If there was a singular word to describe Austin Reaves’ game — and Austin Reaves — it’s probably surprise.
His knack for doing the unexpected is something that the Arkansas native has spent nearly his entire life showcasing. Whether it’s only pursuing a basketball career after some chiding from his older brother, or debunking the assumptions that come with his lanky frame and stigma of being an undrafted player, Reaves has always defied expectations.
“Every time he has the ball he does something awesome,” his Cedar Ridge High School teammate Zack Powell said of Reaves back in 2016. “You’ve just got to watch him. There’s always something new he comes up with to surprise everybody.”
Even now, as an official member of the Los Angeles Lakers, turning heads is something Reaves has continued to do.
Perhaps it’s because there are easily moments during a game where he should feel out of place, but isn't. He has good size for his position, but probably shouldn’t be labeled as strong. He can dunk, but is not an above-average athlete, either. And although he could easily be pigeonholed as a shooter, he only made 34% of his 3-point attempts behind the college line.
Despite this, and even when he has shared the floor next to a slew of future hall-of-famers this preseason, the 23-year-old undrafted rookie has continued to surprise by making himself the story. Not because of one or two outwardly flashy plays — the way most rookies make a name for themselves — but because he belongs.
“He has done enough to earn my trust. I can say that much. I feel good about everything he does out there,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said of Reaves, who scored 5 points, pulled down 5 rebounds and dished out a team-high 7 assists in the Lakers’ final preseason game.
And although it would have been hard to believe before camp began, it’s not difficult to see why Reaves has immediately earned the trust of Vogel and the rest of the team when he’s played. It’s mainly because of his ability to serve as a connector. An electric current that flows between his star teammates, impacts the game and more importantly, does not get in the way. Skills that are rightfully beloved by a coaching staff, but are also a rarity in young players.
Take the play below, for example:
When Reaves receives the hit-ahead pass from LeBron James in transition, he’s faced with a decision, a choice that he has to make on the move, and with actual NBA players storming his way. The likely route a player would take in this scenario, especially a young one, is to attack and look to score. But that’s not what Reaves does, because it’s not the right play.
With the initial advantage lost in the team’s early offense, the guard simply resets with a behind the back dribble that sends Moe Harkless flying. The move draws a chorus of ‘oohs-and-ahhs’ from the road crowd, and also allows him to find James for a free-throw line jumper.
The almost perfect embodiment of one of John Wooden’s most famous lines — “be quick, but don't hurry” — Reaves simply allows the game to come to him, and takes the opportunities that are bound to present themselves like a fisherman waiting for an eventual snag. It’s an approach that has already helped win over the fanbase, and his star teammates.
“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,” James said following the team’s recent game. “His size, his shot-making ability, his pick-and-roll play, his passing. (He’s) a high IQ kid and he’s got a lot of dog in him, too, that translates to our game.”
Beyond earning the praise of a player of James’ ilk, the sheer versatility that Reaves has shown early on illustrates his ability to do whatever the team asks of him. It is Reaves’ effectiveness in checking off boxes, on both ends of the floor, that make him such an appealing plug-and-play option in nearly every lineup.
Despite still navigating and getting tripped up by the expected pitfalls of a young player on defense, Reaves has also shown to not be a liability, and has even helped curve the flatness that typically comes on that end during the preseason.
Granted, Nemanja Bjelica isn't the lightest of foot or best iso player, but I liked the technique Austin Reaves showed here on this possession— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) October 13, 2021
He meets him at his spots, absorbs contact, keeps his hands vetical/out of cookie jar until Bjelica exposes the ball then Reaves strikes pic.twitter.com/x9ZiNzUB74
For a team that lost considerable perimeter defensive talent in the offseason, Reaves proving he could be a reliable cog within the coaching staff's system could go a long way in helping his case for rotation minutes.
On offense, beyond helping serve as a secondary creator on the floor, Reaves has also surprisingly been allotted the chance run primary pick and roll, even with the likes of James and Russell Westbrook sharing the court with him.
Impressively, he has also done this well, with his trademark zen-like composure, his patented behind-the-back dribble and a handy loft pass that sails over defenders to the awaiting hands of his teammates.
Although he will likely never be the first option on the team when the games start to count, his skill on-ball adds an extra dimension to his game that defenses will be forced to take note of.
In terms of what Reaves will likely be tasked with doing every night — beside playing hard and competing on defense — he will likely be required to make his open looks from deep if he’s going to play. That’s an area Vogel admitted was initially “a concern,” but is happy with the strides Reaves has shown in camp.
Although he ended up shooting just a whisker below 35% from beyond the arc during exhibition play, there is some context missing as many of his attempts were either off the dribble, in motion or from way downtown.
So even if the raw numbers didn’t jump off the page, the confidence he showed in his stroke, and the ability to create his own shots have to be positive developments for his playing odds.
Even with Reaves’ strong play during the preseason, determining what his eventual role will be with the team once the games start to count is still murky. After a summer that saw a deluge of guards fill out the roster, veteran ones at that, it’s in no way a lock the rookie will be given the nod with any frequency. At least not yet.
However, as the team has already seen when it comes to injuries, there will likely always be an opportunity for someone to snatch minutes. Especially if they play hard. Reaves has already made the most of the chance the team has afforded him, and shouldn't be counted out from doing the same when his number is called this year.
Because that is what Reaves has always done. He turns heads. He catches you off guard. He is the surprise.