In a crowded Pelicans backcourt, Austin Rivers wants to show he belongs

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LAS VEGAS — Austin Rivers’ poor start to last season got a lot of attention — he was genuinely awful. Historically awful. For the season he ended with a PER of 5.9, the kind of number that normally would suggest his next paycheck will come from Europe. It’s the worst PER ever for a rookie who played more than 1,000 minutes.

What wasn’t noticed is that at the end of the season he played better — in his last 20 games he shot 50 percent overall, 40 percent from three. He wasn’t scoring a lot, but you could see improvement.

“Last year was up and down for me, I didn’t have a great year,” Rivers said Thursday after the Pelicans were eliminated from the Summer League tournament. “That was tough, it was the first time in my life where everything wasn’t roses and success. I had to look in the mirror and be like, ‘What am I going to do? Listen I have to play better I got to figure something out.’

“Then bam I figured it out and I’m playing really well, and then I break my hand. I was like, ‘golly, what is going on I finally start playing well and my hand breaks. Then I was like this is a test, I’m going to rehab the heck out of my hand and come back even better.”

He’s looked better in Las Vegas — he averaged 17.3 points a game in the Pelicans first three games to lead the team and shot 46.5 percent. He had 16 points on Thursday, but on 5-of-14 shooting.

Thursday against the Nuggets he was attacking the rim — only 4 of his 14 shots were on the perimeter (1-of-4), half of them were in the restricted area (5-of-7) and he got to the line seven times. Finishing is one of the things he is doing better.

“My strength, I’ve gained seven pounds, guys aren’t able to post me up. I’m able to go to the rack and finish, I’m bumping guys off and able to get to that floater,” Rivers said. “On defense I can use my chest more.”

His decision making with the ball is improved, and his defense is improved (but has a ways to go). Rivers has a ways to go, but he’s taking steps.

All of which is to say, if you’ve written Rivers off you did it too soon. He is looking more like a guy who can play in the league.

The question is will he do that with the Pelicans? New Orleans had one of the most interesting summers out there and loaded up on talent in Rivers’ position.

Rivers is a point guard and the Pelicans got All-Star Jrue Holiday from Philadelphia (in exchange for Nerlens Noel, basically). Eric Gordon is healthy and at the two, but he can handle the ball. So can Tyreke Evans, who might play the three or be the sixth man.

Where does Rivers fit in that rotation? He doesn’t know, but he’s confident he does fit in.

“Jrue Holiday’s an unbelievable player, (Gordon) is an unbelievable player, (Evans) is a great player, but I believe I am too,” Rivers said. “And I’ve got to continue to work and just listen to my coaches and I know if I do that I’ll make time and have an unbelievable year next year.”

He sounds like a coach’s son. But that’s a good thing, the kind of thing that can help a guy get past a slow start to make a quality NBA career.

Watch Lonzo Ball’s 29 point, 11 rebound, 9 assist game Friday night

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This was more of what fans expected from Lonzo Ball.

After a rough first game against the Clippers — with Patrick Beverley in his face all night — Ball found plenty of room to operate against the soft defense of the Phoenix Suns. With room to operate Ball had 29 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists — just one assist short of a triple-double. He helped the Lakers pull away to a lead in the third then hold on for a 132-130 win over the Suns.

Ball wasn’t terribly efficient, 12-of-27 shooting, but he was 4-of-9 from three, he played with great pace, he was decisive, and was finding guys with his passes. It was a step forward, even if it was against a sad defense (Eric Bledsoe can be a good defender, but he has seemed disinterested in recent years).

Ball and the Lakers are going to be up and down this season, the goal is for there to be more ups near the end of the season.

LeBron James rejects Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim

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Through the first couple games of the season, Giannis Antetokounmpo has put up impressive numbers — he dropped 34 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists on the Cavaliers Friday night.

But the Cavaliers still have LeBron James.

He had 24 points and 8 assists, leading Cleveland to the win.

LeBron also reminded the Greek Freak just how good a rim protector he is. Few people can slow Antetokounmpo on the drive, but LeBron is one of them.

Is it too early to root for a Cavs vs. Bucks playoff series?

Hawks’ DeAndre’ Bembry out with fractured wrist

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In their season opener Wednesday, Atlanta second-year man DeAndre’ Bembry came off the bench and played 17:45, scored six points and was +13 on the night. It was a good start to his career.

But now he is going to miss some time with a fractured wrist.

Bembry underwent an MRI, which revealed a fracture in his right wrist, the Hawks announced Friday. He will return to Atlanta with the team (the Hawks lost to the Hornets Friday night) and will meet with team doctors at the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center on Monday. His status will be updated after that.

“We just may play some other guys more, we may use some of the young guys,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer told the AP before Friday night’s game. “We’ll just figure it out tonight and as we move forward. I don’t think there’s anything guaranteed for anybody, it’s unfortunate for DeAndre’ and for us.”

 

Danny Ainge says Celtics will apply for Disabled Player Exception

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It’s not likely Gordon Hayward returns this season. His agent said as much, although a return in March is not out of the question. (It’s better PR wise for the Celtics to say he is out for the season, then if he returns early great, it’s better than setting a deadline he doesn’t meet.)

With that, the Celtics are going to apply for the Disabled Player Exception, which could help them land a replacement player, Danny Ainge told Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe.

President of basketball operations Danny Ainge told the Globe on Friday the club is applying for the Disabled Player Exception, which would provide the Celtics $8.4 million to pursue a player to fill Hayward’s roster spot.

“We’re in the process of doing that,’’ Ainge said. “We have a while to do that. There’s no urgency, but we will apply for that.”

There are limits to what that money can get the Celtics. The money is the same as the mid-level exception, the Celtics can go over the cap to use it, and the player can be obtained via free agency or trade. However, the player must be in the last year of his contract.

It gives the Celtics options. It also does not mean Hayward cannot return, it only means NBA-approved doctors determined he is not likely to return before a mid-June deadline.