Projecting Austin Rivers

GREENSBORO, NC - MARCH 16: Austin Rivers #0 of the Duke Blue Devils holds his head in the locker room after the Blue Devils lose to the Lehigh Mountain Hawks 75-70 during the second round of the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Greensboro Coliseum on March 16, 2012 in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

There are two players I have strong opinions about in this draft class (and given the inability of even professional scouts to accurately project collegiate talent, that's likely two too many). One is Anthony Davis, who will be a Hornet in two weeks. The other is Austin Rivers, perhaps his future teammate.

Rivers has attracted attention for multiple years now. ESPN ranked him the #3 high school prospect in the country while Rivals.com had him #1 in 2010. He played for the U.S. under-18 team that won gold that same year and was named the 2011 Naismith Prep Player of the Year before eventually committing to Duke University. Despite an uneven freshman season, Rivers' star has held steady, and he'll surely fall among this year's lottery selections. His youth, his pedigree (his relationship with Doc Rivers and his association with various present and former NBA stars), and his ability make that a virtual lock.

And so it's at this point I should clarify: I legitimately think Rivers will be a solid NBA player. He's too good to flame out quickly, and his shot creation ability and defensive potential lead me to believe he'll be contributing (in a bench or 3rd-5th starter role) relatively quickly. What I do take issue with is the increasingly prevalent notion that Rivers has the it-factor, the "clutch gene," the [enter cliche here] that only NBA "stars" apparently possess. The idea that Rivers wasn't that great in college because he was "held back by Duke's system" is another similarly amusing contention gaining traction. I disagree with the idea that Rivers is more likely to attain stardom than anyone else in his range, even though I like his prospects as a player.

Here's what it really boils down to: I'm yet to see a single Rivers at 10 argument that doesn't rely heavily on his connection with Doc Rivers or his "willingness to take the big shot." I don't even object to Rivers as a top-10 talent; every prospect that drops to our selection will come accompanied by some serious question marks. How will Damian Lillard adapt to jumping from the 300th ranked NCAA schedule (!!!!) to the best professional basketball league in the world? Can Jared Sullinger remain a valuable scorer despite taking the majority of his shots at a blockable height for Greivis Vasquez? And what of the 198 pound Kendall Marshall's Lane Agility being significantly slower than the 270 pound Andre Drummond's? None of these potential deficiencies can be argued away with any certainty.

My objections to Rivers, then, are two-fold: (a) while maintaining a similar amount of questions, he lacks many of the strengths that his competitors possess from both a statistical and visual perspective. Sullinger is in many ways a Thomas Robinson-lite - perhaps less capable defensively but more offensively creative if not explosive. Lillard had one of the most unique "pure scoring" seasons in any basketball league ever, given his supreme efficiency and the relative paucity of shots at his disposal. Marshall posted the highest pure point ratio (a more effective stab at assist-turnover ratio, accounting for the value of the former with respect to the latter) in the last decade of college basketball.

Rivers? Unlike Lillard, Sullinger, and Marshall, his strengths lie off the plane of production, of what he's actually done on a basketball court. He "understands what it takes to be successful" by observing so many professionals while growing up. He's "not afraid of the big moment" and he "can create," his defenders will say, despite the fact that the hard evidence points entirely to the contrary. Rivers' strengths lie in what he could become, where Lillard's, Sullinger's, and Marshall's are rooted in what they've shown us, and if that isn't alarming in and of itself, it's Rivers' star potential that I take issue with than anything else.

Rivers on a Curve

A common Rivers defense is the appeal to his youth. On surface, this is entirely justifiable. Rivers, at age 19, was tasked with primary creative responsibilities on one of the most famous basketball programs in the country. That's a lot of pressure, and it's why many will contend that if Rivers stayed in school another year, he may have grown into a top-5 pick next June. In theory, it's a fine argument. When we venture into the evidence, it becomes apparent that freshman performance is actually a very solid indicator of professional potential.

