As the ball soared through the air like a balloon swept up in a sudden gust, everyone in the American Airlines Center stood and held their breath. Well, all except for one person — the young man who let it fly. And due to a collision from a runaway train in the form of Tim Hardaway Jr., Austin Reaves was on his back and had both feet flung up as he watched his game-winning 3-pointer swish gently through the nylon.
The shot would not only be Reaves’ biggest of his early career, but also served as the Lakers’ most euphoric moment so far this season. The lasting image is the team’s elder statesmen huddled around their 23-year-old, ruffling his hair, sharing headlocks and a sea of smiles dispersed evenly among the group. Big brothers united, celebrating their younger’s success.
In emblematic fashion, the scene also closely followed a trend of many of the rookie’s most momentous plays this year, highlights that have almost exclusively coincided with his body smacking the hardwood.
Although it’s not unusual for a young player to get roughed up during the early stages of their playing days, after his first 22 games in the NBA, Reaves’ body is tattooed with enough aches and bruises to pass as a 10-year-veteran.
While there is a degree of unavoidable contact that naturally comes from the ebbs and flows of a game (even via friendly fire, as Rajon Rondo declared during training camp that Reaves had been hit in the face more than any other rookie in the league), Reaves is also not bashful when it comes the grittier side of the game.
On offense, he routinely seeks out opportunities to set screens against much larger opponents, hurdles through human traffic cones to free himself for cuts, and has an innate ability to get to the basket in even the most formidable of situations. Even if the latter often resulting in a thud, crash and a whistle.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Reaves has already been fouled on 13.2% of his shots this season, which ranks in the 93rd percentile among wings. Through tricks of the trade like a subtle lowered shoulder on his drives to create separation, and body contortion that lures in opposing arms and legs for the foul call, Reaves does not only mind getting hit, but has a clear understanding in how to organically generate said collisions.
But despite the copious amounts of contact he’s endured, the rookie has still shown an impressive ability to convert his chances at a hyper-efficient rate, even while being routinely sent crashing toward the sidelines.
Through 42 games this season, Reaves ranks in the 89th percentile when it comes to AND-1% (what % of shooting-fouls drawn did a player also make the shot) and is finishing 85.2% of his shots that have come within eight feet of the basket this season. The latter mark is currently tops among all players who have taken at least 25 such shots this year.
Reaves’ ability to convert at a high rate — especially in the face of the high degree of difficulty on some of his attempts — is largely due to his combination of touch as well as a keen sense of concentration when it comes to finishing through and over the opposition.
This is perhaps where his non-fear for the physical consequences of the game have paid the most dividends. Where many young players take time to adjust to the taxing that comes with a heightened level of contact at the professional level, Reaves seems unfazed to hit the floor as long as the ball goes through the net.
It’s not solely on offense where Reaves embraces this smash-mouth approach, either, as his work on the defensive side of the floor could be best represented with chalk drawings of his splattered silhouette scattered around the arena. This is specifically because of what can only be described as an eagerness to step in and take a charge.
Unlike most young players, Reaves has the useful skill of often being in the right place at the right time, which presents itself most through his sharp rotations and understanding of when the best option is to simply sacrifice one’s body to get a stop.
Although he has missed 20 games, Reaves is currently tied for 10th most total charges drawn in the league, as well as sharing top honors with LeBron James on the Lakers (9) despite playing in 632 fewer minutes.
In many regards, Reaves plays basketball with an earnest degree of selflessness, and there may be no play that requires more sacrifice — or is as symbolic of that trait — than openly standing in the way of oncoming basketball-playing tanks as they rumble down the lane. Pain will absolutely follow, but so might a defensive stop. And that possible trade-off is a worthy one for players like Reaves.
The floor his body falls onto every night is cold, unforgiving, and is always eventually undefeated. But for Reaves, as he adjusts to far brighter lights than he’s ever played under and attempts to show he belongs, it’s also familiar. So although the city he plays in now looks vastly different and likely feels like a universe away from Newark, Arkansas, that crash-mat underneath him is a small slice of home. The wooden floor is a weathered welcome mat he’s hid a key under, and shook the mud off of onto countless times.
In a season that has been marred by inconsistency, Reaves’ spills and thrills have been one of the few constants for this Laker team. Whether its’ an unfathomable finish that propels him into the front row, or hitting the deck to stave off just one more basket, Reaves is continuing to prove he could be relied upon to provide value even if it comes at the expense of his body.
Reaves’ basketball future is ultimately still waiting to be written, but if his rookie year thus far is any indication, he’s on a path lined with respect and a spot in the league.
And also bruises. Lots and lots of bruises.