Projecting Austin Rivers’ Development

Published: February 15, 2013

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It’s always hard to know exactly how a player will develop once they reach the NBA. The development of their two first round draft picks from last year is a key factor in how the New Orleans Pelicans will fare in the coming 5 years at a minimum. Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers were both one-and-done players, however they have had dramatically different starts to their pro career. Davis seems to be everything that he was expected to be, while Rivers has only shown some flashes during his constant struggles.

Given some of the things being said about Rivers (Remember the “worst season in NBA history” piece?), fans were starting to get a bit restless with his development. But what kind of improvement should fans expect from Rivers in the short term? How much can we expect him to improve from this season to next? One way to answer these questions is to look at other guards who share some important qualities with Rivers and examine how they improved from their first NBA season to their second.

The Data

The first criticism I expect to be made about this analysis is that the sample is just too small. Well, I’m here to tell you that size isn’t everything. First of all, there aren’t a hundred one and done guards who have been selected in the lottery of the NBA draft, so the sample is limited by the scarcity of these players. This brings me to my second point. A relevant sample for the question we are trying to answer is more important than a large grab bag of players, so I limited the players that I examined to players who where top fifteen draft picks, guards, and players with one year of college experience. From the 1990 NBA Draft to the 2010 NBA Draft, we find only 14 players that meet those qualifications. There have been a few guards selected in the past couple of drafts that meet these qualifications, but we need at least two seasons, if not more, of NBA experience for a true analysis that can address improvement.

There are a couple of ways we could proceed from here. Instead of just looking at the averages of a few relevant statistical categories for this data set, let’s group these players by their level of production during their rookie season with Group 1 serving as the bottom tier and Group 3 being the top tier. The tiers are broken down below with the average production of the group.

Group 1 (5 players) – (PER around or below 12.5, WS/48 below .040)

Career Awards and Accolades: (1 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award)

Rookie Season Averages:

[table id=49 /]

Group 2 (6 players) – (PER around 12.5 to 16.5, WS/48 between .041 and .090)

Career Awards and Accolades: (1 NBA MVP Award, 1 Rookie of the Year Award, 1 All NBA First Team, 2 All NBA Third Team, 4 All Rookie First Team, 1 All Rookie Second Team, 5 All Star Games)

Rookie Season Averages:

[table id=50 /]

Group 3 (3 players) – (PER above 16.5, WS/48 above .091)

Career Awards and Accolades: (2 Rookie of the Year Awards, 2 All Rookie First Team, 3 All Star Games, 1 NBA All-Defense First Team)

Rookie Season Averages:

[table id=51 /]

First off, the reason I use “around or below” to describe groups one and two is because these groups don’t break down perfectly. Basically, one player has a higher PER than another by .1, but his WS/48 is significantly lower (by about .030). I put the player with the higher PER in Group 1, because his WS/48 were so low. That was, admittedly, a bit of a judgment call. Secondly, Group 2 has Derrick Rose in it, which explains the crazy amounts of hardware.

Let’s talk about the groups. Tyreke Evans, Steve Francis, and Larry Hughes are in the top group, Group 3. Yeah, each of those guys had okay numbers their rookie years, but were any of them franchise players? I would say no. The brightest flame burns quickest, perhaps. Also, Steve Francis has 1 year at Maryland, but had 2 years are NJCAA ball prior to this: 1 at San Jacinto, 1 at Allegany College of Maryland. So, he wasn’t 19-20 when he was drafted. Another asterisk on the dataset, but it turns out that Rivers is not in the good group, so we’ll continue on.

Derrick Rose, Eric Gordon, and John Wall all show up in Group 2. Rose has already had a better career than everyone in Group 3, and it could be argued that the other two still have the potential to exceed the careers of the top tier as well. The rest of the group is DeMar Derozan, O.J. Mayo, and Stephon Maruby.

