Mystic Rivers Austin Rivers continues to evolve and grow as a player

Rich Pedroncelli - Associated Press

[stag_dropcap font_size=”75px” style=“squared”]O[/stag_dropcap]ver the last several months, many a word has been written about Austin Rivers by yours truly. I wrote about his progress last season, the amazing heart he displayed in Game 6 of last season’s first round playoff series, and how he helped the Los Angeles Clippers win a game earlier this season. Well, something funny has happened since then – he’s become quite a key contributor. He still has his detractors, as you would expect, but his play this season has been something the team has sorely needed, and he’s still getting better as an overall player.

This season, the fifth-year guard is having a career-best year in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage, points per game, assists per game, rebounds per game, and steals per game. In other words: this is the best season Austin Rivers has had as a professional basketball player, and it came a season after his previous best season. There’s a trend developing here, and it states that Rivers has continued to improve on the court.

It also goes far beyond what the numbers show, but rather into a realm where just watching brief passings of footage will show you just how much he’s helped the Clippers this season. When they’ve run three-guard lineups, he’s been the third guard that they trust the most. When they needed someone to step in and start for Blake Griffin, who is still out with an injury, they’ve since turned to Austin Rivers as their small forward and moved Luc Mbah a Moute down to power forward.

In his 12 starts this season, Rivers is averaging 16.6 points, 3.3 assists, and 2.9 rebounds while shooting 48.6 percent from the field, 43.8 percent from three, and 78.4 percent from the line. That’s good for a 61.3 True Shooting Percentage (TS%), by the way. He, believe it or not, has been the team’s third best guard behind Chris Paul and J.J. Redick. In years past, it might have been Jamal Crawford, but not this season. Not now. And it’s probably the team’s best story so far in 2016-17.

So, what exactly has changed for Rivers? Well, confidence is one thing. He’s trusting his shot more, and he’s trusting the system more. He knows where to be more, he knows where to go, and he knows what to do. He’s the team’s second best guard defender behind Chris Paul, and he’s probably their third best perimeter defender behind Paul and Mbah a Moute. The Paul-Rivers-Luc trio has played 109 minutes this season. They boast a 98.7 Defensive Rating and +10.7 Net Rating.

Speaking of defense, that’s probably what Rivers excelled at the most last season. This season, he’s maintained that defensive aptitude while improving in several other areas on that end of the floor. The biggest bugaboo for him is navigating around screens fast enough to get back and challenge the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls. But depending on the personnel on the floor, especially if it’s DeAndre Jordan, he usually gets the time to recover and contest. Anyone who tries to take him on in a dribble-drive setting is only inviting failure.

If there has been a theme to his defense this season, though, it’s that he has improved his hands to the point where he’s become a little Chris Paul-ish when it comes to ripping the ball loose from unsuspecting opponents. Time and time again this season, he just knifes his hand into the play to deflect the ball loose and kick off a fast break. And due to his growing awareness as a player, he knows how to help and recover, as evidenced on this play below.

Here, we see Austin Rivers begin the play at the top of the arc by sagging off of the terrible shooting Andrew Harrison. When the ball gets kicked down to Zach Randolph, who is working against Marreese Speights, Harrison makes a move towards the left elbow before pushing off to get to the left wing. When Randolph sees Rivers clear the space to go back towards Harrison, he starts to go into his move. At that point, Rivers digs down and smacks the ball loose from Randolph which forces the big man to panic. Rivers then jumps out to play the passing lane, and when Randolph attempts a pass to Harrison, Rivers is there to steal it. He then races down to dunk the ball and close the gap.

Even more so than just digging down on a player in the post and then playing the passing lane, Rivers has started to understand the switching principles of the Clippers’ defense as he now is in his second full season with the team. The Clippers have switched identities and concepts a few times over the last couple years, and this year is no different. But Rivers has been able to still make an impact while learning the new switching style.

On this play, John Wall is the ball-handler, and we see Rivers in the far corner with Bradley Beal. As Wall dribbles to the top of the arc, Marcin Gortat acts like he’s about to set a screen for him, but that’s only a feint. The real action begins when Markieff Morris walks up to set a screen for Beal on the left wing. Beal sprints off the screen, receives the pass from Wall, and Blake Griffin steps up to meet him. Rivers is caught directly behind Beal here, but he slips by both Beal and Griffin to get into the passing lane. Beal bounce passes towards Morris, however Rivers gets his hand in the way to deflect the pass, and the Clippers get the turnover at a crucial juncture.

