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Austin Reaves, Joel Ayayi reportedly turned down chance to be drafted so they could sign two-way contracts with Lakers

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Instead of letting the whims of teams in the 2021 NBA Draft control their destiny, new Lakers two-way players Joel Ayayi and Austin Reaves are betting on themselves.

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The Los Angeles Lakers will have a pair of new players on two-way contracts this season, as Devontae Cacok and Kostas Antetokounmpo will no longer fill those roles after two years with the team. After the 2021 NBA Draft, the front office quickly added undrafted free agents Austin Reaves and Joel Ayayi, who were ranked by ESPN as the second and third-best undrafted players available.

But those two didn’t slip out of the draft because they don’t have talent. According to Sam Vecenie of The Athletic, both Reaves and Ayayi turned down the opportunity to get drafted in the second-round in order to choose their own destination:

Reaves signed with the Lakers on a two-way deal following the draft. Sources told The Athletic that Reaves turned down the ability to get drafted in order to pick his own spot after the draft. Ultimately, the Lakers were the most attractive option, and it’s easy to see why. Not only are they a contender, but they have a ton of open roster spots following the Russell Westbrook trade, and guys who enter the summer on a two-way are actually somewhat well-positioned to have a shot to make the roster due to luxury-tax concerns. I think my bold prediction is Reaves is on a full contract by midseason.

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Similarly to Reaves above, Ayayi turned down offers to be drafted in order to skate through the draft and choose his spot. And similarly to Reaves again, he chose the Lakers. Yeah, the Lakers did well by not even having a pick.

To that point, Vecenie had both Reaves (No. 32) and Ayayi (No. 51) among his top 60 players in this draft. It seems very likely — for Reaves especially — that they could have been drafted. So why would they ask not to be, and how would they control that? Let’s break it down.

For one thing, as Vecenie alluded to, going undrafted allows a player to pick where they want to play. For someone that thinks they’re going to make it in the league, that may be more valuable than getting selected by a team they aren’t sure of their fit with. And getting drafted in the second-round comes with no guarantees beyond a minimum contract, and teams often try to leverage second-round picks into signing cheap, three-year deals with very little guaranteed money as a chance to get more bang for their buck if a player pans out. Those second-rounders then head towards restricted free agency at the end of these deals, putting them under team control at a lower rate for even longer.

Contrastingly, if a player goes undrafted and signs a two-way deal, they not only get to choose a better situation for themselves, but they are also limited to a one or two-year deal (two-way contracts can’t be longer than two years). That allows two-way players to hit restricted free agency a year or two before most second-round picks do, albeit with less guaranteed money upfront. This is how Alex Caruso is hitting unrestricted free agency with the chance for a major payday just four years into his career: One two-year, two-way deal, and one two-year contract in restricted free agency. Now he is truly free to get paid as much as the market allows.

This season, two-way players will be paid half of the minimum salary for a player of their experience, while being limited to 50 regular season games. The cap is not finalized this season, but in 2019-20, that Reaves and Ayayi would have been making approximately $898,310 a year as second-round picks, vs. $449,155 as two-way players. If they both believe they can stick, that means a 50% pay-cut now for the chance to hit restricted free agency — and make real NBA money — a year or two sooner, with unrestricted free agency soon to follow.

Player agents telling teams not to draft their clients in the second-round so they can go undrafted and choose their next destination is not a new phenomenon, but it has become more pronounced in recent years, and the Lakers are the beneficiaries of it this time, especially if Reaves is as good as Vecenie predicts. He would still be limited on when he could hit free agency if his contract does get converted, but he also would have proven himself in a situation he chose if the Lakers show that much faith — meaning he would likely be in a position to get paid on his next contract. It’s certainly a gamble for fringe guys with finite careers, but for the right players, the fit and opportunity may be worth more than money.

Reaves and Ayayi’s opportunities will begin when summer league tips off on Aug. 8.

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