be fairly underrated in what he means to the team’s scoring. He’s already established himself as a good three-point shooter, but he’s also a good finisher at the rim and can create his own shot. He’s the guy that the Rockets need to get going if they want to increase their chances of winning. In fact, Houston is 9-12 when Rivers scores five points or less, including games in which he did not play.

No matter the moving pieces, players added, and players cut, the Rockets will need Rivers to be good to be a contender.

In the past month, Austin Rivers has made plenty of positive statements and suggestions off the court, so it would be amiss if I talked about him only on the court.

On Monday, Rivers, outside the parameters of the approved social messages the NBA agreed upon, voiced himself on wanting to have the name “Trayvon,” in honor of the late Trayvon Martin, replace his name on the back of his jersey. Via his Instragram, Rivers explains that he grew up only 25 minutes away from where Martin was killed, and that he wishes to “honor him and (Martin’s) family and help keep his name alive and strong.”

While it seems unlikely for this to happen — leagues rarely renegotiate things like this — it could open up larger conversations and push the NBA on its stance of supporting its players and their social causes. Still, this could also be the beginning of players voicing their dismay over the league controlling their message at such a pivotal point in time.

Last month, Rivers took the controversial stance of dissenting with Kyrie Irving and Dwight Howard on their thinking that restarting the league would only serve as a distraction in the midst of a major civil rights movement. Rivers offered the fact that most NBA players, many of whom are black, can’t afford to not receive a game check, and this will also affect the league financially in the long run. Instead of sitting out, Rivers proposed that players can use the money they receive to create real, tangible change in the community and progress forward the Black Lives Matter movement.

Just this week, a little under a month after Rivers said this, both Patty Mills and Dwight Howard — who initially looked like he would not participate in the restart — have promised the rest of their salary this season to charitable foundations benefiting black communities.