By nearly any measure Austin Rivers had a disastrous rookie season. Playing for a franchise like the Pelicans, who could afford to allot playing time in the pursuit of player development, allowed Rivers to stay on the floor for 1418 minutes despite shooting 37.2% from the field, 54.6% from the line and turning the ball over on 14.5% of his possessions. This is a family website so I won't even mention his defense.
Despite all his struggles it was clear that Rivers had at least one valuable NBA-quality skill, the ability to beat a defender off the dribble. The problem was that after he beat the initial defender he was often woefully unprepared to deal with the rotating defenders who remained. On some occasions this meant trying to make a pass at a terrible angle, but often the results were wild shots in the paint as he struggled to draw contact or finish over and around the opposition's front court.
Here are a few examples:
In the video you can see a whole mix of problems. He is getting himself into trouble by splitting double teams, shooting floaters when he'd be better off going all the way to the rim, going all the way to the rim when he'd be better off using a floater, leaping awkwardly, throwing his body wildly into defenders trying to draw contact, getting blocked and fading away on jumpers.
Rivers is indisputably adept at breaking down the initial defenders and creating space for himself around the free throw line, but last year he just couldn't figure out how to use that space effectively once he had created it.
It's tough to draw too many conclusions from preseason action, but in two games Rivers has shown some signs of growth. He's turned the ball over just three times in 59 minutes, while getting to the line 16 times and making 7 of 13 shots at the rim. Things haven't been perfect by any means, but he's done a much better job of handling the challenges of rotating defenses and that middle area of the floor than he did last season.
In this first example, the Rockets hedge hard on the side pick-and-roll but Rivers resists the urge to try and split the defenders, instead dribbling back to his right and letting Anthony Davis set another screen for him. Coming off that second screen he uses a nice hesitation dribble to freeze Davis' defender and the third defender rotating down from the wing. This gives Davis space to sneak behind the defense for the lob and gives Rivers space to step forward into the pass.
Here he is again, patient on an initial pick-and-roll, declining the opportunity to try and split the defenders. He works his way to the elbow, holding both defenders and setting up a passing angle to kick the ball back out to the wing where Brian Roberts knocks down the three-pointer.
In another high pick-and-roll Rivers opted not to force the ball off the first screen and waits for his teammate to clear through, setting up an isolation for himself. He does a nice job creating separation to get himself below the free throw line and he's able to finish into the body of his defender. Notice how much more under control he is as compared to last year, moving into the contact but keeping a natural shooting motion.
Here Rivers has another isolation on the wing, this time against Aaron Brooks. A nice crossover gets him into the lane where he uses his size advantage to shoot over the top of Brooks. The important thing for Rivers here is both form and body control on the shot. He doesn't try to steamroll Brooks and draw a foul and he doesn't shoot off one leg for a rainbow floater. He jumps off two feet, maintaining verticality and maximizing his height advantage.
In this last example, Rivers allows his team to set up a second screen for him, rather than attacking Harden in isolation. His patience is rewarded as the Rockets are forced to switch and Rivers is able to blow by Donatas Motiejunas rather easily. Again the impressive thing here is the form and body control on his shot. He keeps contact with Motiejunas and drops in a one-legged floater over Dwight Howard. This is the only shot that would have worked in this situation and Rivers was able to both recognize that and execute it to perfection.
Two games certainly don't wipe away all the concerns from last season's struggles, but the incremental growth Rivers' has shown in fixing his biggest weakness has to make the Pelicans really optimistic.