NBA Draft Toolbox: Austin Rivers Leads Strong Duke Prospect List

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 12: The Duke Blue Devil's starting lineup cheers on the substitutes as they play against Presbyterian Blue Hose during an NCAA game in Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 12, 2011 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

In our first installment of the NBA Draft Toolbox, Jonathan Tjarks takes a look at Austin Rivers and his Duke teammates in the context of their NBA tools. How does Rivers translate at the pro level?

In projecting NCAA prospects into the NBA, the biggest problem is the lack of a universal framework like baseball's "five tool" system: hitting for average, hitting for power, speed (base-running), throwing ability and defensive ability.

But NBA players need some combination of five tools as well: shot-creating, defending a position, an outside shot, passing and rebounding. Here's a more in-depth look at this idea. However, very few elite young basketball players play consistent defense, so projecting defense is as much about physical tools as it is actual production.

With the entire college basketball world watching the Duke -- Michigan State last week to witness Coach K's record-breaking 903rd win, highly touted freshmen Austin Rivers laid an egg. He went 1-7 from the floor, forcing shots while dribbling with his head down and struggling to finish over the Spartans' athletic front-line.

Rivers needs to improve his shot selection, but a lot of his struggles come from his role on this Duke team. The Blue Devils returned a host of roleplayers after losing their three main shot-creators -- Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler -- to the NBA Draft.

The other two players in the Duke backcourt, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, don't have the athleticism to get into the paint and create shots off the dribble against bigger and faster defenders. Duke's two frontcourt starters, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly, are more comfortable finishing than creating for themselves, and neither is a consistent threat in the low post.

As a result, the Blue Devils run a lot of sets looking to create open looks for their shooters, but their offense can stagnate when playing athletic and fundamentally sound defenders like the ones at Michigan State and Kansas. While they overcame a similar problem to win a national title in 2009, they had a much bigger and tougher frontline who could dominate the offensive glass and give their shooters second chances, spearheaded by a massive seven-footer in Brian Zoubek and an athletic 6'8 forward in Lance Thomas.

This year, Coach K has no choice but to live with the mistakes of his extremely talented freshman, the only player on Duke's roster who can consistently get to the rim and create his own shot. Rivers, with an athletic 6'4 frame, an NBA skill set and a good outside jumper, could score at will in AAU ball, but he has to learn when he should and should not force shots at the college level.

If he stays two or three seasons in Durham, he could challenge for a National Player of the Year Award. He's certainly as talented as Jimmer Fredette, who learned how to pace himself offensively despite having a permanent green light at BYU. But for now, expect more growing pains.


6'4, 200 lbs., freshman shooting guard

  • Shot creation: Aggressive guard with a quick first step. A natural scorer who is very comfortable using a variety of NBA moves -- jab-step, knee-to-knee, crossover -- to create space for either a floater or a pull-up jumper. Excellent body control in the air allows him to draw fouls (5.7 free-throw attempts a game) and finish in the lane. Spends far too much time hunting for own shot instead of playing within flow of the offense. Shooting 43.4 percent from the floor, a number which should improve as comfort level with college game increases and Coach K explains the concept of a "bad shot".
  • Defense: Decent quickness but a classic "1.5": doesn't have size to guard NBA shooting guards or all-around athletic ability to guard NBA point guards.
  • Outside shot: Streaky shooter without much of a conscience, shooting 37.5 percent from three-point line and 65 percent from the free-throw line. Will need to be more consistent at the next level and avoid forcing so many tough shots.
  • Passing: Has the vision and size to make most passes in the lane, but primarily looks for own shot. Will never be a true point, but can create shots for others as decent assist average (2.1) shows.
  • Rebounding: Not the type of super-explosive athlete who can be a difference maker on the boards from the perimeter. Averaging only 2.4 a game.
  • Best case: With an improved outside shot and better shot selection, given freedom to create offense while playing in a defensive system that hides shortcomings -- Monta Ellis.
  • Worst case: An instant-offense 6th man who can shoot a team in and out of game in a hurry, but lacks overall floor game or defensive ability to be a front-line starter -- Marcus Thornton.


6'10, 235 lbs., junior power forward

  • Shot creation: Has a decent dribble-drive game for a big man and beginning to develop an extremely rudimentary low-post game. Not very comfortable creating offense and won't be asked to do it often on next level.
  • Defense: Extremely impressive athlete who plays way above the rim, can move feet on the perimeter and hold ground in the low post. Protects the rim reasonably well, averaging 1.4 blocks a game. Has physical ability to guard NBA power forwards, but lacks core strength to defend NBA centers.
  • Outside shot: A career 46.7 percent free throw shooter who doesn't look for to shoot from the perimeter. Likely a third big man in the NBA without a 15-20 foot jumper, as NBA teams need one of their big men to space the floor.
  • Passing: Surprisingly comfortable hitting cutters out of the high and low post, averaging 2.1 assists to 2.7 turnovers this season. Won't be able to draw double teams at the next level, but can at least be a factor in offensive sets with ball in hands.
  • Rebounding: Very active and will fight for rebounds out of zone. Cleans up boards for Blue Devils, averaging 10 a game this season. However, high center of gravity makes it hard to box out stouter opponents and establish good rebounding position.
  • Best case: A defensive difference maker at the power forward position who plays with a point guard who can take advantage of ability to finish at the rim -- Amir Johnson.
  • Worst case: Has trouble staying on floor due to a lack of an outside shot, but carves out spot in NBA as an energy big man off the bench -- Louis Amundson.


