Making the Transition: Austin Rivers

Published: October 25, 2012

In a recurring piece throughout this season, Austin Rivers’ performance will be tracked to see how the young man adapts to the rigors of the NBA game.

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With the drafting of Austin Rivers, and the subsequent announcement from both the coaching staff and management that the team would be grooming him to play the “point”, a general divide grew among fans regarding his role (to make no mention of the divide over whether the organization should have drafted him at all). The first prevalent opinion that arose was that Rivers would be shoe-horned into the “1”, alongside an equally shoe-horned Eric Gordon at the “2”; the second, that Rivers was drafted as insurance for the oft-injured Gordon, and that he would be playing not the “1” but the “2” for the majority of his time on the floor, as Gordon’s replacement. In any event, there remains a healthy skepticism regarding Rivers’ ability to man the traditional conception of the “point”, to be the kind of player who sets up and initiates an offense. Statistically, this skepticism is well founded.

Immediately thrust into the role of Duke’s primary offensive creator, the freshman Rivers did little to establish himself as a ball-distributor; with a meager 2.4 assists per 40 (pace adjusted) and a paltry 12.9 assist %, Rivers’ season, when measured against the standard of a traditional lead guard, would be tantamount to disaster. Compared to Kendall Marshall, easily the draft’s most accomplished floor general, the numbers appear downright embarrassing: Marshall averaged over EIGHT more assists per game at a similar pace, with an assist percentage over THIRTY-TWO points higher than Rivers; that is a staggering difference. Clearly, Rivers will have to work on finding the open man more often, and forcing shots less often. His inspired effort in the Summer League, where he made a deliberate effort to get his teammates involved, almost to a fault, speaks volumes about Rivers’ mindset and willingness to correct his flaws.

Fortunately, today’s NBA seems to be evolving more and more to suit Rivers’ attacking style rather than the more passive and traditional floor generalship of a player like Marshall; Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Steph Curry, essentially the “scoring point”, is an archetype that has found an ever-increasing role in the league, so much so that “combo-guard” has managed to shake off many of the negative connotations that used to follow it around. When coupled with a player in Eric Gordon who, according to, played the majority of his (admittedly limited) minutes at the point and who operates at hyper-efficiency in the pick and roll (.944 points per possession), then the ideal scenario seems to be a starting back-court of Rivers and Gordon, an amorphous blob of two competent combo-guards who share duties initiating the offense and who are equally deadly as isolation scorers.

It is almost certain, however, that Rivers will begin the year on the bench, serving as the primary backup to both Greivis Vasquez and Gordon; this, coupled with the enormous presence of number one overall pick Anthony Davis, will serve to alleviate a lot of the pressure usually forced upon a top ten pick. Rivers should spend his time improving general strength (his abysmal 49% conversion rate at the rim during his first 19 college games, coupled with his frequent visits with the floor in Summer League, attest to a natural frailty that should improve with weight training) as well as his efficiency (an unimpressive 66 FT%, and a pedestrian .54 TS% and .50 eFG%, which should be bolstered by refining his jump-shot, as well as a higher finishing percentage at the rim due to strength gains).

If Rivers spends this year injury-free and correcting his flaws while utilizing his natural talent as a scorer and shot-creator, and if we can track a modest improvement from the first game to the last, then clearly he will have had a successful year. If he fails, it certainly won’t be from a lack of work ethic. Said Rivers last month, “You have to sacrifice things to get to places. I wanted to be a normal kid. But in basketball I didn’t want to be normal. I wanted to be better than everybody.” Coupled with consistent praise from Monty Williams about Rivers’ attitude and drive, the odds seem as good as they can be in the crap-shoot known as player development.

The important specifics to monitor over the course of the year: his free throw rate coupled with his free throw percentage. Although Rivers got to the line 6.5 times per game at the college level, he undercut his own proficiency with a sub-par free throw %. Can he maintain his lifestyle in the lane and increase his free throw efficiency in order to get the most out of his best skill? Also of note will be how Rivers plays off the ball. With a guard like Gordon, who is more than capable of being a team’s primary ball-handler, Rivers must refine his ability to come off of screens and score within the flow of a play (coming off of screens and cuts made up less than 5% of his plays in college). This also ties in with the improvement he must make in his mid-range game; Rivers was a mere 1-6 on jump-shots between 17 feet and the three point line…all year. This clearly speaks to a lack of comfort in a stop-and-pop style, which he would be well-advised to adopt in order to keep defenses tight and honest. Turnovers will be important to follow; Rivers put up a 17% turnover rate at Duke, which, coupled with his completely even turnover to assist ratio, isn’t very good. His completely meaningless preseason games, however, have inspired some hope; Rivers did not turn the ball over for the first 50 minutes of his NBA life. A sand grain sample size to be sure, but we may be forgiven for extrapolating any evidence when applied to the tabula rasa that is an NBA rookie who has yet to play a single, meaningful NBA minute.


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