Austin Rivers Called on Cassell for Mid-Range Game

Rowan Kavner

IRVINE, Calif. – Austin Rivers was serious about working on his mid-range game this summer.

With a master of the art on the coaching staff, it only made sense to get in touch with assistant coach Sam Cassell, who flew out to Orlando and put Rivers to work.

“I’m talking about non-stop,” Rivers said. “Instead of working on everything, we worked on the things I wasn’t good at or the things that could take me to the next level, and that was the mid-range jump shot.”

With Cassell and assistant coach for player development J.P. Clark by his side, Rivers lifted, got stronger and worked almost exclusively on the mid-range game. That’s how Rivers spent his summer, and upon returning to Los Angeles, the same work continued.

“To his credit, he gave me all he got this whole summer,” Cassell said. “That’s just one of my guys. Doc (Rivers) asked me before we made the trade for Austin, like, ‘You can work with him, right?’ I was like, ‘My pleasure.’ One thing he needed is something I mastered when I played, a 15-foot jump shot with confidence.”

Austin Rivers had been all over the map in that regard during his career. He hit 38.9 percent of shots from 10 to 16 feet out as a rookie, but that number fell to 23.1 percent a year later and was at 27.5 percent last season.

His percentages were considerably better on shots from three to 10 feet away, getting up to a 41 percent mark on such shots last season. But the mid-range game needed work, and Austin Rivers knew the person he wanted by his side while he put it in. 

Cassell shot 45.4 percent from the floor during a 15-year NBA career that included three titles and an All-Star appearance. He was a mid-range master, shooting 48.2 percent on shots from 10 to 16 feet the final eight years of his career, when he’d perfected that part of his game.

Austin Rivers wanted Cassell to push him, and he did. Rivers joked toward the end of training camp that he’s sick and tired of Cassell because he’s seen him so much.

Every time Rivers would make a shot at camp, he said Cassell would be there celebrating it. Rivers said it’s as if Cassell has been his personal coach, and a lot of that stems from their work together this summer.

“You focus for an hour, we go hard, no water breaks, we just go, straight focusing on mid-range,” Austin Rivers said. “I had to make a certain amount to get the next drill, this-out-of-this. It was just very, very competitive. What it did is it got me through that hump of me being comfortable with that shot, and now I feel I’ve mastered it.

“Now, it’s about perfecting it. That’s what Sam said. He said you’d make 10-of-11, you’ve mastered the mid-range shot, now it’s about perfecting it and putting it in the game. In pickup, I’d shoot and make it and I’m like, ‘Man, I’m really getting it. This mid-range is really coming along.’ It’s going to open up my game so much more, because when guys go off that screen, I’m going to take that shot.”

Austin Rivers said Cassell told him even if he misses the shot, defenders will have to respect the fact he’s shooting, which should allow him to get to the basket more often and create for teammates.

That’s where he thrived most during the playoffs, going 21-for-36 during a breakout postseason on shots from inside five feet last season. He said last year’s playoff experience helped everything click.

“Once it started clicking, it was over,” Austin Rivers said. “What I mean by it was over, you just start being who you are. That doesn’t mean you’re going to have 30-point games every night, but it just means you’re done thinking and making it more complicated.”

He’s making the game simpler, and Cassell can see the results.

“The day we got him to where he is now is like night and day,” Cassell said. “He doesn’t mind coming off and taking that 15-foot jump shot, because he has the confidence he can make it. It’s all the set-up. It’s all the speed into the shot.”

Austin Rivers has carried that to training camp, where Doc Rivers has said Austin is looking more like he did in the playoffs on a consistent basis.

“We believed that’s who he could be,” Doc Rivers said. “He just had to get there confidence-wise. I think he’s there now. He comes down and makes a shot or misses a shot, there’s no reaction anymore.”

Austin Rivers saw his field goal percentage last season go from 38.7 percent in 35 games with the Pelicans to 42.7 percent in 41 regular season games after the trade to the Clippers. During the playoffs, Austin Rivers only took 12 shots between 10 and 19 feet, but he hit five of them and shot 43.8 percent from the floor in his first postseason.

With an improved mid-range game, Cassell expects a good year from the guard he helped all summer.

“People will be surprised with Austin Rivers,” Cassell said.