These aren’t noticeably sexy plays, but they are helpful ones for a team that went through a lull on the defensive end of the floor. Rivers’ ability to keep a ball-handler in front of him is his most polished defensive attribute, though, and it’s one that has allowed the Clippers and head coach Doc Rivers to play a three-guard lineup, even against bigger lineups that feature a traditional small forward. By keeping bigger, stronger players at bay, Rivers gives the team another weapon in which to stifle opponents.

After Zach Randolph gives the ball up to Chandler Parsons on the left wing, he runs up to set a dummy screen then slips it. Rivers cheats up, and he almost looks as if he’s about to ICE the screen but instead he jumps over the top of it and stays in front of Parsons entirely. He beats the ball-handler to the spot, and Parsons has no way of getting by him whatsoever. Even as Parsons takes long strides towards the rim and gets downhill, Rivers is with him step for step. When Parsons tries to slow and go into a bit of a runner attempt, Rivers meets him at the summit and gets a piece of the ball thus making Parsons have to adjust and throw up a wild shot that misses by a mile.

This season, when defending against players in isolation settings, Rivers has given up just 0.70 points per possession in 27 instances. For reference, Kawhi Leonard has given up 1.18 points per possession in 17 possessions this season and Jimmy Butler has given up 0.84 points per possession in 32 possessions. Rivers won’t get the defensive acclaim that those two do, and he doesn’t deserve it yet, but he’s been a positive on that end of the floor for the team. After all, over the last two seasons, opponents have shot just 20-for-55 (36%) in isolation situations against Rivers.

SEASON Points Per Possession EFG% Allowed Percentile
2016-17 0.70 38.9% 80.7
2015-16 0.89 43.2% 38.4
SEASON Points Per Possession EFG% Allowed Percentile
2016-17 0.94 46.6% 25.5
2015-16 0.72 38.3% 75.5
SEASON Points Per Possession EFG% Allowed Percentile
2016-17 0.41 26.3% 98.6
2015-16 0.74 33.3% 77.8
SEASON Points Per Possession EFG% Allowed Percentile
2016-17 1.03 50.0% 42.9
2015-16 0.99 50.0% 44.3
SEASON Points Per Possession EFG% Allowed Percentile
2016-17 0.84 42.4% 61.0
2015-16 1.00 51.9% 24.5
SEASON Points Per Possession EFG% Allowed Percentile
2016-17 0.81 40.7% 70.6
2015-16 1.17 62.2% 15.2

As the numbers above show, the only areas where Austin Rivers seems to have gotten worse since last season are in spot-up defense, in points per possession and a smidge in percentile but not in Effective Field Goal Percentage allowed, and pick-and-roll ball-handler defense, which has been his biggest hiccup this season. He hasn’t gotten around the screens that well. But, of the two areas where he’s gotten worse – so to speak – one is not by much and the other is an area where he could pick it up again. Yet, he’s improved by a lot in every other facet.

The intensity on defense is the biggest thing. When asked about it after the Clippers’ win on Saturday afternoon against the Los Angeles Lakers, Rivers let people know. “I think a big part of [our current success] is the change in our defensive focus,” he opined. Even head coach Doc Rivers praised his son for his defense during that game, saying, “[Austin Rivers’] on-ball [defense] was as good as it gets.”

While some may think the overall praise from Doc for Austin should be taken with a grain of salt, opposing coaches have given the younger Rivers credit for improving as a player. After the Clippers went into Orlando in mid-December and won, Magic head coach Frank Vogel remarked, “[Austin’s] really improved as a basketball player, in particular with his 3-point shooting.” After the Clippers beat the Kings earlier this month, another head coach gave his thoughts. “[Austin’s] got a nice rhythm to him where sometimes he catches and goes and he keeps you off balance because he really is a driver who has really improved himself as a shooter I think,” Sacramento head man Dave Joerger said.

Opposing head coaches have taken notice of the improvements that Rivers has made, and his biggest development from last season to this season rests completely on offense. On that end of the floor, Rivers has become somewhat of a key contributor for the team and delivered some crucial shots. A lot of those crucial shots, and a lot of the upgrades he’s made offensively, have come from long range.

Last season, Rivers shot a career-best 43.8 percent from the field. He also shot 33.5 percent from three-point land. However, he made 40.3 percent of his three-point attempts after Christmas last season, so the upside from deep was there. This season, though, he’s managed to turn it into something worthwhile and sustained – at least as of right now. Prior to Saturday afternoon’s 1-for-5 mark from deep, Rivers was at 40.1 percent on three-point attempts this season. Even after that game he’s still at 39.4 percent, so it goes to show you just how improved he’s become. In fact, the numbers bear this out.

