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Austin Reaves has earned a spot in the Lakers’ rotation

Against the Thunder on Friday, Austin Reaves reminded the Lakers why he absolutely has to be in the mix every night.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Before his hamstring injury in early November, Reaves had shown the type of plug-and-play potential that could make him the Lakers’ best two-way role player, despite his status as an undrafted rookie on a roster laden with vets in the twilight of Hall of Fame careers. Nonetheless, he was averaging more than 20 minutes per game, held the highest plus/minus of any player on the Lakers, and was a regular member of the team’s closing lineup in the games leading up to his injury.

Since his initial clearance after a more than two-week hiatus due to a hamstring strain, it seemed as though Reaves might be on the outside of the Lakers’ rotation looking in, especially as the team’s other, more experienced backcourt players started to hit their strides. Malik Monk is averaging a career-high in minutes and has cleared 20 points in three of his past seven games. Wayne Ellington has made almost half (45.5%) of his threes over that same stretch. Avery Bradley has started each of his last 19 games, and just scored more points against the Thunder (22) than he had since three days before Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID test halted the NBA in 2020.

In the six games he’s been available since being cleared from injury, Reaves received two DNPs and averaged just 9.1 minutes per game in the four contests he did appear in. However, his outstanding, extended run in Friday’s contest against the Thunder seems to have cemented his return to the regular rotation.

After the game, Frank Vogel said that he wanted to reward the guys who had played well against the Celtics in the next game vs. Memphis, but the loss opened up some room for Reaves to re-enter the picture after struggling to reacclimatize himself to NBA basketball upon his initial return from the hamstring injury.

“He was spectacular tonight, and he had obviously some really positive stretches early in the season before he got injured,” Vogel said after the Lakers’ victory over the Thunder on Friday. “Since he’s come back, we’ve been looking for opportunities to get him back in the fold, and he’s looked like he’s still a player coming back from injury in his first couple of games back, until tonight.

“Tonight is where you see what he’s capable of and what he does on both sides of the ball,” Vogel continued. “That’s the performance I was looking for from him to have confidence that he’s back from injury and to continue to give him a bigger role.”

Given that his career-high 13 points were just third on the team and he failed to record a single steal or block, a cursory glance at a box score might leave some who missed out on the action scratching their heads as to why the Lakers are in love with this 23-year-old Arkansan. So what exactly did Reaves do to earn such high praise from both his head coach and the affections of what seems like the entirety of Lakers Twitter?

Offensively, Reaves reasserted his comfortability in being the kind of secondary playmaker capable of maintaining the advantage generated by the Lakers’ superior penetrators. Below, he sets an outstandingly firm screen for LeBron, whose behind-the-back pass to the popping Reaves gets Josh Giddey scrambling. Reaves’ ensuing up-fake prevents Giddey from pumping the breaks in time, and a dribble into the lane gets Darius Bazley to commit to his drive. Reaves swings to Westbrook, who luckily gets Kenrich Williams to choose the greater of two evils, allowing a wide open look from the corner to Carmelo Anthony (who has made over 50% more threes than any other Laker this season).

Two more times against the Thunder, Reaves caught the ball on the right side of the floor with an opportunity to attack a closeout, and twice more he leveraged that chance into an open shot. On these, however, Reaves proved just as capable of finishing off the play himself if the help never comes like it did in the play above.

What Reaves lacks in physical explosiveness, he more than makes up for in feel and decisiveness. Because of his balance and hyper-quick ability to read and react to a defender’s (and defense’s) movements, he never seems to commit to any particular move before the play happens. Many, if not most, NBA players, and especially rookies, lack the wherewithal to attack off the dribble without predetermining exactly what they are going to do. So far, Austin has successfully balanced on the razor’s edge between anticipation and predetermination.

For example, Jalen Green’s high-end quickness, speed, and shooting versatility made him a completely reasonable selection with the second pick in the most recent NBA Draft, but he’s had trouble physically outclassing defenses built around NBA-level athletes in getting to and scoring at the rim. Therefore, he’s less often able to get away with predetermining his attack, especially when his breakneck pace makes everything happen faster than even he can process it.

Although Green is undoubtedly one of the fastest players in the NBA, his on-ball creation is limited by his poise, awareness, and creativity. Right now, he lacks the improvisational sauce (see, Kyrie) to make the most of the physical gifts that serve as the scaffolding to support his sky-high potential. Of course, he’s two months away from turning 20, and will have plenty of chances to build out his game, but the blue chip prospect’s deficiencies shine a light on just how impressive Austin Reaves has been for a young player — regardless of his pre-draft stock.

Still, while Green’s talent is glaringly obvious to anyone who happens to watch him play for even a few minutes, Reaves’ contributions are subtler, which speaks to both the opportunity the Lakers had to sign him after the draft and their scouting department’s continually impressive knack for finding diamonds in the rough.

Reaves rarely looks rushed outside of his comfort zone, simply making the right read time and time again. Granted, his playmaking responsibilities are minuscule in comparison to Green’s, as he rarely has to go and create an advantage for himself, but he does tend to take all of what is made available to him. In this way, Reaves is one of the Lakers most equipped to find or become the Lakers’ best player not named LeBron on any given possession: The proverbial “Open Man.”

He has, however, shown fleeting moments of off-the-dribble self-creation skill strong enough to steal a decent end of shot clock look, or punish a big who has switched onto Reaves, well outside of their defensive comfort zone near the rim.

In Friday’s game, Reaves added a complementary move to one we’ve already seen a couple of times this season. Instead of spinning away from his defender to the right, Reaves hesitates, and then accelerates past his man with a lefty drive, getting the ball on the glass before Isaiah Roby can reach it, earning the basket via a goaltend.

These moments of ambidextrous improvisational ability as an offensive initiator could help Reaves build a deep bag of credible counters if he continues to increase his playmaking load as his physique and stature grow.

Reaves was also nearly as impactful to the Lakers’ defense as he was on offense, helping slow down the Thunder’s two main shot creators. Reaves did a great job helping deter or delay driving opponents, boxing out potential offensive rebounders, or going up and grabbing them himself (he finished with five on the evening). Although the Thunder ended up making a corner three on this possession, Reaves did almost all of the above, holding his own against a faster opponent on the perimeter (Mann), and a bigger one in the paint (Williams).

Reaves’ awesome balance and instincts allow for reflexive reactions and optimal positioning, holding his ground despite often lacking the athletic oomph of his opponent. Also, as fresh meat in the league, Reaves is willing to do the dirty work his elder statesmen teammates often aren’t (especially at this point in the season), bringing a zest to the team’s far too often lackluster defensive effort.

Altogether, Reaves’ ability to complement the superstars around him on both ends of the floor has made him a central part of many of the Lakers’ best lineups this season. So far, the gap in production between when Reaves plays or sits is the largest of any Laker (+12.3 points per 100 possessions), stemming from a better-than 75th percentile offensive and defensive ratings.

Only Frank Vogel truly knows where Austin stands amongst the Lakers’ various guards, and where he projects to end up by the time the playoffs come around. Still, his ability to accentuate the talents of the Lakers’ shot-creating superstars in LeBron James and Russell Westbrook gives him a strong case for major minutes on a nightly basis. And given Vogel’s recent pronouncement of faith in his only rostered rookie, Austin Reaves’ previously paused glow up may now continue.

All quotes obtained firsthand. 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.