Making the Transition: Austin Rivers’ NBA Debut

Published: November 1, 2012

Austin Rivers made his NBA debut last night. How did it compare to expectations?

Pre-season statistics, used as a legitimate method of evaluation, are largely meaningless; in games where “winning” falls behind “keeping players healthy”, “installing new systems and packages”, and “getting young players experience” in the pecking order, the results are to be taken with a boulder of salt. To use the Summer League in this same sense is almost comical; teams are comprised primarily of rookies, both drafted and undrafted, with the remaining roster spots filled out with tall bodies signed off of various streets, local and international. Head coaches generally watch from the stands, and a large portion of the participating players have yet to step foot on an NBA court. In summary: basing one’s opinion of a player solely on their pre-season and summer league play is, and even considering these statistics could be classified as, a waste of time.

Let’s consider Austin Rivers’ pre-season and summer league statistics.

In his 2 games in the SL, Rivers put up 10 PPG, shooting 21 % from the floor (12% from deep) and 61% from the stripe. His horrid 3 point shooting numbers all came from one game, a 1-8 effort in his debut. Rivers scored 14 points on 13 shots in this one, along with 2 assists and 4 turnovers. What was easily his most noteworthy stat was his 10 FT attempts in his 32 minutes played; he repeatedly drew fouls and demonstrated that when his shot is off, he still has the ability to get to the line. Rivers also played 32 minutes in his next and final game, attempting less than half the shots from his first (shooting 1-6 from the field) and taking zero attempts from behind the arc. It was clear that he was making a concerted effort to be a better distributor in this game, and it showed in his line; he put up 5 assists while committing only two turnovers. He also managed to duplicate his earlier success at drawing contact and getting to the line with 8 FTA (albeit, only making 4). This is particularly encouraging when considering his deliberate attempts at getting his teammates involved; in this one, meaningless summer league game, Rivers demonstrated that his aggressiveness does not have to be totally sacrificed for the sake of setting up others for looks.

Defense, however, was another matter; Rivers fouled opponents a combined 11 times in his two games, and while he managed a few nice “sniper” defender plays (4 steals in total), he often looked uncomfortable defending the lead guard; this was especially apparent in the opening game against Portland and Damian Lillard, who repeatedly beat Rivers off the dribble, getting to the line 7 times and amassing 25 points. This will be an important facet of his game to track; transitioning to a “point guard” in the NBA means not only refining one’s efficiency and ball distribution, but learning to stay in front of much more talented guards and playing within a much more advanced defensive system (particularly one of Monty William’s caliber, who prides himself on “defense first”).

His depressing shooting numbers were almost identical in the preseason: in his 7 games, Rivers averaged a 27 FG% (12% from deep), but did managed to up his free throw shooting to 77%. Even more concerning was his paltry 3 FTA per game (although he only averaged 8 field goal attempts, as his efforts to defer in the SL carried over into the preseason). Perhaps Rivers’ most impressive stat was his lack of one; he averaged a scant 0.7 turnover per game, five total in his 189 minutes played, a very encouraging sign (again, in a 7 game sample size in the preseason, or, in a mostly meaningless sense).

So what can we take away from these numbers? Not a whole lot. Rather, it was what one saw with their own eyes that led to these numbers that is of more value; the pseudo-organized basketball leagues that take place prior to the regular season are of no real consequence to players, coaches, and organizations, and are largely treated as such. Where we can find a relative value is in a player’s play style; is he making an effort to correct his flaws? Is his “mind right”? Is he dogging it? Rivers appeared to pass all three of these eye tests with flying colors. Often referred to as a “ball-hog” in college, Rivers was looking to set his teammates up much more, almost to a fault. His also put to rest any misconceptions people might have about his effort and toughness; Rivers purpled his knees numerous times in the SL, and was kept out of the remaining games only by ankle surgery. In the pre-season, he sprained his ankle for the first time in his career, in gruesome fashion; many feared a weeks or months-long injury. Instead, he returned the next game, only to re-sprain the same ankle, again, in a very painful and awkward fashion. With the regular season a mere two days away, Rivers vowed to return for the regular season opener.

And that he did. Playing 24 minutes in his NBA debut, Rivers shot 1-9 from the field (0-2 from deep) and 5-6 from the line. Without Eric Gordon in the lineup, Rivers spent his time at the “2” next to Greivis Vasquez, and so generally wasn’t put into the position of complementary combo-guard, the role he’s expected to pick up upon Gordon’s return. His two assists measured against three turnovers is unspectacular, and his lack of rebounds (1) and steals (0) speak to a nihilistic sort of defensive performance; this can largely be attributed to his playing alongside Vasquez and guarding the likes of Danny Green and Gary Neal, who would generally drift to the perimeter and wait while Tony Parker and Tim Duncan wreaked havoc in the lane. As for Rivers’ night outside the three point line; there were moments when he would receive open kickouts, and rather than having confidence in his shot, he would hesitate, let the defense close, and either try to pass out or have the ball stripped, or else, he would make a desperate attempt at the rim, where he failed to convert. Although he had his shot stuffed twice on two such occasions, Rivers’ 6 free throw attempts (and 5 makes) is at least one meager consolation we can take from the equally meager sample size that was his 24 first official NBA minutes.

It almost seemed like confidence, often hailed as one of Rivers’ greatest strength, was his worst enemy. He must become more comfortable with scoring off of cuts and received passes. His ankle also seemed to be a bit of an issue, as he didn’t have quite the same quickness and burst he usually displays. His shot selection was fairly decent; neither of his three point attempts was heavily contested, and he tried to drive the lane as often as possible. They simply weren’t falling (although his woes at the rim and his frequent trips to the floor seem largely resultant from his frail, rookie frame). His role as a distributor remains to be seen; clearly, with Gordon out and Vasquez firmly entrenched as the team’s floor general, Rivers will play a stricter “2”; it will be interesting to note how Gordon’s absence affects not only the team’s immediate success but Austin’s development. Will the team continue try to develop his ball-distribution skills, or might they instead prepare for a Gordon-less era, and slot in Rivers as a pure “2”? This question, along with “Is Austin Rivers a successful NBA player?”, are both far from being answered.


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