Among the 97 players who have registered at least 90 spot-up possessions during the 2016-17 season, Austin Rivers ranks sixth currently in points per possession at 1.32. For comparison’s sake, Jimmy Butler and Kevin Durant are both at 1.31 points per possession, and teammate J.J. Redick is at 1.19 currently. You can look directly to the work he’s done with Redick and assistant coach Sam Cassell as why he’s become better in that facet.

Brilliant writer Rowan Kavner expanded upon that in a recent piece where he interviewed both Redick and Cassell. When asked about it, Redick remarked, “you get your confidence from your reps and your preparation.” He went on to say, “this season is a testament to that, for sure.” Cassell credits Rivers’ lower body, saying, “once he put that into his shot, you see the results now.” Whatever you choose to believe as the reason for Austin Rivers’ improved three-point shooting, there is a theme – hard work.

That hard work has led to Rivers being ready no matter what climacteric shot arises. This season, Rivers has delivered time and time again when called upon for a big shot. That wasn’t more evident than during the game in Sacramento earlier this month. After falling behind by double-digits, the Clippers raced out to a double-digit lead before giving it up and having to hang out for a win. But they wouldn’t have won without two very important shots.

Nursing a one point lead with just under eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Austin Rivers swings the ball to Chris Paul on the left wing. Paul has Ty Lawson directly in front of him as Speights runs up to set a screen. Paul reads the defensive rotation of Garrett Temple, and that leads him to darting a pass to Rivers at the top of the arc. Temple is too late to recover, and he even stops short due to likely thinking Rivers will drive off the catch. Instead, Rivers rises, fires, and knocks down a big time three.

A couple minutes later, we see Rivers do it again. Jamal Crawford has the ball on the left wing against Darren Collison, and he tries to break Collison down off the dribble. Once again, Temple, for some reason, slides over to help, which wasn’t needed, and it leaves Rivers wide open on the right wing. Rivers gets a good look at the rim, and he knocks down another three. This one gives the Clippers a six point lead with just under five minutes to go.

It goes far beyond just him being a spot-up shooter, as well. When factoring in the other thing he does really well, which is driving to the rim, Rivers has given the Clippers two areas from which he can be a key contributor. As Chris Paul has gotten up there in age, he’s driven to the rim less and less. That burden, if you even want to refer to it as such, has fallen on the shoulders of guards like Rivers and Raymond Felton.

Against Memphis in this game, Austin Rivers was a terror. He finished with 28 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, and shot 10-of-16 from the floor. You could argue he was the reason the team won. On this play here, Mike Conley is guarding him up high when Luc Mbah a Moute runs up to set a screen. Rivers quickly crosses over to his left as Conley attempts to jump over it, and this puts Rivers downhill with Zach Randolph in his way. Randolph tries to recover, but Rivers throws another crossover that creates a seam for him to burst through. Because of DeAndre Jordan’s lob presence, Marc Gasol can’t fully contest on the layup attempt, and Rivers flips it in for two.

This is the heady awareness that Rivers has started to display this season. When a defender overcommits or jumps a screen, he beats them to the other side with his handle and goes to the rim. It’s really that simple. Randolph couldn’t recover to stop Rivers, and Gasol was so worried about a lob that he didn’t do anything other than act like he was going to block a shot but then not do it. It’s these subtleties that Rivers has worked on.

Earlier in the game, the Clippers ran something similar with Rivers as the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll. Instead of Conley on him, this time it’s Troy Daniels. And instead of attempting to jump the screen and go over it like Conley did, Daniels navigates around the screen and sort of funnels Rivers towards Randolph. Rivers throws a little hesitation then turns on the jets. He gets on Randolph’s hip, knows that Randolph can’t block his shot, and flips in the deuce. Yet again, notice how Gasol couldn’t help on the drive because of Jordan’s presence.

The situational understanding of basketball has been a big development with Austin Rivers throughout the 2016-17 season, and it’s something that you can see him building on. Not everyone grasps the game right out of college, and Rivers has taken a few years to learn the intricacies. Playing alongside veterans such as Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Raymond Felton, and Jamal Crawford, and even Pablo Prigioni last season, has helped Rivers’ learning curve. If he was anywhere else, he might have faded out.

Lastly, we see Rivers dribbling the ball up the court as we near the eight minute mark of the third quarter. As he crosses half court, the primary defender on him is Tony Allen. There’s one thing Allen is known for, and it’s not his offense. This is a premier defender going one-on-one with Rivers. As Allen greets him on the wing, Rivers goes with a left-to-right between-the-legs crossover to get Allen rocking one way. He then crosses back to his left and flies by Allen. There was nothing Tony could do here. Rivers has Allen beat, James Ennis attempts to come over and contest, but Rivers flips the ball off the backboard for the bucket.

