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.


  1. usufruct

    November 1, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    He has not looked good to me at any point. It’s way too early to write him off, though.

  2. okithor

    November 1, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    Yeah, I am not up on Rivers. He has one skill that he is good at. He can handle the ball to get around his man and then draw contact. He is very bad at finishing, a bad shooter, and his passes are most always off the mark(i.e. around the knees of a big man or making an open outside shooter have to move to make the catch.) But he is young so perhaps he will improve on some of these and maybe in other areas too.

  3. LaNative

    November 1, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    Nothing to this point has impressed me about Austin. And I agree that it is far too early to write him off. Being Doc Rivers son, I believe he is under a lot of pressure. We knew it would be a tough transition for him at point guard. Coach Williams understands that. I just hope that coach is able to keep his objectivity because of his connection to his family and knowing him for so many years.

  4. winze

    November 1, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    Rivers has a lot to learn and needs to improve on a lot of facets. He is very raw and only 19 and I think there is good potential for him to become a solid player.

    What I love about him though is his hunger to play and his willingness to give 110%. Dude hurts his ankle twice in a week but wants to play hard still for the team. Doesn’t make excuses and you can see his trying and hopefully it will translate in due course.

    If only EG had half the desire and hunger that Rivers is showing…..

  5. ktrufant

    November 1, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    I put more stock in pre-season and summer league than the author of this post. In my opinion there are reasons these games are played and valuable evaluations of players that happens in them. Obviously it’s in how you look at the information. One can look at SL and pre-season and try desperately to find development in Rivers’ ability to play winning basketball but I don’t find it helpful. Watching Rivers, I like everyone else, see exactly what he showed in college – he doesn’t do things in the court that contribute to wins. He’s fast, with a good handle and can get into the lane and draw fouls, but shoots everything poorly, and doesn’t rebound (or steal or assist) well. He’s always been confident and coachable. I have hopes and see potential for every Hornets player but at this point all he’s got going for him is age but most rookies have that (in addition to actually basketball skills). If he can convert at the line like he did in the first regular season game, I guess he’ll be somewhere around Xavier Henry value. I struggle to see how he develops into anything more than a locker room, team culture, fan favorite guy – like a Derek Fisher or something. (And maybe I sound harsh but actually I’m not down on him. He’s hard to hate.)

  6. Spiro

    November 1, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Bad game overall and really did seem very lost.. there were a series of decent plays late in the 3rd, resulting in a few trips to the line, which gave us a glimpse of what might see in the future. Too early to judge but I definately think being Doc’s son is the reason for getting the minutes above any other rookie with the same creditials

  7. tI

    November 2, 2012 at 12:37 am

    Rivers was a one and done college player and will follow suit to become a one and done NBA player.
    His script is still unwritten??? no
    He was the best player on his high school team, put up 40 shots per game and led his team to eventually become gatoraid player of the year. But it was high school. Anybody can score in high school. I played varsity and I suck!!!
    And his last name was Rivers, as in Doc Rivers. Every televised high school All-star game he played in, he was dominated by better players. If he didnt have the last name Rivers or shoot 20 times per All star game, you would have asked yourself: “Who is this short guy who travels every time before he places his first dribble, and he never scores at the rim cuz he is too small? And he has a terrible jumper with terrible form so there is no upside…
    Im sure that Doc sat down with coach K and said: “Only if he starts every game coach K… then he will commit to Duke”
    Rivers ruined Duke basketball last year. He only knows how to play AAU ball, run and gun offense. He does not know how to use the other 4 players effectively to generate wins. He is like a pit bull with brash animal instincts: “get to the rim, get to the rim, score, score”
    And he was drafted solely because he is his father’s son.
    There is no upside.
    Michael Jordan’s son good either.
    Rivers will make a hell of a player some day… In Istanbul, Turkey.

    • dukeman

      November 2, 2012 at 11:39 am

      I could not agree more. I’m a huge Duke fan. I was so happy when he decided to turn pro. He killed that team last year.