6'2, 180 lbs., junior combo guard

  • Shot creation: Very smart player who looks to create space for picture-perfect jump shot with head fakes and hesitation dribbles; doesn't need much room to shoot. Struggles to get into the lane due to a lack of athleticism, but does a good job of playing under control and using defenders' aggressiveness against them (4 free throw attempts a game).
  • Defense: Doesn't have footspeed to challenge NBA-caliber point guards and will need to be hid as much as possible at the next level in order to prevent a lay-up line at the rim.
  • Outside shot: Pure shooter with a smooth, consistent release who rarely misses open shots. Shooting 45.7 percent from beyond the arc at Duke and is an 82.8 percent career free throw shooter.
  • Passing: Great feel for the game and can lead the break, but inability to beat man off the dribble makes it hard to create shots for others, despite running point for the Blue Devils. Averaging 3.1 assists to 2.1 turnovers this season.
  • Rebounding: A smart player who uses positioning and high basketball IQ to rack up 3.3 rebounds a game this season. Unlikely to be as effective at the next level.
  • Best case: Given absolute freedom to jack-up threes at will, which forces defenders to play really tight and creates more passing angles -- Stephen Curry.
  • Worst case: A bench player due to lack of defensive ability, but can change the game with outside shooting -- Daniel Gibson.


6'11, 230 lbs., junior power forward

  • Shot creation: Uses threat of excellent three-point shot to create driving lanes and can shoot over the top of smaller defenders in the post, but will be primarily a spot-up shooter in the NBA.
  • Defense: A decent athlete, but a very weak interior defender who struggles with keeping guys from establishing position in the low block. Staying on floor will require a defensive juggling act at the next level.
  • Shooting: A pure outside shooter who has improved shooting percentages every season: a career 33 percent from the three-point line and 83.7 percent from the foul line. There are very few catch-and-shoot 6'11 guys who can curl off picks at three-point line.
  • Passing: Comfortable playing with the ball in the high and low post, but inability to beat man off dribble prevents from creating too many shots for others. Averaging 1.3 assists to 1.6 turnovers this season.
  • Rebounding: Floats on the perimeter and doesn't have strength to hold position on low block or athleticism to chase down out of area boards. Averaging only 4.6 rebounds a game this season.
  • Best case: A valuable offensive weapon due to ball-handling and shot-making ability at 6'11 who makes over $15 million in NBA career -- Brian Cook
  • Worst case: A 6'11 shooting specialist who cannot crack an NBA rotation due to inability to defend a position or rebound -- Steve Novak.


6'4, 200 lbs., junior shooting guard

  • Shot creation: An excellent shooter with a quick and smooth release, gets most shots off off-ball action and not the dribble.
  • Defense: A smart player who knows how to play fundamentally sound defense, but doesn't have top-end athleticism to stay in front of NBA-caliber shooting guards or length to challenge the release point of bigger guards like Tennessee's Cameron Tatum.
  • Outside shot: Squares up extremely quickly and can catch fire at any time: went 6-10 from the three-point line against Michigan State. A career 41.3 percent three-point shooter and 75.3 percent free-throw shooter.
  • Passing: Good ball-handling ability but lacks explosiveness to beat man off the dribble and create for others. Career 0.5 assist average.
  • Rebounding: Rarely ventures into the lane and lacks athleticism to be much of a force on the backboards, averaging only 1.5 boards in time in Durham.
  • Best case: A three-point specialist whose defense at the shooting guard position is adequate enough to carve out an NBA career -- Roger Mason.

Guys worth keeping an eye on down the road:

Miles Plumlee -- an athletic 6'10, 245-pound senior big man with a decent basketball IQ and a high motor, but doesn't have size to be an NBA center or skill level to be an NBA power forward. Seems destined for a career overseas, but if Josh Harrellson can be drafted on the strength of one game against Jared Sullinger in the NCAA Tournament, anything is possible.

Quinn Cook -- A 6'0, 175-pound McDonald's All-American point guard who plays under control and seems to have a good feel for running an offense. Not an elite athlete, but can get into the lane off the bounce. If Rivers continues to struggle with shot selection, Coach K might turn to his other freshman guard to get Duke's shooters the ball.

Marshall Plumlee -- A 6'11, 225-pound McDonald's All-American likely to red-shirt. Recruiting pedigree and bloodlines alone make the youngest Plumlee worth watching next season. 

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