Name: Austin Rivers
Weight: 200 lbs
Experience: 4 years
Key Stats: 8.9/1.5/1.9 with 0.7 steals per game in 21.9 minutes per game. Shot 43.8/33.5/68.1 from the field, attempted 2.8 threes and 1.7 free throws a game.
Contract Status: Austin signed a 3-year deal with the Clippers this summer worth $35 million total. The third year is worth a bit more than the first two, and is a player option.
Breakdown: Austin Rivers has become a quality rotation player in the NBA. This fact is foreign or obscene to many people, who still think of Austin as the product of nepotism, remaining in the league only because of the grace of his father Doc. While being Doc’s son might have boosted his draft stock a bit (there’s no way he should have gone 10th in the stacked 2012 draft), he has proven enough to not only stay in the NBA, but to earn the money he is now making. Yes, his first couple seasons were really tough, but I give all the more credit to Austin for persevering and transforming his game.
The remarkable thing about Austin is that he has done a 180 degree turn from the player he was when he first came into the league. His brightest moment in college was hitting a buzzer beating three point shot to win a huge game against North Carolina, and his highest touted abilities were his handles and quickness going to the hoop. Austin has been a below average outside shooter in the NBA so far, and for a player as quick as he is, he rarely draws free throws. Instead, he has somehow become an excellent defensive player. And when I say excellent, I mean excellent.
Zach Lowe has a term for top of the line on-ball defenders: Mirror Guys (because they cover their opponents so well they may as well be a reflection). Austin Rivers is close to that level on defense—he’s almost as hard to shake as your shadow. You can run him through screens, set pin-downs for his man, try to put him in the pick and roll, do whatever. It won’t work. Austin’s size enables him to defend most guards all over the court, and he usually draws the toughest perimeter assignment when playing (unless he is alongside Luc Mbah a Moute). Players he was guarding shot 39.2% on field goals last season, 4.7% below the league average. While defensive statistics like that aren’t a perfect science, his consistent holding of players under their regular shooting numbers affirms what the “eye test” tells one right away. Austin isn’t quite an All-NBA level defender, but he is really good on that end: quite a feat for someone who came to the NBA as a well below average defensive player.
Meanwhile, his offensive numbers improved drastically last season. Unsurprisingly, this coincided with his playing alongside other ball-handlers in Jamal Crawford and Pablo Prigioni, who were able to relieve him of primary playmaking duties. Because of this, and his increased comfort with a steady bench unit, Austin closed out the season extremely strong, upping his three point and free throw attempts by a significant percentage. He shot 42% from behind the arc after the All Star break, which is a small enough sample size that it could have just been a prolonged hot streak, but large enough to possibly signify a legitimate improvement in that area. Regardless, Austin posted by far the highest true shooting percentage of his career last season, and, at age 24, is still young enough to drastically improve.
Outlook for 2016-2017: Despite rumors of Austin starting at the small forward position, he is probably going to be in the same role he was in last year—a defensive stopper and secondary playmaker on the second unit. The addition of Raymond Felton means Austin will probably play even less point guard than last year, which should be a good thing. However, Doc has hinted at playing three guard lineups with Felton, Austin, and Jamal, with Austin presumably guarding the opposing small forward. While he might be able to exploit this matchup on offense, the size of most small forwards could punish him on the other end. It will be an interesting look if Doc decides to go that route, that’s for sure.
Much of the time, however, Austin is going to be playing around 20 minutes a game at either guard position. He is almost certainly going to be the best defensive player on the Clippers 2nd unit, which will pit him once more against the other team’s strongest perimeter threat. On offense, the additions of Marreese Speights and Brandon Bass --both of whom are good midrange shooters—should provide more spacing than Austin saw last year alongside two non-shooters in Prigioni and Cole Aldrich. Hopefully this space enables Austin to get more open looks from deep, and clears out the lane for drives to the rim. He probably won’t average many more points per game than he did last season, but expect his efficiency to go up.
Austin is perhaps the most consistently reliable player on the Clippers’ bench this season (Jamal is more dangerous, but streakier), and will need to play up to his contract if the Clippers want any chance of making a deep playoff run this year. That might sound ridiculous on the surface, but the Clippers are no longer a young team, and Austin is one of their only real avenues for improvement (outside of rookies Brice Johnson and Diamond Stone). Last year was his coming out party. Look for this season to be his consolidation effort.