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The Path Forward: Austin Rivers and the NBA Draft

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Who is Austin Rivers? How should that affect the Pelicans in the draft?

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[Making his front page debut today is At the Hive commenter and poster usnfish. We're very excited to have him join the writing staff full-time as of today, and he'll be writing a series entitled "The Path Forward" analyzing how New Orleans should proceed in various avenues of team construction.

Yesterday, Joe Moore made his debut analyzing Austin Rivers' game; today, usnfish tells us where we should go from here, and, importantly, how Rivers' presence should affect Dell Demps' decision making on Thursday. - R]

The "Austin Rivers Experiment". Much has been written about Rivers since he was selected with the 10th overall pick last summer. Weeks after his selection it was reported that Rivers would be the point guard of the future. It was only two months into his rookie year that ESPN ran the infamous worst rookie season ever column. With the return of Eric Gordon to the starting lineup Austin moved to the bench and began the slow climb toward respectability; only to have it dashed with a broken wrist.

Few on this board have been as anti-Rivers as myself. However, to open my first official article in this series, "The Path Forward", I wish to differentiate between expectations and reality. Failure is a different animal to each individual and organization. For instance, Golden State fans are telling themselves they had a very successful season. San Antonio fans, on the other hand, are still in the grips of five stages of grief. Austin Rivers failed compared to many once-Hornet fans' expectations. The true failure lies more with the expectations than the performance of the player. I will try to tie in what Austin Rivers is, what he can become, and what if any effect that should have on their decisions on Thursday night.

When rumors surfaced about Rivers being the selection at #10 I likened him to a less efficient, smaller (for his position) Carmelo Anthony. I am happy to report that I was completely wrong in that assessment. Toward the end of February Austin Rivers had already transformed into the most fundamentally sound perimeter defender on the roster, at the extremely young age of 20. Most fundamentally sound does not mean he was the best perimeter defender. Al-Farouq Aminu was the best defender but that had more to do with his physical tools, not fundamentals. While Rivers did not stuff the stat sheet with steals and blocks he routinely stayed in front of his mark and forced lower percentage scoring opportunities.

This is the single greatest development in the Austin Rivers Experiment, one which is hardly noticed as offense and box scores are the easiest and most frequently cited sources of NBA writing. Austin Rivers is a committed professional basketball player. His "coach's son" pedigree is most apparent in his ability to rapidly adapt and become proficient defensively in the NBA. This is valuable not only individually, but aids in the establishment of the culture we all suspect Monty Williams of desiring here in New Orleans.

Synergy Sports bears this out, both on the strengths of Rivers as a defender and his weaknesses. Rivers defended the ball handler in P&R situations quite well, forcing turnovers 26.3% of the time and allowing 0.82 Points per Possession (PPP). In isolation defense Rivers allowed 0.95 PPP. To compare, Damian Lillard allowed 1.01. Rivers real weakness was in defending "Spot-Up" situations. If you watched any single game of Hornet basketball this past season, you know that was an epidemic team wide. Bore out of strict and failing defensive philosophy to allow open jump shots to collapse into the paint. An astounding 38.5% of defensive plays for Rivers were of the "Spot-Up" variety. Overall, however, opponents shot 38.6% with Austin Rivers as the primary defender. That is excellent for a rookie, especially one with concerns about his defensive ability, effort, and commitment prior to the draft.

One glaring weakness (pun intended) in Rivers's game is lack of strength. It was evident at the NBA Combine (1 rep on the bench press) and continued to be prevalent on both sides of the ball. A broken wrist has likely had some negative impact on his ability to get into the weight room as much as he and the strength coach would like. But, in order for Rivers to maximize his potential, step one needs to be getting stronger. Strength not only to defend, but to finish through or around contact. As Rivers gets stronger I expect him to finish at the rim more consistently and become a "plus" defender on the perimeter.

Offensively the primary focus on Rivers was his efficiency finishing at the basket and his woeful free throw percentage. I view this as a good thing. Concern should be greater if Rivers suffered from poor shot selection or frequently turning the ball over. The ability to put the ball in the basket is much easier to improve upon than the decision making before the shot is attempted. Rivers turned the ball over 1.9/36 according to Basketball Reference, which is a manageable number for a rookie. As I outlined in my Shooting for Success fanpost, Rivers avoids taking inefficient shots. Only 18.7% of his shots were mid-range twos, the "dumb zone" shots.

But focusing on Rivers over the entire season creates a problem. Rivers started 26 games this season, most of those at SG while Eric Gordon was injured. Not only that, but Anthony Davis was injured for a period of time, Greivis Vasquez was the starting PG for the first extended run in his career, and Al-Farouq Aminu was still getting accustomed to being a starting SF. This is not a table set for success. Instead, I would rather focus your eyes on the last 16 games that Rivers played before being injured when analyzing his offensive development in the NBA.

10.6 Points/36, 2.8 Assists/36, 1.5 Turnovers/36, 49.5/42.9/54.5 shooting line, 53.6% TS%

That is Austin Rivers in February and March. This is the starting point for the Austin Rivers of the future. He was an effective defender off the bench who created shots for himself or others. He converted those shots at an above average rate for a guard in the NBA, with the notable exception of the foul line. Rivers had a assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 2. He accepted his role off the bench and negative press concerning an attitude problem with his new role is non-existent. Despite being called the worst rookie ever Austin Rivers put his head down and got to work.

New Orleans has a combo guard, capable of getting his own shot off the dribble. More importantly, rather than settle for inefficient or lazy step back jump shots, he is capable of getting all the way to the paint. Attempting 59.3% of his shots there. Not even Tony Parker gets into the lane that frequently. There is a place on the roster for a player with that skill set. Most well-known "instant offense" sixth men are significantly more limited defensively than Austin Rivers. And do not forget that J.R. Smith shot 39.4% from the floor and Jamal Crawford shot 35.2% from the floor as rookies. The 37.2% Rivers put up does not look as horrendous in that company.

The Path Forward for Austin Rivers and the New Orleans Pelicans is clear in my mind. Many times players with considerable ability to contribute on an NBA roster end up being a "bust". They are able to contribute, just unable to live up to sometimes unrealistic expectations. Austin Rivers improved dramatically when the roster solidified in February and early March. I do not believe that is a coincidence or fluke. Eric Gordon was putting in 29 minutes a night, Greivis Vasquez had settled into his role as the starting point guard, Al-Farouq Aminu was solidly out of Monty's doghouse, Anthony Davis put up five double-doubles, and Jason Smith was not yet sidelined.

A young team and young players improving as they become comfortable in their roles, the rotations, and the minutes they will receive night in and out should not be surprising. Austin Rivers demonstrated that expected improvement in February and early March. With an appropriate focus on getting stronger and more consistent with his foul shot I believe he can become a solid contributor to the Pelican franchise.

How should this affect Thursday night's draft? It shouldn't, whatsoever. Mock Drafters across the internet have written that selecting a point guard would mean giving up on Austin Rivers. I disagree. Instead of being wed to the initial expectations when Rivers was drafted (Point Guard of the Future) the Pelican front office should embrace the actual Austin Rivers on the roster. A developing combo guard with excellent work ethic and a drive to succeed. A potential change of pace sixth man who can get to the basket and play above average defense at either guard position.