This was a good defense that Rivers torched that night. Presently, the Memphis Grizzlies are fourth in Defensive Efficiency. Prior to that game, however, the Grizzlies were the best defensive team in basketball – and it didn’t matter. Rivers abused them all night to the tune of 7-of-11 shooting inside 8 feet. That ability to drive the ball to the rim is probably his best asset, and the fact he’s added a spot-up game to go with it is a nice luxury that the Clippers have right now.

SEASON Points Per Possession EFG% Percentile
2016-17 1.01 52.2% 78.8
2015-16 0.81 34.2% 51.2
SEASON Points Per Possession EFG% Percentile
2016-17 0.90 47.3% 71.4
2015-16 0.85 46.4% 71.0
SEASON Points Per Possession EFG% Percentile
2016-17 1.32 66.7% 96.5
2015-16 1.02 54.3% 67.8
SEASON Points Per Possession EFG% Percentile
2016-17 0.89 50.0% 49.4
2015-16 0.74 38.9% 29.7

Those are the four major areas of his offensive repertoire, at least based on usage, this season. He didn’t really qualify in the other areas. Either way, look at the statistics here. He’s upped his points per possession in all four areas, and three of the four are by a wide margin. The most notable one here is obviously spot-up shooting, and we’ve already gone over that. The other two important ones, at least for him, are isolation and pick-and-roll ball-handler since he’s asked to create some of the offense when he’s on the floor for Los Angeles.

According to the NBA’s Player Tracking data, Austin Rivers has had 235 drives to the rim. A drive is classified as “any touch that starts at least 20 feet of the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks.” On those 235 drives, he has shot 48.6 percent from the field. He’s also racked up 14 assists on those drives while drawing 31 foul calls. But, most noticeably, look at his progression on that front over the last four seasons.

SEASON Drives Per Minute (Drives÷Minutes) FG% PTS% PASS%
2016-17 0.225 48.6% 75.7% 22.1%
2015-16 0.163 47.4% 81.1% 17.6%
2014-15 0.194 45.9% 74.3% 18.8%
2013-14 0.284 42.3% 73.2% 14.5%

On the surface, the first thing you’ll likely notice is that his field goal percentage has gone up on drives every single season. The second thing you might notice is that he’s currently in the midst of his second-best season when it comes to drives per minute. While his points percentage is down from the career-high level he was at least season, he’s passing the ball a lot more now on drives than he did in any of the previous three campaigns – and that should count for something. Last season, Rivers only tallied nine assists all season on drives. This season, however, he’s already up to 14 such assists.

There are two things offensively that Rivers must continue to excel at in order to continue making a positive contribution on that end of the floor. Those two things are drive the ball to the rim while looking for the most optimal shot and hit the spot-up threes that he’s surely going to get playing alongside the wealth of talent that the Clippers have. Combined with his defensive ability, that will invariably hone Rivers into a player that Los Angeles can continue to count on throughout the season and the postseason.

The truth with Austin Rivers is that a lot of people are going to continue cracking jokes about him, and that’s fine by him. He doesn’t really care. His father, Doc Rivers, will continue to get questioned about why his son is even on the roster, and, like his son, he won’t really care, either. The only thing those two care about is Austin’s continual progression as a basketball player and his ability to help the team in whatever capacity that he can. All the other stuff is just for us to discuss.

Whenever there’s a nationally televised game, basketball twitter will make fun of him and say whatever they say. Meanwhile, on the court, Rivers will be doing his job of suffocating opposing ball-handlers and scorers while also knocking down the occasional three and trotting to the rim thanks to his crossover. It’s what he does, and it’s what he’ll continue to do. He’ll block out the noise – or the “haters,” as he calls them – and continue about his day.

Austin Rivers doesn’t need you to like him, he doesn’t need me to defend him, and he doesn’t care about a lot of the pedantic things that roam the wild internet about him. At the root of everything, he’s a guard on a good team that’s finding himself as a player and person. At the end of the day, he’ll know that he gave it his all and helped the team. In his words, “I can only be myself.” Himself is good enough. It’s been good enough for a while now, but the leap he’s made has made himself better. That’s the Austin Rivers that has mystified the path everyone else laid out for him and torn off the bonds of potential basketball exile.

The stats listed are as of games played on Sunday, January 15.