Hornets Insider: Ballhandling Accelerated Rivers' Path to NBA

Austin Rivers

August 8, 2012

You could blame SportsCenter, YouTube or the once-widespread popularity of national streetball tours, but somewhere along the way, the original purpose of honing one’s ballhandling skills seemed to have gotten a bit lost in the translation. For many years, the NBA’s premier ballhanders didn’t work on their technique in order to appear on highlight shows or to embarrass defenders. They did it because they knew it would help make them better players – while helping their teams win more games.

Although New Orleans Hornets rookie Austin Rivers was still a teenager until his recent 20th birthday on Aug. 1, when the guard discusses why he’s spent so much time on that aspect of his game, he sounds more like a seasoned veteran than a first-year pro.

“I wouldn’t be here if didn’t have the ballhandling I have,” the 20-year-old succinctly explained of reaching the NBA after one year in college. “It makes you as a player.”

Austin Rivers

Austin Rivers

Among the infinite number of high school guards in America who aspire to become a professional basketball player someday, many have a frame and body type similar to that of the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Rivers. To separate one’s self from that cast of thousands, a player must possess some trait that makes him unique. For the Duke University product, ballhandling became his elite skill. Long before Rivers was chosen by New Orleans as the 10th overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, he committed himself to a precise practice regimen that focused heavily on mastering dribble moves. Three days per week throughout the year, he still spends at least 35 minutes working exclusively on ballhandling.

“I’ve been doing the same workout series since I was in seventh grade,” Rivers said. “I have my own series of drills. It’s been my main focus my whole life while working out. Obviously getting shots up is important too, and all the little things on offense too such as (practicing) floaters. But in order to succeed, and in order to get your own shot, you have to be able to get open, especially with the ball.”

While some players may not be thrilled about the idea of spending extensive time alone in a gym doing repetitive drills, Rivers says he’s always viewed it as a fun activity that would translate to games. His solo workouts consist partly of various dribble moves he executes over the length of the 94-foot court, including hesitations, between-the-legs, behind-the-backs, as well as incorporating two basketballs at the same time.

“When I do a good (ballhandling) series strong and quickly, I feel good about it,” explained the son of Boston Celtics head coach and former NBA point guard Doc Rivers. “For me it’s not like, ‘Aw man, I have to do my ballhandling today.’ I wake up and say, ‘Cool, I get to work on my moves.’

“That way when I am playing pickup or in a game and I make a good move, I feel even better about it because I will say to myself, ‘I just did that move in the gym two days ago.’

“As a player, when you know the time you’re putting in is working, it makes you feel really good.”

The operative word in Rivers’ comments is “time,” because as the Winter Park, Fla., native notes, a young basketball player cannot expect overnight results. It takes years of disciplined practice, including repetition of drills until they become second nature.

“You just can’t practice it for one week and then go in the game and start doing moves,” Rivers said. “You have to slowly build it in. But once it gets there, it’s just there. Even though I will keep doing it for the rest of my career, I could go three weeks without ballhandling (practice) and it’s still going to be there, because it’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.”

In addition to the influence of his famous father – a 13-year NBA veteran – Rivers credits a Florida AAU coach, Therion Joseph, for emphasizing the importance of being a proficient dribbler. Joseph was one of the first coaches to explain how the skill would make Rivers a more versatile player.

“When I was young, I was just a shooter,” Rivers remembered. “At 9 years old, I didn’t know much ballhandling. All I could do was shoot. But my coach e-mailed me every single day (as a reminder). It would be a long e-mail that only said ‘ballhandling, ballhandling, ballhandling, ballhandling.’

“I always watched the older guys and saw them make moves where people couldn’t guard them. That’s what I wanted to be. I grew up watching (Allen) Iverson and all these guys who could handle the ball. I wanted to do that.”

In October, Rivers will begin to test his skills against many of the NBA point guards he’s sometimes tried to mimic when he plays. Rivers expects to spend time at both shooting guard and point guard for the Hornets in his rookie season, but players such as Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook have helped make the two positions seem more interchangeable.

“Right now the players I respect and like watching play are guys like Tony Parker, just the way he can change speeds, slow down and then go,” Rivers described.

“He’s one of the main dudes I watch. Deron Williams is another guy. I take little pieces from them and try to incorporate them into my game. I also like the way Russell Westbrook is an attack-mode player. As much as people might criticize him, what he does is great. He could have 31 points one game, but then the next game he’ll have 10 assists.

“If you look at all of the best point guards in the NBA, they’re all attacking point guards. Deron Williams, he scores and gets assists. Derrick Rose and Tony Parker are scoring point guards. Chris Paul is a scoring point guard – no matter how much he dribbles, he still (averages) 20 points. That’s just the way it is these days. That’s something I want to build up to and be able to do.”