Few players taken in the 2012 NBA Draft are as polarizing as Austin Rivers. Fans seem to pile up on either side of the love/hate spectrum with regard to Rivers, be it because he went to Duke, because he plays with a demonstrable swagger or simply because he has what some would consider a punchable face.
The basketball world appears to be similarly divided with regard to Rivers' pro potential. Rivers is at times lauded for his ball-handling and shooting skills and at others derided for being too small or lacking the athleticism to be a force on the wing. He is praised for shot creation, yet also criticized for hogging the ball, particularly among those who have him pegged for the point as a pro.
However Rivers moves the needle going forward, the New Orleans Hornets can only hope that he does so in a positive direction.
Chances are, they wouldn't have made him the 10th pick in the draft, and the presumptive "Sidekick of the Future" for rookie sensation Anthony Davis, if they didn't think he would.
How Rivers Fits In
Here's what we know about Austin Rivers so far: he can shoot, he's got a fantastically creative dribble, he's wired to score and his rapport with Hornets coach Monty Williams dates back to the rookie's early childhood.
Rivers was the No. 1 option on offense at Duke as a freshman, where Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski is anything but prone to putting newcomers on any sort of pedestal. Granted, Rivers may have benefited from Kyrie Irving breaking the mold the year prior, but nonetheless deserves some credit for keeping Coach K's mind open to the idea.
Not that it should surprise anyone that he did. Like so many noteworthy combo guards—OJ Mayo, Jamal Crawford and Monta Ellis come to mind—Rivers is a tremendous one-on-one scorer who can create for himself and get his shot off under just about any circumstances. He's deadly from the perimeter and can get to the basket, thanks to a combination of fearlessness, a great change-of-pace dribble and an explosive first step.
Rivers' jump shot is a bit unorthodox, but is still remarkably smooth and accurate, with excellent lift on the ball and range out beyond the NBA three-point line. On those occasions when Rivers is at the basket, he can finish with either hand and show a strong understanding of how to use the glass to his advantage, be it on lay-ups or floaters.
What we don't know about Rivers, though, is how Williams will employ him in his debut season. The Hornets already have a highly-paid potential All-Star in Eric Gordon at shooting guard, Rivers' preferred position.
Williams could ostensibly slot Rivers in as the starting point guard, though such would be a disservice to Greivis Vasquez, who came on strong in New Orleans during his second pro season.
In all likelihood, Williams will employ Rivers as a scoring sixth man. That way, Rivers will have an opportunity to show that he can operate with the ball in his hands in the NBA and that he can grow into a more prominent role as a bona fide floor general down the line.
Adjustments Rivers Must Make at the Pro Level
Frankly, Austin Rivers has plenty of work to do before he or anyone else can consider him fit to play the point full time.
At which position would Austin Rivers be more valuable for the Hornets?
To be sure, it's not all Austin's fault that he's been slighted as a "ballhog" for much of his basketball life. His coaches have played him on the ball for much of his life because he handles and scores it so well.
That being said, there's plenty of room for improvement to that end for Rivers. For one, his mid-range game is still a work-in-progress, and even that's putting it lightly. According to Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress, Rivers missed all 14 of his pull-up attempts when driving right and attempted all of six shots between 17 feet and the three-point line in college, of which he made one.
Rivers' unwillingness to take/inability to make mid-range shots leaves him susceptible to charge calls on drives and too often degrades his shot selection otherwise. If he's going to be a great scorer at the next level, he'll need to make sure that he can, indeed, convert from anywhere on the floor.
That includes at the basket. Rivers was a proficient finisher in college, but will need to improve his strength and add bulk to his relatively slight frame if he's to score over, around and through bigger, stronger defenders in the NBA.
If he's going to play the "two" at the next level, he'll have to get used to playing without the ball as well. Per Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress, Rivers had the ball in his hands 74 percent of the time at Duke, with only 4.2 percent of his plays coming on cuts or off screens. Again, these splits aren't entirely Austin's fault, seeing as how his coaches have long entrusted him to dominate the ball.
But that doesn't change the fact that he'll have to get used to doing work without the ball in his hands if he's to be an effective player for the Hornets. Nor does it excuse his poor performance on catch-and-shoot opportunities, of which he converted just 24.1 percent, per Grantland's Sebastian Pruiti.
And if Rivers winds up at the point, he'll have to learn to be more of a passer and a facilitator. He averaged all of 2.1 assists and set up just 13 percent of his teammates' field goals while he was on the floor at Duke, per Sports Reference.
Rivers may well turn out to be one of the top two or three point guards to come out of college in 2012, but considering how thin the class is at that position, that might not be saying much.
What sets Austin Rivers apart from his peers, irrespective of position, is his supreme sense of confidence. He sports the sort of swagger and self-belief that makes him a natural alpha dog, not to mention an easy target for the ire of his opponents.
Much of Rivers' basketball bravado derives from his upbringing in the sport. He's been heeled in hoops since birth, the son of player-turned-championship coach Doc Rivers. Growing up around Doc exposed Austin to the aura of greatness that emanated from the likes of Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Grant Hill, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, all of whom were either peers or pupils of his dad.
As such, Rivers' love for and understanding of the game runs far deeper than it does for most kids his age. He was practically born to play roundball and seems to approach the game with that same passion and fervor.
It's no wonder, then, that Rivers not only isn't afraid to shine in the clutch, but also relishes such situations. He showed that with his iconic shot over North Carolina's Tyler Zeller to propel Duke to a win in the Tobacco Road rivalry last season.
Rivers is as fierce a competitor as there is in the incoming rookie class, one whose determination to be great is already evident. So long as he continues to work on his game as diligently as he has for much of his life, he'll do no worse than find a productive niche for himself in the NBA.
Rookie Year Projections
Predicting Austin Rivers' rookie output is a bit tricky at this point, if only because his role on the Hornets remains in doubt. If Rivers ends up starting at point guard, he'd need to average something in the neighborhood of 10 points, three rebounds and four or five assists per game to be considered a genuine success in Year 1 of his NBA career.
Those expectations would likely be reduced were he to be tethered to the bench, from whence a line of nine points, three rebounds and three assists would certainly suffice.
Unfortunately for Rivers, sharing the court with Anthony Davis, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, probably means that he can do no better than split the vote for the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year. Not surprisingly, then, bovada.lv has Rivers listed as a 30-to-1 longshot to bring home the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy at season's end.
The more Rivers can contribute, though, the better New Orleans' odds of eclipsing 30 wins this season will be. They have a solid foundation in place, with Monty Williams guiding a young roster built around the talents of Davis, Rivers, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. At the very least, the Hornets will be a team worth checking out on NBA League Pass.
At best, the combination of Davis up front and Rivers on the perimeter could make the Hornets a dangerous team lurking around the middle of the Western Conference in 2012-13.