Rivers, some will say, should not be judged against Lillard, Sullinger, or Marshall because of that. All three are significantly more experienced. Again, this is totally fair. Rivers should be considered next to his peers - freshman guards shouldering large roles. And so I've gone ahead and compiled just that thing - here (all raw data via DraftExpress) is every freshman off-guard in a major conference since 2004 that used at least 10 possessions per game. This table is sorted by descending pace-adjusted Win Shares. You can click on any header to sort by that stat (double click for ascending order).

Name Team PER WS/40 Pos/g Pts/Pos Year
James Harden Arizona State 29.7 10.8 14.7 1.21 2008
Stephen Curry Davidson 27.8 10.1 17.3 1.24 2007
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Kentucky 21.1 10 11.1 1.07 2012
Bradley Beal Florida 22 9.7 12.9 1.14 2012
Chase Budinger Arizona 22.6 9.7 12.7 1.23 2007
Alec Burks Colorado 26.2 9.6 13.8 1.24 2010
Nick Calathes Florida 24.1 8.7 14.5 1.06 2008
Xavier Henry Kansas 21.9 8.7 11.4 1.18 2010
Derrick Rose Memphis 24.1 8.5 13.9 1.07 2008
Brandon Rush Kansas 18.4 8.2 12.4 1.09 2006
Jeremy Lamb Connecticut 20.3 8.2 9.5 1.17 2011
Tyreke Evans Memphis 25.7 8 17 1 2009
Bill Walker Kansas State 22.9 8 14.9 1.08 2008
John Holland Boston U. 20.7 7.8 10.5 1.08 2008
Sylven Landesberg Virginia 19.7 6.8 15.7 1.06 2009
Demar DeRozan USC 19.3 6.8 12.7 1.09 2009
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope Georgia 20.3 6.8 11.8 1.12 2012
Tim Hardaway Jr Michigan 20.3 6.2 11.5 1.2 2011
Seth Curry Liberty 21.2 6 17.5 1.15 2009
Will Barton Memphis 16.6 5.8 12.6 0.98 2011
O.J. Mayo USC 22.3 5.8 18.8 1.1 2008
Martin Zeno Texas Tech 17.8 5.8 11.9 1.05 2005
Jerryd Bayless Arizona 23.7 5.7 16.6 1.19 2008
William Buford Ohio State 17.7 5.7 9.8 1.15 2009
Malik Hairston Oregon 16.8 5.6 12.2 1.07 2005
Eric Gordon Indiana 23.3 5.4 18.2 1.15 2008
Jon Scheyer Duke 16.6 5.4 10.3 1.18 2007
James Anderson Oklahoma State 17.3 5.3 11.7 1.13 2008
Geary Claxton Penn State 16.5 5.2 12.8 0.99 2005
Willie Warren Oklahoma 19.5 5.2 12.4 1.18 2009
Doron Lamb Kentucky 18.8 5 9.6 1.29 2011
Jeremy Hazell Seton Hall 17.7 4.9 10.5 1.21 2008
Brandon Knight Kentucky 19.2 4.7 16.1 1.07 2011
Jeff Teague Wake Forest 18.6 4.7 13.1 1.06 2008
Chasson Randle Stanford 17.4 4.6 12.1 1.14 2012
Klay Thompson Washington State 16.8 4.6 11.8 1.06 2009
Jerel McNeal Marquette 15.3 4.4 12.9 0.86 2006
Tony Wroten Washington 20.2 4.3 17 0.94 2012
Scottie Reynolds Villanova 20 4.2 14.1 1.05 2007
Mike Mercer Georgia 16.5 4 11.1 0.99 2006
Avery Bradley Texas 14.5 3.6 11.1 1.05 2010
Jerome Dyson Connecticut 17.2 3.5 13.7 1.01 2007
Austin Rivers Duke 16.8 3.5 14.2 1.09 2012
Eric Devendorf Syracuse 16.2 3.3 11.5 1.06 2006
Manny Harris Michigan 17.6 3.1 16.6 0.97 2008
Kenny Boynton Florida 15.4 2.4 13.5 1.03 2010


When sorting by WS/48 on that list, Rivers ranks 43rd of 47th. Click PER, if you will. Rivers is 39th. While you're there, check out the top-10 to 15 on that list, and scroll down."Current NBA value," nebulous term as it is, lines up remarkably well with the freshman performances on that table.