      He is a 6’4″ 2 that plays below the rim and he can’t shoot. He had a break away in Wed. game and laid it up. He does not have the mind set to be a point. All he wants to do is score and he will not be able to do that at this level.

      The Hornets would have been better off with most of the players that were drafted after him. Darius Miller would have been a better pick at 10.

  8. Mr.C

    November 2, 2012 at 8:01 am

    He has a good motor, meaning he hustle’s!!! Once his shot starts to fall he will be ok, because he know how to get to the basket…And his defense isnt that bad!!!

  9. teddy

    November 2, 2012 at 11:48 am

    Rivers will get better. Most of his flaws were pointed out in the article and comments that followed but I really do think he can be okay in this league. Being Doc’s son, Being a 10th over all pick, Being in a position where the coach none you since a baby and being apart of a rebuilding process is a lot of pressure. Lebron was always able to dominate anybody you put in front of him but not quite able to win the big game, Mike and Kobe both had tons of talent but were scorers. Many have tons of talent yet never make it. NBA is hard. Austin needs simply do what Lebron, Kobe and Mike did and tune out anything beyond what goes on, on the court, slow the game down and relax and take what’s infront of you and let the rest take care of its self. True he had a bad summer league and seemed lost in preseason and event in the first game of the season he tried to hard and decision making was questionable but through it all he seems to try really hard, be dedicated and wanting to be in NEW ORLEANS… From baron Davis to CP3, to Magloire, David West, Tyson Chandler, Desmond Mason, Posey, Erik Gordon, Kaman, and many others….. They all seemed more ready to leave this team than to help it rebuild….. Austin very well may be a bust but the same thing has been said about many players so I will wait, see and give him a chance. Would be good to see a person that actually wants to play here become good or even great…

  10. ADubs

    November 2, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    I think, watching the game live, the ankle injury was noticably affecting his play on both sides of the ball, especially defense. A much bigger factor than “a bit of an issue” since it can impact your confidence shooting, driving, and defending.

    On the extremely positive side, he laid it all out there despite an injury… a personality trait I wish we’d see in our other shooting guard quite a bit more often. A few times, though, I was thinking he can’t take that beating he’s giving himself for 82 games… so keep being aggressive, but start being smart about it!

  11. Kimbro Slice

    November 2, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    The dude has played one game. Y’all need to quit sippin that hater-ade. Just because he didn’t play well in preseason, or the summer league (were plenty of current NBA superstars struggled), and one NBA game after coming off back to back ankle injuries doesn’t mean his entire NBA career is doomed to be a failure.

    I understand yalls concerns, but the kids is only 20, learning a completely new system not to mention adjusting to a completely different style of basketball.

    His basketball IQ is really high, and he has an unprecedented drive to get better as a basketball player. He can get to the foul line consistently and will only improve defensively under Monty. The shot will come just like it has with other NBA players (the biggest example being Tony Parker, who demonstrated it so well on Wednesday.

    Just give the kid time.

  12. Ti

    November 3, 2012 at 12:30 am

    Great motor is an overused term by people who
    Can not evaluate talent. It basically means
    The guy hustles but has no relevance on
    Basketball ability or potential. Just like a baseball
    Player who hits a wimpy grounder to the pitcher
    But runs full speed to first base anyway. Great motor
    Or wimpy hit???
    And basketball IQ is another overused term
    By ignorant evaluators of talent. Rivers
    Has terrible basketball IQ. He can not
    Utilize the other 4 players to make his team
    Win. His dad has a great coach, but young
    Austin just knows how to run and gun.
    Lebron has a high IQ. He can play every position
    … Austin can’t even play point guard.
    Austin will fail. He will soon lose confidence
    And stop shooting open shots. Teams will
    Stop guarding him and he will lose even
    More confidence. He will be waived before he
    Finishes his 3 year contract.

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