Making the Transition: Dare to Compare to Tony Parker

Published: November 15, 2012

Hornets fans want a star from their “other” rookie first round selection, but Austin Rivers is struggling . . . does this mean he will not be a star?

Star formation is a process which generally takes millions of years. Interstellar clouds of dust and gas, or nebulae, slowly accrete into a sphere, due to gravity. Then, the temperature within the center of the sphere begins to rise as more and more material is compressed into a tighter and tighter space. Finally, when the temperature becomes hot enough, nuclear fusion is ignited; a star is born. The majority of the stars in the universe are of the slow-developing variety; their relatively low mass makes it a longer and more arduous star-birthing process. Some stars, however, form within the span of mere tens of thousands of years; these we call high mass stars, and their development is accelerated by the extra energy they receive from their relatively large mass.

Narrowing the astronomical perspective, we see the same general pattern in the NBA. Our high mass stars, the transcendent talents who were elite or near it the moment they stepped on the floor, are outnumbered by solid role players and even other stars in their own right. For every Tim Duncan, Lebron James, and dare I say Anthony Davis (who is perhaps more dust and gas than star at this stage in his career), there are dozens and dozens of good to great players who were not always good to great. Austin Rivers is not a high mass star; he has not, nor will he at any time in the very near future, dominate the league. Nor was he drafted with the expectation that he would. Without the handicap of obvious and supreme talent and skill to project ahead, or of a sufficiently large sample size to look behind and analyze, we are left to poke through our incomplete charts and notes, and to scan the skies for clues; what will Austin Rivers become? Like any good astronomer, we must find some other star, somewhere in the galaxy, which had, at its birth, similar traits and attributes to the currently starless void we are pondering over; one such former void is Tony Parker.

Though recruited by NCAA schools, the second generation basketball player did a professional stint in Europe for two years before entering the NBA draft at the age of 19. In his NBA rookie year, Parker was quite literally half the player he was during his peak; with a WS/48 of .080, an AST% of 23.9, and a PER of 11.7, he was anything but the point guard that would go on in his prime to accrue .168, 40.7, and 23.4 in those respective categories. He was described as more of a “score-first” point guard in a league where that wasn’t quite cool yet; the report on him was that while he was quick and nifty with the ball, he was frail, and didn’t possess a consistent shooting stroke. It bore out: with a TS% and an eFG% both under 50% (.497 and .467, respectively), Parker was, frankly, awful at putting the ball in the basket. His AST% of 23.9, mentioned earlier, was abysmal. And having run out of negative adjectives, I’ll let the 17.5% turnover rate speak for itself (it’s not good!).

So why was he drafted? Shouldn’t his deficiencies have been obvious enough to warrant non-selection? Why, if he was so bad, was he given so much time to be prove it? Because of the dreaded, the haunting, the often mystical storehouse of “potential” talent evaluators saw in him; Parker, like Rivers, had exceptional breakdown ability with the ball in his hands and a nose for the basket. These showed up in bursts and flashes, the lightning strikes which were supposed to signal the coming of a slow, consistent storm of production. But no storm of any real consequence was ever signaled by a single bolt of lightning; and it is hard to expect a player to build the sort of consistency desired of productive players if he isn’t given consistent opportunities in equal measure. Rivers hasn’t had many, with regards to traditional point guard duties: bringing the ball up the floor, initiating the offense and getting players into their sets, playing pick and roll at the top of the key, utilizing the drive and dish, etc. Coupled with Greivis Vasquez’s 23.0 USG rate (higher than Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo), and you have a player who, sporting a paltry USG% of 18.3 of his own (similar to Parker’s 17.7% mark in his rookie year), isn’t getting many opportunities as a ball distributor or play-maker, and is finding himself standing in the corner as an oft-forgotten “2” instead of at the “1” where he might be better served earning his rookie licks.

What changed for Parker? Simply put, he improved his shooting. From year one to two, he upped his TS% by 45 points, to a very respectable .542 mark, as well as improving his eFG% by 36 points, to .503. Defenses, less prone to sag, played tighter on the now competent shooting Parker, and this allowed him to blow by his man more effectively; his new and improved lifestyle in the lane also bore out in an improved AST% (still meager at 27.9%, but a noticeable jump nonetheless) and increased free throw rate (1.4 more free throw attempts per game; his ten point jump in FT%, from .65% to .75%, is a testament to his refined shooting stroke). These advancements in his game found expression in his PER (16.5) and WS/48 (.134), both solid to good numbers, particularly for a second year player. While Rivers’ poor shooting numbers are bound to normalize, it is clear that he must concentrate on both refining his outside jumper to keep defenses close, and allow himself to be confident enough to take such shots without hesitation, which has been a problem for him early in his NBA life. He seems eager to please and demonstrate his willingness to play within the flow of the team concept, sometimes to a fault.

It is of course a fallacious argument to claim that if currently successful Player X struggled early in his career, then Player Y’s early career struggles are indicative of future success; there have been plenty of bad players who were consistently bad during their tenure. What we are left with is a sort of “informed divination”, which combines drawing similarities between the situations and talents of two players, the observable, and then making projections based partly in statistical evidence and partly on optimism or pessimism; it is too early to have a reasonable stance of either of the latter two choices, and if Tony Parker is any indication, it might be that this year for Rivers is one where failure is not only the expectation, but the necessary and slow development required for a star.


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