Last season Austin Rivers took a step forward in every aspect of the game, all the way up to “almost serviceable backup guard.” That may sound a little harsh, but watching Rivers play his rookie year two seasons ago was harsh. Last season his finishing at the rim got better (but still needs work), he became good at catch-and-shoot threes, his defense improved (but needs work), even his free throw shooting got better (although, shockingly, it still needs work). He got thrust into more minutes when Jrue Holiday got hurt and Rivers by the end of the season became a guy you could play against the other team’s reserve guards and usually hold your own.
Now entering his third season, Rivers says he’s ready to make another leap.
Rivers has been healthy all off-season and said all the right things about taking the next step, speaking to John Reid at the Times Picayune.
”I was constantly working the entire summer,” Rivers said. ”I gained 10 pounds and I’ve got stronger in my upper body. This is my year….
”I’ve strictly worked on mid-range and getting my body stronger this summer,” Rivers said earlier this week. ”I’ve got both of those things and I’m ready to prove and show people that this year.’’
The midrange game is something that needed work, it’s a key reason Rivers had a well below league average true shooting percentage of .482 last season (missed free throws hurt here too). Rivers has a good first step to go with great handles, so he gets into space or to the rim well. His problem was he’d pull up for midrange shots and clank them, or he’d get to the rim and draw contact but wouldn’t finish (53 percent shooting inside 3 feet) or hit his free throws (63 percent). Getting stronger to absorb some contact would help, and he’s got to knock down the freebees.
Rivers needs to improve just to fight for his minutes. Holiday is back and healthy and he will be the starting point guard. Behind him it will be Rivers and Russ Smith battling for minutes, with Jimmer Fredette in the mix too. Last season Rivers got minutes at the two (about 21 percent of his playing time) but if Eric Gordon and veteran journeyman John Salmons stay healthy those minutes will dry up.
The bottom line is the Pelicans with Anthony Davis are poised to make a leap this season into playoff contention in the West (I think they can make it if any of the teams above them in the deep West slip a little). This is a team on the rise and if Rivers wants to be there for the ride the former No. 10 pick has to prove it now.
Rivers needs to establish himself as the backup point guard on this team because the Pelicans have decisions to make about what to do with him long term. In a couple years he could hit the market as a restricted free agent and if he wants a little security and bigger pay checks his game has got to take some more steps forward.