Austin Rivers is off to a fast start in his third NBA season. As Jen Hale mentioned after last night's game, he is coming off two very productive performances.
"From now on I'm leaving no food on the table; I'm trying to eat everything." Rivers said. "I'm just going out there and making plays, and again our defense helped that. We got stops so we were able to have numbers. Our bigs were running and that frees up everything. AD frees up so much for us. Then we have to attack the rim, because it gets the defense to come in and then we kick out to shooters likeRyan (Anderson) and guys like that. Again, our defense led to our offense tonight."
In conjunction with Eric Gordon's frightfully cold start, Rivers couldn't have picked a better time. Should we have seen it coming?
Austin Deserved a Break
In baseball, when a prospect struggles in the majors or the minor leagues, sometimes he is given a reprieve -- if his age is considered young for a particular level. When Austin Rivers entered the NBA in 2012-13, he was getting ready to celebrate his 20th birthday.
On Basketball Reference, one would find 147 players matched Austin Rivers criteria in his rookie season since the turn of the millennium -- 20 year-olds who played a minimum of 250 minutes. That's right, Rivers was #TheWorst. However, it's high time everyone moves away from that. Glancing at this page 2, you'll see the names of many current NBA players including Rudy Gay, Monta Ellis and Jamal Crawford. Not all young players who become relevant NBA fixtures start their careers hiccup-free.
Much more interesting though, is the fact of the number of players who appear on this list but obviously didn't yet possess the required build, stamina or know-how upon entry into the NBA. Anthony Bennett and Otto Porter should immediately jump out as they were humiliated last year, but early this season, they appear well on their way to bounce-back campaigns. Others who appear intent on making this list a distant memory include Cory Joseph, Tony Wroten and Alex Len.
Take a moment and compare the picture below, the 2012 version of Austin Rivers, with the one above.
That's a stark contrast. Back in the 2012 Summer League, I vividly remember Rivers bouncing off other players akin to how Matthew Perry's character went flying through the air after colliding with Michael Clarke Duncan's portrayal of Frankie Figs in the Whole Nine Yards. (If you're interested, fast forward to the 1:25 mark.)
In my very first Rivers write up, I preached one thing: plenty of patience. In fact, that was the time when my signature came to light. Nearly everyone was burying a kid who had no business playing against NBA competition. However, thanks to the faults of the NBA lottery, Rivers came anyway.
From the time he was selected 10th in the draft to the end of his rookie season, fans and experts alike, pummeled Austin at every turn. His performance overshadowed what very few chose to see: the back-then Hornets were interested in the long game and Rivers possessed the rare skill of dribble penetration. Don't forget, the 2011-12 Hornets had just lost Chris Paul. There was no player on the roster remotely similar to Tyreke Evans.
If I remember correctly, only one expert was on his side, Jay Bilas:
Although Rohan believed Austin Rivers would end up being a productive player, he needed something tangible and would ask me to the point of badgering, "why are you so supportive of Rivers?" Admittedly, at the time, it was a hard question to answer with any substance. It should have been for anyone. This proved even more difficult considering I also viewed myself as a thorough believer in advanced statistics. By no metric did Austin grade well.
However, I couldn't dismiss what my eyes took in: Rivers displayed a rare skill, the Pelicans were devoid of such talent and the NBA was continually moving towards a guard's game. Perhaps the most enticing notch in Austin's belt was his apparent determination. There were stories floating on the internet how infatuated he was with improvement. Most collegians are more interested in girls, parties and other social types of behavior. Austin was more concerned with sneaking into a gym after hours.
Having watched and read all things NBA since the 80's, I bought in and put my faith in his DNA and his family upbringing. Hey all, I wouldn't be the first. Scientific studies have linked a person's determination to succeed to a myriad of factors like his family genes and environment.
Austin Surprises Us All
In Rivers' lone year at Duke, Austin was an inefficient volume shooter. Just have a look at his statistics per 100 possessions: 27.3 points against the backdrop of a 53.8 TS%. His TOV% was higher than his AST%. My belief was his background would eventually help him curb his inadequacies enough to become a beneficial scoring option for the team. For a time, the Jamal Crawford comparisons were spot on and it might have been considered a win had he followed suit, despite the inefficient ratio of points per possession.
Little did we know, Austin changed that script even before his NBA career ever began. Whether it was at the behest of the Pelicans coaching staff, management or his own volition, Rivers removed the word 'volume' from the equation. Sure enough, a glance at his statistics in the NBA verify this. If given 100 possessions, Rivers only averaged 14.4 shots and 4.1 free throw attempts. At Duke, it was 20.8 FGA and 9.5 FTA.
In his sophomore campaign, Rivers continued to strive for efficiency. He reduced his frequency of mid-range attempts, that's from 10 feet out to the three point line, by approximately half. Even though most of his conversion rates remained below average, and that's what the majority chose to focus on, Austin made a concerted effort to only put up attempts from the usually most effective places on the court. His improvements were well noted in his 2013-14 season ending recap:
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.
Suddenly, Rivers stood in a more favorable light. His 2nd-year statistics were eerily similar to Jrue Holiday at the same age. His catch and shoot 3FG% and points per 48 on drives placed him in the top 10 of the NBA. Lastly, his averages over 3 of his final 4 games gave a peek of something potentially special. Very few players possess the talent to make contributions like LeBron James or Tyreke Evans in points, rebounds and assists.
Last night against Charlotte, Rivers posted a nice all-around stat line of 12 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 block/steal in 32 minutes of action. For the season, many of his stats are sparkling, such as finishing around the rim (80% within 5 feet). However, it would be foolish to proclaim this quickly another gigantic step for this young man based on a mere 88 minutes of playing time.
Instead, I'm going to rely on the eye-test, once again -- it really likes what it sees. Austin is showing an ability to score in the paint against shot-blockers. He is being decisive with his possessions. He is using his athleticism to his advantage on defense. And above all else, he is playing with a control and confidence that echoes he belongs.
Back in 2012, I asked everyone to give Austin a fair shake. Now I believe I will only have to tell you to just get used to it. Oh, and Eric Gordon had better get with the program real soon. Maintaining his opening day status with the team depends on it.