Statistics can hardly be used to comprehensively project the college-to-pros translation, but the above table arguably tells us something far more important than that - Rivers was miles worse as a college freshman than the star players his proponents are projecting him to become (a.k.a. the top 20-ish guys on the lists). It's simply further corroboration that Rivers' primary strength as a prospect is his basketball pedigree, and not his performance.

Rivers as Westbrook

Hornets247 has become quite fond of the Rivers/Westbrook comparison for ostensibly two reasons - both Rivers' physical tools and skills as a basketball player, and the fact that Westbrook was similarly "unpredictable" coming out of college because "UCLA was a horrible fit." But the latter claim simply isn't true.

Westbrook's freshman season is pointless to consider alongside the above list because of how little he played; the table does a good job projecting future performance because everybody contained within it (including Austin Rivers) fulfilled a very similar role for a high profile school. Westbrook, on the other hand, received just 9 minutes a game as a freshman and wasn't allowed to do much. As a sophomore though, that all changed. Even if I buy M. McNamara's contention about how horrible a fit UCLA was, Westbrook still excelled as a basketball player. His 19.4 PER and 5.8 WS/40 both would have ranked in the upper half of the above lists. Neither of those things could have been used to project him as a superstar, but he was still a significantly better player than Rivers once given the opportunity.

A better "college couldn't be used to project him" example would have been Indiana's Eric Gordon, which conveniently brings us to..

Hey, What About Eric Gordon?

M. McNamara branded me "lazy" on Twitter yesterday for daring to bringing up the point that Rivers and Gordon play the same position. I'll stand by the question though for two primary reasons.

The first is that Gordon and Rivers are hardly complementary players. Rivers' play is primarily isolation-based, and the tunnel-vision, head-down stance he adopts on a great many of his drives is extremely troubling for those that would like to see him as a future NBA point/combo guard. Gordon's play is very pick-and-roll based (over the past 2 seasons, he ranks among the NBA's top-5 most efficient pick and roll handlers). Both players could surely operate together in late-game situations, but even if Rivers develops into a sure-fire starter-quality player (which is doubtful as outlined above), both players starting and playing significant (20+) minutes together seems foolish. Neither creates particularly well for teammates, with Rivers posting a -2.85 pure point ratio and Gordon never exceeding 0.47 in his career. Both players need the ball in their hands to maximize respective abilities, and siphoning possessions from a legitimate NBA-quality scorer in Gordon to the highly inefficient Rivers feels foolish.

While some would contend that the same positional quandary exists for a player like Sullinger, I'd argue that it's not remotely the same. Emeka Okafor comes off the books in 2014 while Eric Gordon will optimally be with the team at least through 2017. Meanwhile, Sullinger has proven himself long and big enough to play the 4, and if Anthony Davis is who we think he is, his 6'10", 7'5" wingspan frame will be more than capable of handling significant minutes at the 5. In all honesty, Sullinger/Davis would be an incomparably more synergistic pairing than Rivers/Gordon.

And as for the "insurance in case Gordon doesn't play more than 50 games a year" crowd - if the team has legitimate reason to project serious, recurring injury issues down the road for Gordon, the prudent decision would be to seek alternatives to re-signing him, not doubling down financially at the same position.

********************************************

Rivers should be a good pro despite his current shortcomings. The fact that he's been around Doc Rivers and NBA players his whole life will surely help him grow as a player. My issue comes with his projection as a potential future star. It's certainly possible, but in the same proportions as with a Lillard or Jeremy Lamb. Rivers has shown very, very little at the collegiate level that indicates future stardom above and beyond his peers; again, that specific argument comes down to intangibles that have failed entirely to translate to the court.

New Orleans drafting Rivers at #10 wouldn't be their worst ever decision, but if it's one made based on Rivers' pedigree and at the expense of actual production from Rivers' competitors, it'll be more than a little misguided.

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