Any way you slice it, Austin Rivers’ rookie season has gotten off to a disappointing start. While many elements of his statistical profile seem perfectly reasonable for a rookie – 9.8 points per 36 minutes, 36.0% on three-pointers, 3.4 assists per 36 minutes, a turnover percentage of just 13.7% – one enormous shortcoming has been regularly on display. One of the NCAA’s top individual scorers last season has not been able to put the ball in the basket – he’s currently shooting just 34.6% on two-pointers. Rivers is shooting just 34.9% overall, which would be the second-lowest FG% posted by a rookie over the past decade.
While every rookie struggles, at some level, to transfer their skills to the NBA; Rivers’ problems are surprising. He is not an overwhelming athlete but many of the strengths of his game – footwork, skill-level, ball handling, basketball IQ, confidence – are the things that allow a rookie to make an immediate impact. Unfortunately, Rivers is applying those strengths unevenly, leading directly to his inconsistent performance.
Not everything has been bleak. Rivers rarely worked off the ball during his time at Duke, but has already shown promising potential in a few different areas as a professional. According to mySynergySports, 17% of Rivers’ possessions this season have come in spot-up situations. On those possessions Rivers is averaging 1.07 points per possession and he has made 14 of his 31 three-point attempts (45.2%). He’s also been very solid in transition (1.32 ppp) and has shown some potential, albeit in limited attempts, at shooting off screens (1.13 ppp).
The real problem area, and the thing that has dragged down Rivers’ overall numbers, is his on-ball offense. Together, isolations and pick-and-rolls have made up 61.6% of his offense this season. He’s averaging just 0.61 and 0.59 points per possession in those situations. This is the heart of his skill-set and these were the exact possession types at which he excelled in college. Rivers is a terrific ball-handler. He has a variety of advanced moves and terrific footwork. He excels at changing speeds, splitting traps, setting up his defender and getting past the first man. The struggles begin once he gets past the first level of the defense, where he has displayed a stunning lack of proficiency at attacking the second tier of the defense. The video below shows some examples:
All of the tools Rivers uses to beat perimeter defenders seem unavailable to him against the back line of the defense. He doesn’t seem to have any awareness of how to set-up a ball-hawking big man. He doesn’t change speeds or display any of the mischevious misdirection moves he uses beyond the three-point line. Instead you see him use awkward floaters when jumpshots would be more appropriate, lay the ball up for shot-blockers to feast on, take the ball right into a defender, and force passes into non-existent passing lanes.
As frustrating as it has been to watch him flail around in the paint, Hornets’ fans should be hopeful. Rivers is a savvy ball-handler, he just needs to learn how to bring the savvy to the second-half of his offensive possessions. These are things which can be practiced and learned, things that can be improved. His ability to get past the first defender makes him unique, if he can learn to attack the second level of the defense with the same efficiency and ease he can be a real offensive force.
I’ve identified a few players with similar strengths to Rivers. These are players who excel at breaking down a defense, but like Rivers they don’t rely on overwhelming athleticism to get the job done. Each has a special way in which they prefer to attack the back line of the defense and their offensive games could provide the cliff-notes for Rivers’ improvement.
Tony Parker – Finding Seams At The Basket
One of the things that make Rivers so effective on the perimeter is his ability to change speeds and explode through a seam in the defense. But when he gets on the interior everything is one speed and he often takes the ball straight ahead into the body of a defender. Tony Parker is a terrific finisher at the basket. He maintains his effectiveness without size or great leaping ability, instead relying on his ability to change speeds and explode through a seam to the basket. When you watch Rivers you’ll see him attempt to finish by plowing ahead and bringing the ball up to the basket at all sorts of angles. In contrast, Parker puts the ball of the glass in almost the exact same spot each time. Parker uses his speed to put the defender on his hip and explode into a textbook layup. He makes so many of those shots at the rim, because he eliminates the difficulty. This should be the first goal for Rivers – chasing simplicity.
James Harden – Drawing Fouls
Like Parker, Harden often uses seams in the defense to get the ball up to the rim. However, while Parker protects the ball like a Faberge’ egg, Harden excels at presenting the ball to be swiped at. He rarely gets stripped but draws a ton or reach-in fouls as he brings the ball through the defense. While Rivers’ may end up initially turning it over more often with Harden’s style, that should change as he gets stronger with the ball.
In another difference from Parker, Harden often takes the ball right into the body of a shot-blocker. Where that often results in a turnover or a blocked shot for Rivers, Harden is usually able to get the call. The difference is in the shooting motion. Harden takes the ball to the rim in the same way he would if he was in an empty gym. This puts the pressure on the defender. Rivers often makes adjustments in the air, not sure if his first priority is to protect the ball, make the shot, or draw the foul. This in-air discombulation puts the pressure on Rivers to follow through and make the play. Too often he goes to the basket trying to draw a foul instead of trying to make a shot, and allowing the foul to come to him.
Stephen Curry – Pull Up Jumpers
16.5% of Rivers’ shot attempts have been blocked this season, but developing a consistent pull-up jumper like Curry’s could be a powerful way to counter that trend. Rivers’ may never have Curry’s elite accuracy or lightning quick trigger, but there are some things something simple things he could do to make a huge difference. The first is learning when to use this shot. Curry does a great job of identifying the next defender, knowing whether it is someone likely to come out and guard him or someone who will keep within an arm’s length of the basket, trying to avoid a blow-by. Curry is an expert at setting that big man up by slowing his pace after beating the first man, forcing that second defender to commit. Anytime the defender hangs back, the jumper is an obvious choice.
The other key lesson for Rivers is form. Curry’s pull-up jumper in traffic looks exactly like his spot-up, wide-open jumper. Too often Rivers’ form falls apart when he’s shooting off the dribble, and in the first video you saw plenty of half-runner, half jumper push shots; not many of which go in. The more consistent his form becomes, the more accurate he will be.
Chris Paul – Runners and Floaters
Like Curry’s jumper, Paul’s runners and floaters are a way of maintaining separation from shot blockers. As I mentioned above Rivers’ is often using floaters when a jumper might be more appropriate, and vice-versa. A runner is a way to use space in the paint when your forward motion can’t be stopped. On his runners Rivers frequently leaps straight up and down, frequently leaving his shots short. If there is an opportunity to stop on a dime and go straight up, a jumpshot would probably be more accurate. With Paul you can see these one-handed shots always come with his body at an angle, leaping towards the basket. That forward momentum is what helps generate accuracy. If Rivers could take this shot consistently as a way to use space and take advantage of a retreating defender, it could really increase his efficient in the paint.
Rajon Rondo – Creating Shots For Teammates
Rondo is one of the few players in the league who breaks down a defense while pathologically looking to pass. For Rondo everything is fluid until the moment the ball is out of his hands. None of his decisions are pre-determined, everything is a reaction to the defense. He is aware of the movement of the opposition and his teammates. He draws defenders with his dribble and moves the defense with his eyes. For him a shot attempt is a last resort, only to be exploited when all other options have been exhausted. At this point Rivers still appears to be making decisions ahead of time. He seems to be choosing a shot, or method of attack, three steps from the basket and can’t comfortably adjust if the defense takes it away. Once Rivers has a multi-dimensional scoring arsenal to take care of that defensive second-tier he can chase Rondo’s fluidity and fully explore the way his movements open up passing lanes to cutters and spot-up shooters.