Making the Transition: Slow Down to Speed Up?

Published: November 22, 2012

Austin Rivers is not an exceptional athlete by NBA standards, and his development with the New Orleans Hornets may accelerate once he embraces that fact.

When we talk about the prototypical scoring point guard in the NBA, our thoughts immediately turn towards the Derrick Roses and Russell Westbrooks of the league (not that there are many), the 6’3/6’4, athletically freakish, combination ball-handlers who can run around and finish above defenses with equal ferocity. Their genetic makeup is a series of small miracles, which, in combination, are found in only a handful of people on Earth: such people experience a larger than average pituitary secretion of somatotropin, a growth hormone, which regulates the lengthening of bones, leading to greater height and length. While this in itself is not especially noteworthy (approximately 3% of all adult males are 6’3″ or greater), it is when a few members of this 97th percentile are endowed with an exceptional amount of ACTN3 (the protein expression which signals the presence of “fast-twitch” muscle fibers, the kind needed to blow past defenders, for example) that elite athletes, even by NBA standards, are born.

Although unrefined, the moment Rose and Westbrook stepped on an NBA court for the first time, they were already two of the best athletic specimens in the league; while they worked on establishing the fundamentals and expanding their offensive games into more advanced planes, they were able to get by on pure, natural ability, and simply out-athlete the opposition until the rest of their game caught up. It’s a symptom just about every first year player exhibits; accustomed to being a superior player and athlete throughout his high school and college career, a rookie will revert back to what he is most familiar with and try to out-quick, out-run, and out-jump his NBA competition. Rookies, indeed any player, rarely demonstrate the requisite athleticism to defeat a defender simply by means of burst and explosion, to regularly muscle an opponent under the rim to score, or consistently turn the corner on the perimeter and make it to the rim at will. So far in his young career, Austin Rivers is attempting to do just that.

Rivers is not an elite athlete, at least by NBA standards; although he has height and length similar to the Rose/Westbrook mold, and a very quick first step, he lacks the secondary burst, the post-explosion “smooth speed” needed to regularly get around the defender he has managed to temporarily freeze with a jab step or a size-up. He has often been found at the top of the key, being ridden by a defender on his hip across the perimeter, before frustratedly kicking the ball out. Perhaps a Westbrook-like specimen in high school and occasionally in college, Rivers is beginning to learn that he has no such advantage in the NBA. Nor, it seems obvious, does he have anything resembling Westbrook’s vertical explosion, often finding it hard to fight through contact and finish his attempts at the rim. Does this doom Rivers? Are effective combo guards only effective as elite-level athletes? Not necessarily.

Tony Parker, discussed last week, entered the league a 6’1″ guard with a level of athleticism similar to Rivers. He did not possess spectacular leaping ability or explosion, and though he was perhaps slightly quicker, he did not have Rivers’ height or length, which should serve him better at the rim as he gets stronger. Another “average” athlete to enter the league as an “undersized 2” only to be groomed (and ultimately thrive, despite injuries) at the “1” is Steph Curry. This is perhaps the most fitting athletic comparison in the league to Rivers; they share many physical traits, except Curry might be a bit smoother and Rivers would have the superior first step. Although one’s play-style is almost an inversion of the other’s (Curry uses his superior shooting reputation to find openings in the lane while Rivers is often left with open looks due to his reputation as a rim-runner), the principle still holds; one may still exist, and indeed, even thrive, as a combo-guard in the NBA, provided one plays within one’s means.

Much reference is made to Rivers’ ball-handling ability, and some questions are beginning to arise: Why doesn’t he simply attack and get to the rim? Why is he deferring so much? Part of the reason Rivers is deferring is a deliberate attempt to integrate himself within the flow of the offense, but surely another part is the lack of confidence he’s experiencing from not regularly blowing by his man. “Ball-handling”, at least the traditional concept of isolating a defender and routinely breaking him down a la Allen Iverson, will not be a consistent source of production for Rivers (it rarely is for anyone, even Iverson, who was a fairly inefficient player). He is much more effective when coming off picks, and employing hesitations/stop-and-go’s to utilize his 0-60 accelerative superiority. Slowing down, then, might be beneficial in two ways, both as a means to regain some of his lost confidence, and as way to accentuate just how quick he really is.


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