Duke in the NBA: Despite improvement, Austin Rivers struggling to earn playing time

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Oct 25, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA; New Orleans Pelicans shooting guard Austin Rivers (25) against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. New Orleans Pelicans defeated the Orlando Magic 101-82. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

From the moment he was drafted up to about seven games into his second season, Austin Rivers hadn’t give the New Orleans Pelicans much reason to play him.

The blame for his lack of success was thrown around to everyone involved. Did Rivers leave college too early? Was he just not good enough to play at the NBA level? Were the Pelicans not giving him enough playing time to find a rhythm? Would he be better off in a different organization?

It was frustrating period, one that saw his PER never get much higher than 6.5 and his shooting percentage range from really bad to really really bad. The toughest part of it all was that you could see the talent was very much there, the results just weren’t coming. Like, at all.

Then, on November 12th, he scored 7 points and dished out 2 assists in a rare 15 minutes of playing time. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal; the Pelicans were blown out by the Lakers, and Rivers’ performance seemed like garbage time stats, if anything. Still, it was something, and something is better than nothing, and one something can lead to a lot more somethings in the future.

And it did.

Armed with a dose of confidence and a bigger role, Rivers played double digit minutes in four of the next five games and was decent in all of them. Hell, in the only game he didn’t get double digit minutes, a 7-minute appearance in a win against the Philadelphia 76ers, he managed to score 12 points and pull in 2 rebounds.

Even when he wasn’t scoring, he was finding other ways to contribute, and it started to appear that he had a legitimate shot at being a part-time contributor on a regular basis. His PER sat at 12.04 and his field goal percentage was all the way up to 42.9%, both of which were a vast improvement over anything we’d seen from him over the past year.

Then, for no clear reason, his minutes dropped off the table again.

In Rivers’ last five games, he has received a grand total of four minutes, not even receiving as much as a second of playing time during a triple-overtime victory over the Chicago Bulls.

The Pelicans, in the meantime, have reverted to a rotation of guards that consists of Jrue Holliday (34.4 mpg), Eric Gordon (32.2 mpg), Tyreke Evans (25.6 mpg), Anthony Morrow (16.7 mpg), and Brian Roberts (14.3 mpg).

You can’t really blame the Pelicans, either, as all of their guards have performed reasonably well throughout the season; even Morrow is sporting a career high 15.2 PER.

From Rivers’ perspective, this is a difficult situation for everyone, as every potential way of getting him more playing time comes with a catch/problem:

  • Cut another guard’s playing time. This wouldn’t work. Like I said, everyone is playing well enough to not constitute a change in playing time. Switching Rivers with Roberts would just create the same problem, only now with Roberts being the odd man out.
  • Rivers plays well enough to force himself into the rotation. You need playing time in order to prove yourself. Right now, Rivers isn’t getting any. Even when he did play well, it just led to him getting benched all over again.
  • Trade him. Nope. His poor performance in the past has led to him having hardly any trade value, and since New Orleans has no real reason to get rid of him, I can’t see them selling that low. Perhaps they would if the trade deadline neared and they felt they needed a piece to be a legitimate contender.
  • D-League. I don’t see this helping him at all. He is better than virtually everyone in the D-League. Him going down there and tearing up the competition wouldn’t impress anyone, especially the Pelicans. While it would get him the playing time he so desperately needs, it wouldn’t help him move into the rotation at all, really.

While this has to be difficult for Rivers, reports say he has been a great teammate through it all:

Yes, his career has been largely disappointment so far, but I would love to see this more mature, more confident Rivers get another shot at being a full-time contributor in the NBA, be it with New Orleans or, most likely, anywhere else.