Making the Transition: Nice Guys Finish Last

Published: November 29, 2012
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Austin Rivers is a ball-hog. He only looks to get his own. He has a propensity for tunnel vision. He ices out teammates and chooses to dribble the air out of the ball. These were the largely justifiable criticisms levied against the 10th overall pick this past June. Despite being Duke’s primary ball-handler, Rivers managed a meager 12.9 assist percentage and an even assist to turnover ratio. He was most often seen jacking up contested three pointers or attacking the rim with reckless abandon, rarely deferring or using a kickout once defenses collapsed. It was reasonable to expect Rivers to be, if not one of the largest “ball-hogs” in the NBA, at least the biggest one from this draft class. The early returns have been surprising.

Despite trailing only Damian Lillard and Dion Waiters for most minutes played per game (28.8) among rookies, Rivers is 8th in shots attempted, behind such famously ball-dominant prospects as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Alexey Shved, and Kyle Singler (and only 8 total shot attempts higher than Jae Crowder, a tweener wing who plays 19 minutes a game for Dallas). It certainly isn’t from a lack of opportunities; Rivers handles the ball more than any of these prospects not named Lillard and Waiters, and he isn’t exactly surrounded by elite offensive talent. It seems a ripe opportunity for Rivers to prove so many prognosticators right; so why have they been wrong?

The sensationalism of his “cockiness” and “ego” make for easily glossed “analysis”; these traits were not only ones casual fans and commentators alike thought he possessed, but also assumed would lead to his downfall as an NBA player. He would try to shoulder too much of the scoring burden at the expense of his teammates; he would play “hero-ball”. But Rivers has remained a diligent sidekick for most of his brief professional life. He has been passive, and not necessarily in the ball-distribution sense; his shot selection could still remain relatively low and his aggression remain relatively high if he was frequently attacking and kicking out, but it hasn’t been until very recently that he’s even demonstrated this sort of “passive attack” style. He has mostly been downright demur, almost forcing himself to be another cog in the machine of the offense, as though he were deliberately addressing his college and high school critics with his play on the court. While it’s an admirable quality, and one that points to a willingness to adapt and improve, Rivers needs to assert himself more; this particular team doesn’t need another player standing in the corner, or waiting at the top of the key for Grevis Vasquez to curl back around for the ball. It needs someone who can handle ball pressure, and in fact attack such pressure, and create havoc once the defense collapses.

Lately, Rivers has seemed to find a somewhat happy medium. He has 22 assists over his last five games (and only 6 turnovers, good for a 3.6 ratio). While his shot still isn’t where it needs to be, he has demonstrated a surprising proficiency from range (6-9 on three pointers in that span, and 41% on the year), and though his 15 free throw attempts over that time are a bit low, this can, in part, be attributed to his increased assist total; he is looking more and more for the open man on the perimeter that he has created from his rim-run, and this in turn opens up more lanes for attack, which in turn opens up more possibilities for kick-outs, etc. It seems, then, that it’s a simple and false distinction to make between “attacker/scorer” and “pacifist/passer”; in an attempt to dispel judgments made over his basketball character, it almost seems as though Rivers has been over-compensating, and allowing “pacifism” to affect his entire game. It is not selfish for a player of River’s ability to play to his strengths, particularly when those strengths can lead to open looks for others. It appears that over the last week or so, however, he is starting to understand that the best way to defer is to attack.


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