Austin Rivers is the man who took my two basketball worlds and sewed them together into one beautiful quilt. One half of that quilt is locked out right now, sadly, leaving the quilt looking unfinished and ragged, but Rivers still took my two favorite basketball teams — Duke in the NCAA, the Boston Celtics (obviously) — and tied them together with the bond of blood.
Doc Rivers’ son and Coach K’s most prized recruit in the class of 2011, Austin Rivers was supposed to set the NCAA world ablaze this winter. His complete offensive repertoire, honed since his teenage years in drills with and against professionals, was supposed to reign in Durham, North Carolina. The Blue Devils graduated ACC Player of the Year Nolan Smith and lost Kyrie Irving to the draft, but Rivers’ arrival, plus the expected improvements of Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and the two elder Plumlees, were supposed to keep Duke among the most feared teams in the country.
At this juncture in the season, the Blue Devils are undefeated through four games. They have already beaten Tom Izzo’s Michigan St. Spartans. They are ranked No. 6 in both polls. But they also led by just one at halftime against (post-Stephen Curry) Davidson. They barely held on for a win against Belmont. They can overwhelm less talented teams, but they occasionally look vulnerable, weak, ripe for upset, not dominating so much as they are treading water. And Austin Rivers’ uneven play hasn’t helped.
The ever-prolific Sebastian Pruiti examined the early returns on Rivers’ debut college season (read the piece, it’s very well-done and thorough, per usual for Pruiti) and found a flawed freshman still finding his way. (Grantland)
Rivers’ 53 points have come on 37 shots and 58 possessions, according to Synergy Sports Technology. He has compiled a points per possession (PPP) rate of 0.879, good for 1,109th in college basketball. PPP is an effective way to judge efficiency because it takes every possession that ends with a shot, assist, or turnover and uses that to evaluate a player’s performance. With stats like field goal percentage, you are only looking at shots attempted and aren’t considering assists or turnovers. A player could have a fantastic field goal percentage, but if he’s turning it over 75 percent of the time, that’s not efficient. Stats like turnover percentage, obviously, do not factor in scoring ability. A player could do a great job of taking care of the basketball, but not shoot it well.
Strangely enough, Rivers’ efficiency suffers when he takes the ball to the rim. The majority of these possessions have come out of isolation and pick-and-roll situations. Given his talents, which include a great first step, strong ball-handling skills, and elite jumping ability, you would think Rivers would be a very strong isolation player. But in those situations, which have made up 29.3 percent of Rivers’ offensive possessions, Rivers is posting a PPP of 0.588, putting him in the bottom 25 percent among all college players. The tape doesn’t lie, either — Rivers is great at creating and getting into space, but he struggles to finish, opting too many times to force up difficult shots in the lane.
In pick-and-roll situations, which make up 44.8 percent of Rivers’ possessions, Rivers is actually playing pretty well, hitting on 68.8 percent of his shots and getting to the line 15.4 percent of the time. Numbers like this usually put you at the top of any efficiency list. Rivers, somehow, only cracks the 82nd percentile. The reason? Turnovers. Rivers is turning the basketball over 23.1 percent of the time when coming off of a ball screen, a rate that has not only hurt his efficiency, but has disrupted Duke’s offensive rhythm.
Rivers’ talent level shines through even when he struggles. He can blow past his own defender almost at will. But when the second layer of defense arrives on the scene, Rivers has struggled.
As Pruiti concludes, Rivers has all the right tools at his disposal. He just needs to learn how to use them at Duke. Even for the most gifted players, adjusting to a different level doesn’t necessarily come without growing pains.