2013-14 Season Recaps: Austin Rivers

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Austin Rivers improved by 96.6% in his sophomore season.

Well, at least Hollinger disciples could be found clamoring this from rooftops as Rivers PER jumped from 5.9 to 11.6. But in all seriousness, Austin did show dramatic improvement in a number of facets despite many all-encompassing statistics still regarding him as below average. Granted, that should have been the likely outcome considering he was starting from the abyss, but nonetheless, it was gratifying to witness Doc's son prove he belongs on an NBA floor.

Austin's 2013-14 season started very slowly as he appeared in only one game out of the Pelicans first six. He was in direct competition with Brian Roberts for the available sparse minutes behind Jrue Holiday, and Monty often opted to go with the elder. However, as the year progressed, his opportunity grew, and for the most part Rivers acquitted himself well. So much so, that I asked Monty to move him into the starting lineup, ahead of Roberts for the last month of the season. It didn't happen, but Austin drew the start in the final four games of the season and he posted some very interesting numbers.

Daring to Dream a Little Bigger

Since Rivers got thrown out of the second to last game of the season, for getting into a tussle with Nick Collison, those statistics will be ignored. In the other three games, Rivers averaged 18.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 2 three's and 2 turnovers. The competition? The majority of the time, Russell Westbrook and the tenacious Patrick Beverley twice. If my calculations are correct, he posted a PER of just over 17.

Those per-game averages reduced to per 36 minute data measure up extremely well in history. Even more so when the data is filtered to only 21 year olds. Here is the full list of very young guards who averaged 15 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists on a per 36 minute basis:

That's only 13 names. Now before the small sample size police come knocking, these numbers aren't completely out of left field. Check out the progression in Austin's per 36 data by month.

Points Rebounds Assists (PG) Steals Threes Turnovers
November 13.7 3.3 4.8 .7 .7 2.6
December 11.9 2.5 1.2 1.5 1.2 .7
January 14.1 2.7 4.2 1.3 .9 1.8
February 13.4 4.1 4.1 .9 .9 1.5
March 16.0 2.6 4.8 1.6 .8 3.0
April 14.3 5.4 5.5 1.2 1.3 2.3

In April, when Austin averaged 30 minutes a game, often playing against NBA starters, he had arguably his best month. He recorded his highest amount of assists while keeping the turnovers to a minimum, good for 2.47 ast/to ratio. He made 9 of 15 from beyond the arc, but more importantly, started taking and making midrange jumpers. From beyond 16 feet, he made 12 of his 24 attempts. And most impressively, his defensive rebounding numbers jumped to a sparkling 19.2%. According to the game logs, it was as though Rivers made it his personal mission to pick up the slack without Anthony Davis. Among the regular rotation over the final five games, Austin recorded the second highest defensive rebounding percentage (21.8%).

Does This Mean Anything?

Short answer, yes.

Right before the 2012 NBA DraftChad Ford had some very demeaning words aimed in Austin's direction:

FORD: Look, Lillard was a late bloomer. He wasn’t lightly recruited until his senior season. You may be right that Rivers would’ve put up better numbers as a freshman. However, here’s my knock on Rivers. He thinks he’s Kobe. He’s not. He doesn’t have the length, the height, nor the athletic ability. Take those things away from Kobe, and he’s Ricky Davis — an irritating ball hog no one wants to play with and who isn’t good enough to warrant the diva act.

SIMMONS: Wow, you just waved two middle fingers at Doc Rivers — you compared his son to his least favorite player to have ever coached. Why didn’t you just throw a Dominique Wilkins barb in there while you were at it?

FORD: Lillard is a willing passer. Rivers isn’t and will never be. Lillard made dramatic improvements from year to year. I thought Rivers was the exact player in college that he was in high school. Lillard is a team player. He was the second most efficient player in college basketball DESPITE being the only decent player on his entire roster; teams game planned to stop him and him alone every night. I just don’t see Rivers ever being anywhere near as unselfish or efficient. I think Rivers will be shocked at the athleticism and length at his position. He’ll try to do the same things at which he excelled in high school, spend a lot of time on the bench, get into it with his coach and teammates, get traded in a year or two to a desperate team, put up huge numbers for a cellar-dweller for a year or two, make some money, and eventually, teams will realize he can’t be the alpha dog on a winning team.

SIMMONS: Other than that, you’re a huge Austin Rivers fan.

FORD: I honestly think Rivers is the one guy I wouldn’t touch in the lottery. Too toxic for team chemistry, doesn’t have the same physical tools to make it worth it.

Ford wrote off Rivers after just one year in college, and although our 10th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft didn't turn out to be an awful chucker, he had scarce positives his rookie season -- thereby confirming in the minds of most experts Austin was still going to end up a bust.

From day one, what did I preach? (Check my signature the last several seasons!) Austin Rivers was going to require patience and loads of it. Remember, he just finished his age 21 season where he posted the following per 36 minute statistics and other advanced numbers.

PTS/36 REB/36 AST/36 STL/36 TOV/36 TS% AST% TOV% USG% Rim FG%
14.2 3.5 4.3 1.2 2.1 48.2% 18.7% 12.3% 21.3% 53.6%

Hmm. Don't they look awfully similar to this line below?

PTS/36 REB/36 AST/36 STL/36 TOV/36 TS% AST% TOV% USG% Rim FG%
14.4 3.5 4.8 1.7 2.2 49.6% 21.6% 13.2% 21.8% 53.9%

That's none other than Jrue Holiday in his age 21 season. A player who appeared in the All-Star game the following season.

Now I'm not willing to state for the record that Austin Rivers will be playing in next All-Star game. However, it should be obvious that he is convincingly closer to achieving such a feat than ending up as some cancer on a team who wasn't worth a lottery selection.

From his rookie season to the end of his sophomore season, Austin's improvement has been significant. His FT%, 3FG%, TS% and TOV% went up by more than 10%. His rebounding percentage increased by more than 20%. His free throw rate by more than 30%. And his overall defense is now considered to be above average. Don't look now but someone is knocking on the door of being a viable and highly coveted 2-way player.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, Austin Rivers still has miles to go. His free throw percentage remains worse than a lot of bigs in the NBA. His pull-up game is notoriously poor. The mid-range game, well, outside of making several jumpers from that area in the final few weeks of the season, should still be considered absent. Yet, if we've learned one thing about Austin, he'll spend every waking moment this off-season on working on his deficiencies.

The point of this review was to not only make it abundantly clear that Austin is noticeably trending in the right direction, but there exists plenty of hope it can continue. For instance, did you know Austin and his broken jumpshot had the highest catch and shoot 3FG% on the team and the fifth best mark in the league? Or how about the fact Rivers had the 6th highest points per 48 minutes on drives in the league (Tyreke was 2nd)? That's a couple of elite attributes right there. Although time will tell whether more follow, I'm certainly willing to bet on him rather than against him. At age 20, Austin nearly drowned in the NBA. At age 21, he learned to tread water. It's not far-fetched to think he'll be swimming in the near future.

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