Accepting Austin Rivers

Published: June 29, 2012

Mason comes to terms with the Hornets’ 10th pick in the draft and sells himself (and hopefully some of the other skeptics out there) on how Rivers can succeed with the Hornets.

Most of you know that I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to make this post. I guess I still don’t really “have to”, but I feel like I owe it to all of you to come forward after the one guy that I truly wanted the Hornets to avoid with the 10th pick was the player that they ended up selecting. I’ll briefly touch on what worries me about him, but afterwards spend the majority of the time discussing how he can become the successful third piece of this new young Hornets “Big 3.”

First, my two biggest concerns. If the Hornets drafted him to serve primarily as a shooting guard, then I strongly dislike the pick. He isn’t a great jump shooter and only shot 66% from the free throw line last season, and if he’s going to play off the ball, that just won’t work. Defenders will simply sag off of him on defense to keep him from penetrating, forcing him to shoot jumpers. He can certainly improve in this area, but it’s not an easy thing to do. Additionally, his inconsistent defensive intensity has been brought into question before, which naturally reminds me of a talented former Hornets shooting guard by the name of Marcus Thornton. Though he was instant offense, Thornton didn’t give the type of effort that Monty Williams expected from his players on defense, and ended up getting shipped out to Sacramento. If he doesn’t buy into Monty’s defense-first philosophy in New Orleans, that close relationship that the two of them currently possess could go sour quickly.

Though I believe that the Hornets had better options at pick #10, that doesn’t mean I think that Austin Rivers has no chance of being a successful NBA player. So, how can this Rivers experiment work? In the team’s post-draft Q&A with Monty Williams and GM Dell Demps, Monty was asked what I believe to be the million dollar (more like multi-million dollar, actually) question in terms of his NBA value – will Rivers play point guard in the NBA? If Williams can turn him into a point guard by getting him to work on his court vision and passing ability (not an easy task), then the pick could absolutely work. The Hornets head coach’s response was one that I expected; he voiced his belief that Rivers “can one day play the point guard position”, yet would not label him as such. This makes sense, because while his biggest strengths translate better as a point guard, he also has a long way to go to be effective at that position. At this point, if I had to pick a current NBA player who Rivers’ style of play reminds me of, it’s Tyreke Evans.

The best part about that comparison for me is that we still don’t know exactly how good Evans will be in the NBA, so it’s not necessary to project exactly how good Rivers can be. Both players are similar in size – at 6’5″ and 203 lbs, Rivers is an inch shorter and about 15 pounds lighter than Evans. Each player has a relatively broken jumpshot, but both make up for it by their impressive ability to get to the basket off the dribble (though both have experienced problems with taking care of the ball). Evans’ inability to run an offense and efficiently distribute have actually resulted in his changing of position from point guard to a wing player, though, which is what Rivers desperately needs to avoid. While his current passing ability isn’t as good as Evans, his basketball IQ is considerably higher than Tyreke’s was upon leaving college, which gives me confiedence in the fact that he can learn how to see the court and more effectively get his teammates involved. Even if Rivers never develops an elite passing ability, his quickness and ability to get into the paint will create more accessible passing lanes, which he can be coached to appropriately utilize. If his game evolves to that level, then he and Gordon could potentially form a scary back court combo, as both guards have exceptional ball-handling skills. Doing so definitely won’t be easy for Austin, nor is it something that will happen overnight, but given the fact that the kid is only 19, he certainly has time to get there.