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.