Austin Reaves had to pinch himself during Tuesday night’s game against the Warriors.
The undrafted rookie, in just his second week of on-court action in the NBA, found himself on the floor alongside LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis and Carmelo Anthony, four players he grew up watching as a kid.
“It’s crazy,” Reaves said at shootaround on Wednesday. “For them to trust me enough to look for me and give me opportunities to make plays is special and it just boosts my confidence even more.”
It was the latest milestone moment for Reaves, whose ascension from two-way signee to playing alongside NBA legends has been rapid — if not also warranted — during the Lakers training camp and preseason. Before the preseason, before the team’s minicamp in Las Vegas and even before Summer League, though, Reaves had already picked up an important first fan.
“I watched a lot of film on him when we drafted him, actually. I knew right away that he could be an NBA player and play at this level,” LeBron James said after Tuesday’s game. “His size, his shot-making ability, his pick-and-roll play, his passing, a high IQ kid and he’s got a lot of dog in him, too, that translates to our game.”
Then on a two-way deal, Reaves joined the Lakers in Las Vegas prior to the start of training camp and it was there he proved his talent. His play led James to believe he could “play at a high level” — as he said on Tuesday — and it led the Lakers to sign him to a guaranteed contract, taking up one of their two final roster spots.
All that preceded a preseason in which he’s shown out despite being amidst a crowded backcourt. As injuries have mounted, though, Reaves has gone from garbage time minute-eater to a part of a lineup littered with Hall of Famers.
“You come to work every day just expecting to have an opportunity and then with the guys out injured, you get more of an opportunity,” Reaves said after shootaround on Wednesday. “I feel like I’ve done well just trying to be at the right place at the right time and make good basketball plays and play a winning brand of basketball.”
Again, it's the little things for Reaves (and young players in general) that makes you intrigued.— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) October 13, 2021
Here he receives the skip pass from LeBron and immediately notices the strong position Dwight has (physically) carved out. The whip pass is right on the money. pic.twitter.com/6r2jYEOJUf
Tuesday served as the culmination of a strong string of performances in games and in practice paired with an opportunity made available due to injuries to Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn, Talen Horton-Tucker and Wayne Ellington that left the Lakers suddenly thin on the wing.
Reaves took full advantage of the moment, playing 27 minutes — his most this preseason — while scoring 10 points with three assists and two steals. Four of those minutes came alongside the Lakers’ new Big Three, a sign of both his strong play and the trust he’s gained from the coaching staff.
“Well with that preface for a young player getting his first taste,” Frank Vogel said on Wednesday, “he’s played exceptionally well to the point where we trust him to be in there, to be in the right spot, to make the right decision with the basketball, take the right shots, make the right plays. He’s had a great preseason. Obviously, we have a lot of depth at that position. That doesn’t necessarily mean he will be in there but he’s played well and has earned a lot of our trust.”
That trust hasn’t been earned solely through on-court work, but in Reaves’ eagerness to learn. Prior to Tuesday’s game, Rajon Rondo revealed that Reaves is constantly asking him questions during practices, shootarounds and film sessions.
“I mean today at shootaround he was asking about a situation where a guy is coming off a pin-down, does he top lock?” Rondo said. “And I was telling him that we don’t do that here, but it was a great question, obviously, coming from (a rookie). He’s got a great background as far as knowing the game, because that’s what you normally do with shooters is top lock, but on our team, with our personnel, with what Coach Frank wants from us, that’s not what we do here.”
One of the only things Reaves has done more than ask questions from Rondo? Take shots to the face during practice.
“He’s been hit in the face more than any rookie in the league I’m sure,” Rondo said. “We’ve got to get him a facemask and mouthpiece soon, but like I said, he’s just fearless, man. He plays the right way. Obviously, he’s a knock-down shooter and he’s always just asking me questions, he sits next to me on the bench, he talks to Coach Phil (Handy) and Coach Mike Penberthy, so he’s obviously a sponge and student of the game, and I think that’s going to be great for his development and his future.”
Reaves has relished the opportunity to play for the Lakers, a situation he reportedly turned down the chance to be drafted to join. With veterans surrounding him, Reaves has taken the chance to learn as much as he can, starting with Rondo.
“It’s Rondo and everybody knows the pedigree he has, the foundation that he’s set,” Reaves said. “He’s looked at as one of the highest basketball IQs in the game. Really, just having him on the team and just someone that I can, literally, just ask questions to all the time is a big help for me. I just want to be a sponge in those types of situations. It’s not just him. I ask coach questions, LeBron questions, I go down the line. I just want to learn and, like I said, be a sponge and take everything in.”
In taking everything in and applying it on the court, Reaves has turned heads. He would be the latest in a long run of hits for the Lakers scouting department, ranging from Talen Horton-Tucker to Alex Caruso to Ivica Zubac, among many, many others. If his ascension continues, he could be another valuable young prospect — whether for a trade or to build toward the future with — for a Lakers team without many.
And it will certainly lead to more “pinch yourself” moments for Reaves this season.