On the only day of the year that Jerry West is envious of the Clippers, the Laker general manager expressed delight that Notre Dame's David Rivers was still there for the taking when the Lakers made the 25th and last pick of the first round of Tuesday's National Basketball Assn. draft.
Rivers might have been the fifth point guard taken in the first round, and the Boston Celtics--picking just ahead of the Lakers--might have taken the player the Lakers really wanted when they chose Brian Shaw of UC Santa Barbara--but West insisted that Rivers met the Lakers' desire for another ballhandling guard.
"He's really creative with the ball," West said at the Forum. "And from foul line to foul line, you can't press him. He's a genius with the basketball."
Genius usually doesn't last so deep into the first round, of course, and Rivers has his detractors, despite having been voted Notre Dame's most valuable player all four seasons he played there. The 23-year-old native of Jersey City, N.J., who is listed at 6 feet but may be an inch shorter, failed to survive the first cut in last month's U.S. Olympic basketball trials.
And Marty Blake, the director of the NBA's scouting services, had this to say about Rivers this spring: "Why he's listed as a point guard I'll never know. He's a 5-11 scoring guard. He's never passed the ball to anybody."
Blake later said his remarks had been misconstrued. Rivers was a first-rate college player who had carried a so-so Notre Dame team, Blake said. It's just that in Digger Phelps' system, in which Rivers also was asked to assume much of the scoring load--he averaged 22 points a game as a senior--Blake said he just didn't know if Rivers is a true point guard.
Rivers, who attended the draft in New York's Madison Square Garden, indicated it will be a liberating experience to play for the Lakers.
"At Notre Dame, I had to make a lot of adjustments," he said. "I wasn't able to run the way I wanted to. We didn't have the right personnel for pushing the ball up and down the floor. . . . I think in the open court I can be extremely effective."
Rivers had come out of high school as one of the most highly recruited players in the country, but in the summer before his junior year, a van in which he was a passenger overturned and went into a ditch. Rivers suffered a 15-inch abdominal cut in that accident, but returned to play in 32 games as a junior.
Coincidentally, two years ago the Lakers also drafted the driver of that van, Ken Barlow, but traded his rights to the Atlanta Hawks for the rights to Billy Thompson. Barlow has played in Israel the last two seasons.
West said that the Lakers had explored making a trade before the draft, including with the Indiana Pacers, who had the No. 2 pick and chose 7-foot 4-inch center Rik Smits of Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. There were rumors that the Lakers had offered the Pacers a combination of players that included Byron Scott, A.C. Green and Mychal Thompson.
"Indiana didn't seem to be very interested," West said. "They didn't think our players were very good, I guess.
"Some people don't have that high of an opinion of our players. It's amazing to me they don't."
The Lakers did not have either a second- or third-round pick in the draft, but West said that the team "was willing to do something in other areas" to strengthen itself. He wouldn't say whether that would include signing free agents, although salary-cap restrictions severely restrict the Lakers from going in that direction.
According to one source, the Lakers have talked with Indiana about the availability of forward Waymon Tisdale.
Rivers is Notre Dame's all-time leader in assists with 586, and steals, 201, and is third in scoring, 2,058, but was never able to lead Notre Dame past the early rounds of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament.
West, asked to list Rivers' negatives, said he was small, needed more work playing man-to-man defense, and will need to show that he can consistently handle the Lakers' up-tempo pace.
But it seems likely that with Rivers, the Lakers will make no effort to re-sign free-agent guard Wes Matthews, who was paid $120,000 last season while playing a limited role with the team. West said that if Coach Pat Riley wants Matthews back, he'll talk with the guard, but there has yet been no movement in that direction.
The point guards taken ahead of Rivers included Willie Anderson, No. 10 by San Antonio; Gary Grant, No. 15 by Seattle; Rod Strickland, No. 19 by the Knicks, and Shaw. Rivers, however, said he never doubted that he'd be a first-round pick.
"I feel very confident I can make the team," he said. "I believe in myself and what I can do. I'm looking forward to the opportunity."
West wouldn't mind the chance someday to pick higher in the first round, as did the Clippers, who picked No. 1 and acquired the No. 3 and No. 15 choices to get Danny Manning, Charles Smith and Grant.
"It's the best thing I've ever seen them do," West said. "They are to be congratulated."