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Why Austin Reaves is a plus-minus God

Austin Reaves’ Carusoian brand of intermediary playmaking is just what the LeBron-era Lakers need to thrive.

Memphis Grizzlies v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Watching Austin Reaves play a significant role for the Los Angeles Lakers is, in a word: surprising. Not only is it jarring to see the undrafted rookie on the floor for major minutes and crunch time so early in the season, but it’s also especially shocking to see him do so with such poise, and at times, even gall.

Consider Reaves’ first NBA shot and make. Catching the ball behind the 3-point line in the left corner, Reaves knifed his way into the lane before pulling up and lofting a short fadeaway over three-time champion and Olympic Gold Medalist JaVale McGee’s outstretched arms.

Not only is the touch displayed on the first highlight in the reel above impressive in its own right, but even more staggering is the apparent confidence underscoring the attempt itself, especially considering the fact it came less than 60 seconds into his NBA career.

Through his first 42 regular-season minutes, Austin Reaves looked like a plus/minus monster, especially when positioned next to LeBron James. In Reaves’ first two games, both of which LeBron played in, the Lakers outscored the Suns and Grizzlies by a combined 35 points. Across those two contests, Reaves’ lineups with LeBron generated a massively positive net rating of 45.4 points per 100 possessions.

This synergistic relationship is reminiscent of the one James shared with Reaves’ undrafted backcourt predecessor, Alex Caruso. Minutes away from LeBron and against opposing starters have put a dent in his on/off splits. Without LeBron, lineups featuring Reaves have lost by 9.7 points per 100 possessions. This drop-off is indicative of Reaves’ limitations when surrounded by a weaker cast. He’s not a dynamite scorer or playmaker prospect, he merely, in the parlance of our own Alex Regla, “fills in the gaps.”

While Reaves, like Caruso, may be incapable of creating an advantage against a set defense of superior athletes (at least for now), he has proven extremely comfortable at keeping an already compromised one on its heels by maintaining the offensive advantage derived by one of his superior teammates.

This level of feel as an intermediary playmaker is relatively uncommon among NBA players, and especially difficult to scout beforehand. Most NBA prospects play central roles for their pre-NBA teams, either starting or finishing plays, making it somewhat difficult to project exactly how they’ll look in a minimized role as a tangential piece. Alternatively, Reaves has instantly shined as someone who can exponentially increase the defense-bending powers of the Lakers’ other superstars. Even if he can’t create such advantages on his own, through four games, Reaves looks like one of the Lakers’ more valuable assets precisely due to his ability to slot directly into that role.

This willingness to commit to his own strengths while playing within himself has translated into winning basketball, a truth so evident that his star teammates have begun to take notice of the unheralded rookie’s uncommon composure. Despite lacking the explosive athleticism of some of his new peers, Reaves appears undeterred by the speed of the NBA game, maintaining an even keel rhythm to his game at all times, even under pressure.

Instead of rushing or passing out of this three, Reaves waits to bait Lonnie Walker IV with a pump fake, then seizes the open space with a one-dribble pull-up jumper that he drills from above the 3-point line. Nothing is forced, but nothing is unnecessarily ceded either, as Reaves takes exactly what the defense gives him. Far too many times last season the Lakers struggled to score as Dennis Schröder forced drives into traffic, or the beloved Caruso passed up open looks from beyond the arc. Reaves scarcely veers outside of a happy medium between overzealousness and passivity.

His relaxed playmaking isn’t limited to scoring opportunities for himself, either. Reaves has also displayed fantastic court awareness in finding open looks for his teammates.

Before even receiving the ball from Russell Westbrook, Reaves can see Dwight Howard careering towards an unprotected basket. However, Tyus Jones is still stationed on Westbrook, who just drove his way to the left elbow, and De’Anthony Melton is a step away from Reaves on the opposite elbow. Forcing a pass at this point to Dwight might work, but the window to do so is narrow, as is the scoring opportunity it would generate for Dwight.

Instead, Reaves takes his time to manipulate the defense, already slightly scrambled from Westbrook’s drive. Holding the ball for a moment, Reaves allows Russ to vacate the paint and bring Jones with him before faking a bounce pass, getting Melton and Zaire Williams to commit to guarding the passing lane. This action leaves Dwight completely alone in the paint with his man sealed behind him underneath the basket. For his final flourish, Reaves fires off a lefty one-handed bullet past the contesting Melton and squarely into Dwight’s extended right hand.

Further, his sneakily impactful defense has impressed in spite of his diminutive build and negative wingspan. His short strides and quick feet allow him to play faster on defense than he actually is, changing direction almost as fast as he can think to do so. He’s proven competent as both an on-ball disruptor and shot deterrent, including this fantastic backdoor contest which led to arguably the team’s top highlight of the season so far.

To blossom into something truly special, Reaves will need to put on some poundage as he enters his mid-20s, just like Caruso has. At about 6’5, 200 pounds, Reaves is tall enough to match up against opposing backcourts, but lacks the density to contain, shoot over, or blow by bigger wings. At his peak, Reaves’ comfort on an NBA court could lead to something like Joe Ingles-lite production. Reaves himself has actually brought up Ingles twice, and as early as this past June, as someone he aspires to emulate on the court, specifically citing Ingles’ “awkward brand of basketball,” and ability to “play the game the right way.

Like Ingles, Reaves could turn his unconventional athleticism, high IQ, and shooting stroke into a career as one of the more productive role players in basketball. Ingles is an inch or two taller with a wingspan almost five inches longer, which certainly raises his ceiling, but Reaves has demonstrated a level of competence shockingly rare for any rookie, albeit a relatively old one (Reaves turned 23 in May).

If Reaves can enhance his physique and handle, the Lakers may have something special in their backcourt of the somewhat distant future between him and Talen Horton-Tucker. But even if he’s nothing more than the playmaking connector he’s proven to be on both ends, well, then that’s still a pretty darn useful player, especially sidled next to the boatload of talent the team already has.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.