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Talking About Austin Rivers

Austin Rivers needs to continue to get heavy minutes despite his struggles.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Austin Rivers has been terrible.

That's a relative statement of course, because he's unimaginably better than I or the vast majority of you (what up Greivis) will ever dream of being. He was also great in high school. But he ranged from mediocre to downright bad at Duke, and he was one of the most overrated picks in the 2012 lottery, if not one of the most poorly analyzed and overrated "top" prospects in recent memory.

I wrote about this at length back before we actually drafted him; somehow, Rivers has been even worse than I imagined.

Even after a good game Friday night -- arguably his best of the season -- Rivers' line through 18 games is alarmingly poor.

Rivers has produced -21.9 points per 100 possessions below league average. In the modern era, only three rookie guards that exceeded 50 games performed worse -- Junior Harrington at -22 in 2003, Walker Russell at -23 in 1983, and Orien Green at -23 in 2006. Two of those players never made it past their rookie contracts in the NBA while Russell hung on till year 5 before bowing out.

Rivers has a 39.2% true shooting rate, which would be the worst rookie mark for a guard (50+ games) of all time. His 34.9% effective field goal rate would be the third worst of all time. I'm not a big fan of PER, but his 5.8 mark would also be the third worst by a rookie guard ever.

Austin Rivers has been terrible, and not in a "oh, all rookies are going to struggle, guys" sort of way. He's been historically awful. There are a number of reasons for his struggles, though a primary contender is the fact that the things he struggled with in college (see: shooting, via a 65% free throw rate) are the ones he's struggling with in the NBA.

And yet, all of this said, Austin Rivers needs to get minutes. There's no question about it.

For one, there's the issue of development. Rivers is the worst guard on the roster right now (counting Darius Miller as a forward), but that hardly matters. Greivis Vasquez is 26, Roger Mason is 32, and Brian Roberts, fun as he is, is 27. Whether you believe the Hornets wasted their pick (as I do) or whether you think Rivers was a great move at #10, his development is in all fans' best interests. The Hornets, as they currently stand, are a horrible basketball team, and there's not much lost through giving Rivers minutes.

Moreover, we've seen something of an upwards, if frequently stalled, trajectory from Rivers. We've seen good and bad decision making from him in pick and rolls, and his potential with the play is obvious. He's almost entirely cut out the obnoxious perimeter chucking he displayed at Duke and in the lead-up to the season. And he's consistently looked for teammates almost to a fault, if we ignore his mediocre passing and shooting for now.

Then there's the issue of sample size. Yes, Rivers has been historically bad, but it's doubtful a 39% true shooting percentage is an accurate reflection of even his current ability. My biggest issue with Rivers pre-draft was that I saw his ceiling as an inefficient chucker that people would laud as a "scorer" -- a ceiling in the mold of a Jamal Crawford. Crawford's actually a fascinating current reference point for Rivers; here are their rookie seasons in comparison:

eFG% TS% AST% TOV% USG% Offensive Efficiency Differential
Jamal Crawford 41.9% 44.2% 23% 21% 17.9% -19
Austin Rivers 34.8% 39.2% 17% 15% 17.4% -21

I'm not a fan of Crawford's overall impact in the slightest. His career offensive efficiency differential hovers is right between -1 points/100 possessions below league average and 0. His crossover (which is legitimately amazing*) and ability to hit tough, long jumpers are excellent. But he's just not a very efficient offensive player, and it's highly questionable how much he's actually helped his teams win, outside of a brief stretch from 2008-2010. (A stretch during which, ironically, no team seemed to want him, and he bounced between three different squads).

Crawford was a bit better than Rivers as a rookie but still pretty atrocious. He rose from that to become close to a net zero ("offensively average"), if fun-to-watch player. Before the draft, I saw Rivers' ceiling as similar to this -- flashy crossover, decent difficult shot maker that's ultimately a lot closer to league average than most casual observers realize. It's still just as likely as it was a few months ago that Rivers can achieve this level.

Finally, there's the Marcus Thornton issue. How could Monty run Thornton out of town and yet now see it fit to use Rivers on a longer leash?

To me, it's a non-starter. I think the Hornets mishandled Thornton terribly, failing to understand just how effective a scorer they had on their hands. The blame for that lies entirely in the decision-making and flawed evaluations of Monty and Dell Demps, even if the trade for Carl Landry was ultimately justifiable in the context of the larger "come on Chris, stay? please?" atmosphere. Thornton played for a postseason squad, and so his flaws were (perhaps unfairly) magnified. Rivers plays for a lottery squad, and so it makes sense that his, for now, will not be.

It's not much of a consolation, especially with Meyers Leonard, Terrence Jones, Jared Sullinger, Tyler Zeller, and even Mo Harkless playing more effectively, but Rivers is not this bad at basketball. And given what they currently have on the roster and with a view towards the future, letting Rivers experiment and make mistakes this season is definitely the right move.