Scoring used to come so naturally to Austin Rivers.
Relying on quickness, shooting touch and a treasure trove of natural ability, the third-year New Orleans Pelicans guard spent most of his life shaking defenders off the dribble, coasting to the rim and smoothly finishing.
It’s an attribute Rivers is desperately trying to regain. He spent a rigorous summer in gyms and weight rooms across the country on a mission to get it back.
“It’s important that I can rely on scoring when I get into the paint,” he said. “I had a very specific goal in mind, and I needed to accomplish it so I could become the kind of player I’m capable of.”
After successfully shedding contact on several drives and making five of his eight shots (en route to 12 points) in the Pelicans’ preseason-opening 98-86 victory over Miami on Saturday in Louisville, Kentucky, he’s hoping to continue the trend at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Atlanta Hawks.
Finishing at the rim is what made Rivers one of the nation’s most-coveted high school prospects in 2011 and it’s why, a year later, New Orleans used the No. 10 selection in the NBA draft to select him out of Duke.
Suddenly, it all changed.
In Rivers’ first day in an NBA uniform, he recalls floating to the rim with ease — only to be greeted by a bump in mid-air, which careened him out of the paint as the ball got swatted to the other end of the court.
His rookie season was emblematic of the struggle. Before breaking his hand in March 2012, he posted one of the least efficient seasons in league history.
“My rookie year felt like nothing but going to the rim and getting my shot blocked,” he said. “If my rookie year was anything, it was a learning experience. If I played myself from my rookie year now, I would probably win like 100 times in a row — like 20-0.”
Noticeable signs of improvement last year were under the radar but evident. Rivers’ scoring, assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting percentages increased despite a slight dip in minutes. Still, when he beat his man off the dribble and found a seam to the basket, that formerly dependable scoring option remained unreliable.
Rivers shot just 48.6 percent at the rim in his second season, ranking 116th out of 119 guards who attempted at least 75 shots in the area, according to NBA.com. He also wasn’t deferring into a playmaker, only assisting on 19.3 percent of the Pelicans’ field goals while he was on the floor.
Something had to give, so Rivers set out to change it.
The first step was to add strength. Rivers followed a meticulous offseason diet and weightlifting program to add 12 pounds of muscle in his upper body.
He worked with trainers in Florida, California and Texas to develop toughness and specific motion skills while shooting for hours each day to acclimate himself to his newfound strength.
“Most people in the summer just kind of enjoy themselves and play pickup (games), but I really didn’t have that option because there was so much I needed to improve on,” Rivers said. “I would basically lift, get shots in, work out with a few different people, eat right and hang out with my family. Then I’d usually go back at night and get more shots in. It was very rigorous, and every day was the same thing.
“It was strategic. I felt like that consistency would make me better, and I had a main focus because I know this is a big year for the team and for myself.”
Losing himself in preparation and routine also served as a welcome distraction.
Not only was Rivers the most publicized piece in potential Pelicans trades that didn’t come to fruition, his family was an unwitting centerpiece in one of the most newsworthy scandals in NBA history. Rivers’ father, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, became the spokesman of a franchise embroiled in chaos following the racist remarks of owner Donald Sterling.
Doc Rivers was thrust into a leadership position for not only his team but sometimes his entire race, representing the franchise as Sterling was forced to sell the team to Steve Ballmer. His son watched with pride as the coach expertly navigated a set of tense circumstances no other coach had to deal with.
“It was a messy situation,” Austin Rivers said. “It was a tough situation, and if anybody could have dealt with it, I knew my dad would do it fine.”
The noise surrounding the Rivers family has calmed following Ballmer’s purchase. Now it’s Austin who wants to be the one grabbing headlines.
It starts with that seam to the basket and whether the possession ends up in a turnover or a bucket. That will determine whether this summer’s work was worth it.
“You can just look at Austin and see what he’s done this offseason,” Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps said. “We are looking forward to see him bring what he worked so hard for onto the court.”