Back at full strength, Rivers enters Year 2
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Pelicans.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
Among the many statistics NBA analysts used to critique and assess Austin Rivers’ rookie season, there was one that went largely unnoticed, but may have told a significant story. Despite playing 61 regular season games and logging 1,416 minutes in 2012-13, the New Orleans guard is believed to have had zero dunks.
While that may not be unusual for some floor-bound players, the high school standout and one-year Duke Blue Devil was recognized as a teenage phenom partly for his athleticism and explosiveness. As a first-year pro, however, Rivers played a decidedly below-the-rim game.
Like most players, the 20-year-old Rivers has been reluctant to place blame on injuries for his inconsistency as a rookie. Yet there is evidence that health may have curtailed some of his natural ability. As an Orlando-area high school senior in 2011, Rivers wowed fans in a dunk contest that was part of the McDonald’s All-American Game festivities. En route to a subpar shooting percentage on drives in the paint against NBA foes, Rivers rarely soared above defenders.
“This is my opinion, but he just wasn’t healthy most of the season,” said Pelicans assistant coach Dave Hanners, Rivers’ individual development coach on Monty Williams’ staff. “When you watch him this summer, he looks like he’s got his (previous strength in his) legs. He dunks the ball a lot. He wasn’t doing that last year. I think he had a lot of nagging injuries with his ankle and foot. I think he’s going to be a lot better by being healthier.”
“I got injured a lot last year,” conceded Rivers, whose debut ended with a broken right hand vs. the Lakers on March 6. “Through injuries, I was trying to find my groove. I found it, but then I got hurt again.”
If there was a silver lining to that season-ending break to his shooting hand, it was that the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder was forced to work on his left hand early in this offseason. As Rivers describes it, he was a full-time southpaw out of necessity.
“I had to do everything left-handed,” he said. “Eat, brush my teeth, work out. I’d work out with my left hand for an hour and a half a day, six days a week.”
Hanners’ two primary areas of emphasis with Rivers this summer have been shooting and improving that off hand. Defenses often shaded Rivers to drive left last season, knowing he wasn’t as comfortable penetrating in that direction. He also couldn’t fully capitalize on his effective drives into the lane, because he shot just 54.6 percent from the foul line.
“He’s great at getting to the basket,” Hanners said. “People have a hard time staying in front of him because he’s so quick. It actually helped him to break his hand, because he couldn’t use his right hand. Getting to the basket more with his left hand is a big focal point. We’re also working on his free throws and his routine, getting the ball up (with greater arc) and being consistent.”
New Orleans coaches also detected a flaw in Rivers’ perimeter shooting form, which included a tendency to fire on his way down from jumping. Ideally, a player should release the ball at the peak of his jump.
“Most of it is rhythm,” Hanners said of a fundamental key to shooting consistently. “A big part of (Rivers’ rhythm last season) could be injuries. You have to have great rhythm in your shooting. He had a little bit of that, where he was shooting on the way down. But again, I think if he’s injury-free and has a chance to work on his shooting routines, he’s going to be a lot different this year.”
It’s often said that NBA players make their biggest strides on the court, both physically and mentally, during the summer before their second seasons. A year after entering the league as a 19-year-old, Rivers believes the mental adjustment was one of the toughest aspects of transitioning to the NBA game.
“There are so many things I could tell you I learned last season that this interview could be an hour just on that,” he said as he prepared for Friday’s summer league opener vs. New York. “But if there was one thing I could point to, it would be the pace I play with. Everyone saw how quick I am last year, but I’m easy to guard if I go 100 miles per hour all the time, falling to the ground all the time. Part of that was my confidence – I felt like I wanted to take on the world. But that’s not how it works at this level. I learned the hard way. But sometimes you’ve got to fail to get better. That’s what happened. I feel like this season I want to turn people’s heads. That’s what I’m focused on right now.”