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A Glimmer Of Hope: Austin Rivers Is Improving Before Our Very Eyes

In 2010, there was no high schooler more exciting to watch than Austin Rivers. His godly handles, acrobatic layups, pull-up threes and high flying dunks made for one of the more entertaining YouTube mixes you will ever set your eyes on and as a result, he was catapulted into being an instant fan favorite in the basketball world. Even without knowing the level of competition he was going up against on a nightly basis, words of him being a lottery pick in the 2012 Draft spread like wildfire and he seemed destined for a successful professional career.

In his farewell high school game, the 6-foot-4 guard led his team to a state championship with a gaudy stat-line of 25 points, 11 rebounds and four steals; talk about a perfect ending to an illustrious few years at Winter Park. However, since that day, things haven’t gone so swimmingly.

Outside of his game-winning three against the Tar Heels, Rivers’ lone season at Duke was filled with disappointment. Once praised as a gifted scorer with a deadly first step, the narrative shifted to him being a ball-dominant guard without an outside shot and in need of a perfect system to make it in the NBA. Nevertheless, the Blue Devil didn’t have to wait very long to hear his name called on Draft night as he was picked in the lottery with the 10th pick by the then New Orleans Hornets.

If Rivers thought the media was out to get him at Duke, he was in for a rude awakening in his first season as a pro. Bust. That’s the word everyone used. In just 61 games, the jury was out and the days of him dazzling viewers with flashy handles seemed like centuries ago. His Player Efficiency Rating of 5.9 was one of the worst in NBA history for someone logging as many minutes as he did. Based on Win Shares, he didn’t contribute to one win all season. Instead, he was good for -1.1 wins, whatever that means. He also got 13.5 percent of his shots blocked, which, for a guard who’s game is predicated on getting to the rim, is awful.

When the season was over, Rivers’ stats stood at a disappointing 6.2 points, 2.1 assists, 1.8 rebounds and 1.2 turnovers in 23.2 minutes per game on 37.2 percent shooting from the floor and 32.6 percent shooting from three.

With all the moves the Pelicans made during the off-season, Rivers had a lot to prove in his sophomore season. Unlike his first year in New Orleans, he wasn’t expected to play half the game. He would have to earn it. If he kept turning the ball over at a high rate or jacking up shots he had no business taking, Tyreke Evans or Anthony Morrow could happily fill his spot.

Despite logging less minutes off the bench thus far this season that he had last season, Rivers has been much better (especially since Jrue Holiday’s injury).

If you don’t believe me, see for yourself. Below are his per-36 minutes showing clear improvements.

Season Age G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2012-13 20 61 26 1418 3.7 9.9 .372 0.7 2.2 .326 1.5 2.7 .546 0.4 2.4 2.8 3.2 0.7 0.2 1.9 3.1 9.6
2013-14 21 33 0 501 4.9 12.4 .395 0.9 2.7 .351 2.7 4.2 .644 1.0 1.7 2.7 3.4 1.2 0.2 1.7 4.0 13.4
Career 94 26 1919 4.0 10.5 .379 0.8 2.3 .333 1.8 3.1 .581 0.6 2.2 2.8 3.3 0.8 0.2 1.8 3.3 10.6
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/30/2014.

The biggest difference, however, has been Rivers’ shot selection. As a rookie, 38.7 percent of his shot-attempts came from outside the paint. Seeing as he has some glaring issues with his jump-shot, it wasn’t exactly a recipe for success. The sad thing is, he was nearly just as bad around the basket, shooting just 40.69 percent at the rim.

His inability to finish at the rim was due to a few factors:

1) He was out of control most of the time, which led to him botching easy attempts and not getting the benefit of the doubt from the referees.

2) He would look to draw contact instead of just focusing on finishing the shot.

3) When he wasn’t doing that, he tried to get cute by shooting little floaters or underhand layups, which just don’t fly in the NBA.

4) He made terrible decisions.

Take this play as an example:

Rivers came off of Davis’ screen and was left with a little bit of breathing room between the top of the key and the free throw line. However, instead of pulling up for a short jumper or driving into the paint and kicking it out to a shooter, he put his head down and went into a crowded key, which ended up with him getting his shot blocked.

If you want to see plenty more examples of him making poor decisions, this is for you:

This season, he’s still below league average at the rim, but he’s boosted his shooting percentage around there by nearly 10 percent, making 48-of-97 attempts so far. Sure, there’s still a lot of work to be done, but the fact that he’s already made that big of an improvement in such a short time is encouraging. He’s always been a quick guard who has a knack of getting into the lane and seeing him turn down jumpers (as you can see with his shot distribution chart below) and finish shots at the rim has been a godsend.

Shotchart_1391124689916

Photo: NBA.com/Stats

Instead of attacking the paint when there isn’t a lane like he did last season, Rivers has done a better job of picking and choosing his moments on offense, which may be a result of him spending more minutes at the point. (According to Basketball Reference, 65 percent of his minutes have been spent as the point guard. Last season, he played 85 percent of his minutes as a two-guard). With the ball in his hands more often, it’s easier for him to pick his moments, rather than catching the ball on the wing and feeling like he has to make a play. When he can’t get all the way to the rim, he has a nice floater, which he’s converting at a respectable rate (40.3 percent). And when he does get into the restricted area, he isn’t looking to draw fouls; he’s just going straight to the cup, using his leaping ability and athleticism to capitalise on an easy opportunity.

Not only is his current approach much more efficient, it’s also much easier on the eyes.

Was it too early to call Austin Rivers a bust after one short season in the NBA? Of course. He’s only 21 years old and is in the midst of learning the pro game. Had he stayed in Duke for at least another year, maybe his growth would’ve come sooner, but that’s a topic for another day.

Rivers has been a victim of the YouTube era, placing false hope in the minds of everyone who follows basketball religiously. The expectations we had for him were far too high and that’s been made clear. The days of him being the next Kobe Bryant are long gone. He’s not an all-star in the making. In fact, he’s still ways away from looking like a starter in this league. But he’s on the right track to becoming a formidable option in the Pelicans’ system by tidying up his inside game and settling less for mid-range jumpers. The game is slowing down for him. He’s getting better. But more importantly, the days of him being the laughing stock of the league are over.

Scott Rafferty