It has been a brutal fall from stardom for the former Duke standout. Just how rough has his rookie season been?
February 8th, 2012
Seth Curry was screaming at Austin Rivers to drive to the basket. There were only a few seconds left and Rivers, Duke’s most talented slasher, was dribbling away every precious one. The underclassman heard the upper classman, but the freshman refrained; he wasn’t interested in overtime, he was going for the win. Rivers, looking as confident and as decisive as he had in every shot before, pulled up and arched a prayer over every outstretched inch of UNC Center Tyler Zeller.
The shot bounced lightly off the back rim and went cleanly through the net. The prayer was answered: Duke had finished off a miraculous comeback and defeated North Carolina, 85-84.
The Blue Devils all charged Rivers in celebration, tackling their newest legend to the court. Duke fans everywhere rejoiced while every UNC fan in the Dean Dome went silent, stunned by what they had just witnessed. Dejectedly, they sunk into their chairs, the name ‘Austin Rivers’ quickly settling into the back of their brains with other Duke players they’d forever hate. I’d imagine the name took a nice, comfy spot next towards the end of the line. To its left, the name ‘JJ Redick’ and all the unlimited range that came with it, stood. To the right of the name, an empty space left for future Blue Devils. From the stands, Rivers’ father, Boston Celtics’ coach Doc Rivers, cheered with the gleefulness of a high school cheerleader. It was the perfect moment.
Austin Rivers was on top of the basketball world.
January 5th, 2013
It’s another day for the 7-25 New Orleans Hornets.
They’ll play the Dallas Mavericks today, a team that has struggled almost every bit as much as the Hornets in the 2012-2013 season. Outside of the fan bases of the Mavericks and Hornets, no one cares about this game. Austin Rivers, the very same Austin Rivers who hit that magical shot against UNC just eleven months prior to this contest, has found himself on the bench, a result of the healthy return of SG Eric Gordon and the underwhelming performance of the rookie. Some might say that Rivers’ rookie season has been a disappointment. Those people would be making an understatement.
No one really saw this rookie season coming from Rivers. His one season at Duke wasn’t the most prolific season of the one-and-dones, but his high ceiling and freakish athleticism led to the New Orleans Hornets selecting him with their 10th overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.
The possibility of pairing a potentially premiere guard with Anthony Davis, the unibrowed darling of the draft, danced around in the minds of the Hornets front office. Even if things didn’t start out smoothly, they’d still be a lot of fun to watch. Down the road? There was a chance this could be the next unstoppable inside-outside duo. The future was supposed to be bright. Yet, here sat Rivers in the middle of the season, on the bench and about to watch his minutes take a drastic hit. Things weren’t pretty for him before this point, they weren’t pretty for him at this point, and it didn’t appear that things would get pretty in the future.
February 23rd, 2013 – The Present
The Hornets are now 19-37 and are, in every way, a forgotten team. People still pay attention to Eric Gordon, who could be one of the better shooting guards in the league if he could stay healthy. There are those who are starting to take notice of point guard Greivis Vasquez and his 13.7ppg and 9.4apg, as well. First-overall pick Anthony Davis has had his injury issues here and there, but he has put together a very impressive rookie season, averaging 12.5ppg, 7.5rpg, and 1.8bpg, which is good enough for a 20.46 PER.
One man, however, has been nearly entirely forgotten: tenth-overall pick Austin Rivers. Rivers has found himself only 26 games away from completing a season that will likely be in discussion for worst rookie season in NBA history. His PER is an NBA worst 5.35, he is shooting just 31.6% from beyond the arc, 35.1% overall, and just 55% from the free throw line. From a point guard standpoint he hasn’t been particularly impressive, either. His turnover percentage is at 14.7%, which is up near Dwight Howard range, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is just 1.7.
From an advanced statistics standpoint, Rivers would be more valuable to the Hornets in the D-League, as he has been worth a total of -1.5 wins this season on offense and just 0.2 on defense. His ORtg is all the way down to 86 and his DRtg has skyrocketed to 112, both of which are hideous, regardless of how you spin it.
There has been numerous points over the season where Rivers has begun to show improvement, only to revert back to his inconsistent and unproductive ways. His latest improvement has been a result of Rivers almost completely eliminating the three-pointer from his game, as he now averages just 0.7 attempts from beyond the arc per game and, as a result, has seen his FG% rise to .439.
Regardless, he has yet to be the player the Hornets thought they were selecting with the tenth overall pick. Rivers, who’s biggest strength is his ability to score the ball relentlessly, has scored in double-figures just three times since December 14th, a 27-point outburst against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Everyone has their own reason for Rivers’ struggles: he left Duke too early, he struggles with the fundamentals, he shot is nowhere near an NBA-level yet, he isn’t mentally strong enough, and numerous others. They all seem to tie into the former, however: he left Duke too early. People who watched him all throughout his only season under Coach K knew he wasn’t ready. Yes, the talent and potential was there, but he hadn’t learned how to harness it, yet.
He played the role of the cocky freshman well: the kid who could miss twenty shots in a row, but would still carry himself with a confidence that suggested he was having the game of his career. While confidence is never a bad thing, he never made a real effort to involve his teammates when his performance was down, accumulating just 71 assists compared to 79 turnovers throughout the season. The 16.9 PER he posted isn’t an indicator that a freshman is ready to leave the NBA, and it certainly isn’t an indicator that he should be a top-ten pick.
Do I believe Austin Rivers will forever be a lower-level player in the NBA? No, but it could be a good two or three years before he really starts to ‘get’ the NBA. If he had the instincts or passing abilities of a Rajon Rondo, or the shooting abilities of a Kyrie Irving, he would likely find a quicker route to success, but his current game revolves around just one thing: slashing.
If he ever wants to be a force in the NBA, he must add a second (or third) [or fourth] element to his game. Until then, it could be a bumpy ride for Mr. Rivers.