All season long, Austin Reaves has drawn rave reviews from his Lakers teammates. Not for his play on the court (or at least not always), and not for being among the league leaders in net rating (although for an undrafted rookie, that’s impressive too).
No, it’s a different quality of Reaves’ that has impressed his veteran teammates most: His willingness to get hit in the face.
“He’s been hit in the face more than any rookie in the league I’m sure,” former Lakers guard Rajon Rondo noticed all the way back in training camp. “We’ve got to get him a facemask and mouthpiece.”
Rondo wasn’t the only one to quickly pick up on Reaves’ penchant for flirting with sub-concussive blows. Our own Alex Regla recently wrote about Reaves’ love affair with the floor — a place he often smacks into after said hits — and Reaves is such a natural at getting struck in the head that it was the first place his teammates started hitting him after his memorable buzzer-beater against the Dallas Mavericks earlier this season.
As a result, in a memorable profile of Reaves from Mirin Fader of The Ringer, the 23-year-old admitted that LeBron James and many of his other teammates won’t stop saying that he needs to start playing in headgear.
And, like most of the best jokes, there may be a degree of truth to them:
At one practice, Lakers center Dwight Howard, who has a good 5 inches and nearly 70 pounds on Reaves, grabbed a rebound and swung his elbows out as he pivoted. Reaves happened to be there, and got clocked in the head.
“Then you got LeBron saying I need a helmet,” Reaves says, laughing. “They all say it now.” They also joke that he needs a mouthpiece. He just might: He got hit in the head three times in one minute against the Spurs. And, against the Grizzlies, Steven Adams set a hard screen on him that was so brutal, he says: “My jaw still hurts to this day.”
That’s part of why his teammates respect him. “Nobody’s going to bully him,” Monk says.
Malik Monk is right about Reaves never backing down despite his slight frame, and after the team’s close loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Friday, veteran forward Carmelo Anthony was the latest to praise the rookie for it.
While lauding Reaves for how he’s adjusted on the fly to doing the little things while having the ball in his hands less than he ever has in his basketball life, Anthony let slip what has really impressed him most about his more than a decade younger teammate from Arkansas.
“He’s learning. He’s learning on the fly. I mean especially with the lack of practice time that we have. Because you’ve got to learn in quick time in the games,” Anthony said. “He’s doing a great job of just learning and adjusting and figuring out ‘OK, if I don’t have the ball in my hands, (I can get) back cuts, offensive rebounds, loose balls.’
“He’s been doing a great job of doing that, and crashing from the weakside, getting tip outs, diving on the floor for loose balls, taking charges, getting hit in his face,” Anthony continued, smiling after deadpanning that last part. “It seems like he gets hit every play down the court. He’s doing a great job of adjusting to that.”
In doing so, Reaves has earned his teammates’ respect. It’s fair to hazard a guess — given his increasingly frequent gesticulations towards referees after having another post-cranial-strike reunion with the hardwood — that he hopes that respect is eventually one the NBA’s officials share.
But for now, he’ll have to settle for impressing all the future Hall of Famers he shares a locker room with. For an undrafted rookie, it’s a hell of a start.