You might be curious who won that one lonely Sixth Man of the Year award in Group 1. Well, that was . . . I’ll tell you later. You might be thinking, “Well! He is clearly pulling the averages for his group up! What a scandal!” You’d be wrong. He not only has a below average PER for his group, but he also has the lowest WS and the lowest WS/48 (oh, and they are both negative). Why am I harping on this? Because before we go farther in our analysis we see that rookie years aren’t everything. They aren’t an accurate predictor for what type of player someone will become over time, especially when they are a one and done player. The rest of the group is Mike Conley (he was the ‘tweener), Xavier Henry, Dajuan Wagner, and Jerryd Bayless.

Also, each of these players 14 players logged over 500 minutes in their rookie season

Austin Rivers

Okay, so where should we put Austin Rivers? Well, that’s not much of a question. He clearly belongs in Group 1 at the bottom of the barrel. His Pre-All-Star-Break numbers, which could improve a bit before the season ends, fit in the lower half of this group . . . along with that Sixth Man of the Year. But how did Group 1 players improve from their first to second season?

Rookie Season Averages:

[table id=54 /]

Second Season Averages for Group 1:

[table id=52 /]

Increases are shown in green, decreases in red. The Group 1 Rookie Season table is reproduced and realigned for convenience. The Mike Conley choice did not unduly affect the improvement calculation or Rivers’ placement in Group 1.

We find that Group 1 players showed improvements almost across the board, and they had sizable gains in PER, WS, and WS/48. There was a slight decrease in free throw percentage and a near negligible drop in AST%, but these are likely just in the noise, as they are relative changes of less than 1.5% of the rookie year average. the upward jumps are more significant. Overall, Group 1 made positive changes between their first and second years of play, while playing more games, more minutes, and increasing their usage percentage by 8.25 percent.


So let’s go back to our original question, how can Hornets fans expect Austin Rivers to develop before next season and beyond? Well, the guy is going to get better at basketball. First of all, he is in the NBA. Basketball is now his full time job, and he has more resources at his disposal than any other league in the world could provide, including the ACC or the D-league. His work ethic has never been questioned, even if his basketball talent has been. He’ll make the most of those resources. Second, he is 20 and probably like most of the guys in our data set he is going to grow more into his frame. This is a man’s league, and he is still pretty much a kid. Third, the data shows that we can expect to see some improvement just based on what we have seen in the past from similar players. Lastly, Rivers had a terrible January, but he has had a decent February. Over the last seven games, Rivers has played more consistently, and his numbers in assists, rebounds, points, field goal percentage, and free throw percentage are up from the month of January. Sure, this could just be a hot streak, but it could also be a sign of improvement. His defense does not show in cleanly in the box score, but it has been on a steady uptick, as well.

This does bring us to that Sixth Man on the Year in Group 1. Jamal Crawford. His rookie PER of 8.5 and WS/48 of -0.043 is not out of reach of Rivers’ corresponding 5.3 and -0.049. It’s not like Mike Conley is chopped liver either. He’s a solid player.

Rookie Season Averages for Group 1:

[table id=49 /]

Austin Rivers’ Rookie Season through All-Star Break:

[table id=55 /]

Jamal Crawford’s Rookie Season:

[table id=56 /]

The Crawford comparison is by no means an insinuation that Rivers will follow along this path. Rather, it just shows that the ceiling for such players is as low as some may fear. Also, this comparison and the one to the broader group shows that Rivers really needs to work on his FT%, which was a relatively low 65.8 at Duke.

Will Austin Rivers ever be the player some expected him to be coming out of high school? Probably not. I can’t believe he can still become the next Kobe Bryant like some analysts once predicted. Can Austin Rivers become a contributor and solid player for the Pelicans? That is still well with in the realm of possibilities. The thing to take away from this is that we saw players very similar to Rivers who had very similar rookie seasons improve as they played more in the NBA.

Just breathe guys, he is going to get better.


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