Every player who has secured a level of success in the NBA has benefited from not only having otherworldly skill, but also, the important and underrated ability to not give a shit.
To be clear, this is not in the aloof sense. Instead, this art stems from having the degree of oozing confidence in one’s self to just go out there and play. Makes or misses be damned.
Of course, this belief of belonging is an unquantifiable trait. Yet when you watch the most decorated players in the league make the difficult look easy on a nightly basis, this demeanor in which they seemingly possess by the gallons-full, becomes as tactile as the grip on a Wilson ball.
With 15 games into his sophomore season, Austin Reaves has subtly begun to turn a corner on a Lakers team still trying to pull themselves up out of their 5-10 hole in the standings. There have been tangible on-court improvements in Reaves’ game, however, all of them are rooted in his attitude shift. He is starting to not give a shit. And it’s been wonderful.
Take this play for example:
Here, Reaves is faced with a fight-or-flight scenario as the shot clock inches toward expiration. With Anthony Davis coming up to set a screen, and the Spurs offering up the paint and his right hand, Reaves doesn't pass out of the play. He doesn't hesitate.
The Arkansas native first rejects Davis’ help and drives headfirst into a sea of black jerseys — losing his first defender with an up-fake, then another with a drop step before finally shooting.
His conquest into enemy territory ultimately results in a blocked shot. However, this battle exemplifies the larger war he’s been winning this year as this is not a sequence of a timid, un-drafted player just scraping by.
Instead, this drive attempt is the equivalent of a cowboy going out guns blazing inside a saloon draped with his fiercest foes. Reaves’ emphatic, almost defiant hand-slap as he runs back on defense relays the message that no matter the odds, he believes he should have won that fight. And it is this exact mindset that has made all the difference so far.
“Just getting to it, just being more efficient. Not wasting dribbles, not wasting time on the shot clock by just holding the ball. Once he puts it on the floor he’s driving downhill more,” Darvin Ham said following Reaves’ season-high 21 points in the win against San Antonio.
“When he’s open on a kick-out he’s catching and shooting, not thinking twice. He’s scrappy defensively. Austin has just been way more efficient...and he just loves to hoop. You can see his passion shine through whenever he’s out there.”
The strides Reaves has made this season rest on the combination of this increased confidence — which has manifested itself through a noticeable rise in aggression on offense — and superb efficiency that his head coach mentioned multiple times in his post-game comments.
Perhaps the most under the radar member of the current 50-40-90 club, Reaves has made the most of every opportunity he’s been handed this season whether in the form of a shot-attempt or uptick in minutes.
As of this article, Reaves ranks in the 96th percentile among all wings when it comes to points per shot attempt according to Cleaning the Glass. And among Lakers who have logged at least 100 possessions this season, no other player has a better eFG% than the 24-year-old.
One of the biggest factors that has helped Reaves get off to such a hot start is his improved accuracy from behind the arc.
On a Lakers’ squad that started off at a historically cold shooting stretch, Reaves has been one of the team’s few life-preservers in the deep end canning 47% of his above the break chances and 41% of his overall 3-point attempts.
It’s not just his spot-ups (which he’s pouring in 1.26 points per possession compared to 0.95 last season according to Synergy) that Reaves is excelling in, but also his ability to convert on his one-dribble pull-ups, showing a knack for relocating off the ball and the sheer conviction he has shown in his stroke thus far.
Another element that has helped boost both his no-shits given approach and production is the work he’s done to his body.
This past offseason Reaves told The Athletic that he bulked up from 197 to 209 pounds in order to better endure the wear and tear that comes with an 82-game season, as well as handling physicality on both ends of the floor.
Reaves’ sturdier frame has already begun to sprout these benefits, namely by holding up with a jump in minutes as well as both initiating and finishing through contact.
On the season, Reaves is averaging 4.7 drives per game according to the league’s tracking data. In November, that frequency has climbed as he ranks second on the team only behind Russell Westbrook with 5.9 per contest. For context, this rate is up from his 2.8 mark last season.
Once on the move downhill, Reaves combines his innate craft and change of pace with this newly found stronger physique to not only absorb contact but create it. Thanks to his snaking of the defense and array of fakes, Reaves often gets the opposition in the air where he can then draw both physicality and a whistle.
Among all players at his position, Reaves currently ranks in the 97th percentile of the league when it comes to shooting-fouled percentage (percentage of a player’s shots they are fouled on).
Reaves’ ability to get to the line is exemplary of the decisiveness he’s shown on-ball thus far. While he will never be tasked as the primary initiator on a team that employs the likes of Westbrook and LeBron James, Reaves has shown impressive feel when creating for himself and others.
“He’s been doing it all, at all three levels. He’s in the paint with his shot fakes, getting to the line, shooting the 3-ball, handling the ball out of pick and rolls and making the right reads, so he’s been playing unbelievable for us,” Anthony Davis told reporters on Sunday.
As an on-ball scorer, Reaves has readily attacked the cup off live-rebounds, carved out space with a live wire dribble and shown excellent touch around and directly at the rim where he’s converted 76% of his attempts this season.
The wing has also readily been given the chance to help set the table during James’ absence, where as Davis pointed out, he been given the chance to showcase his nuance and poise in his opportunities within the team’s screen game.
According to Synergy, 16.4% of his possessions this season has come as the team’s pick and roll ball-handler, up from his 10.6% as a rookie. He is also generated exactly one point per possession in these chance which ranks in the 83rd percentile of the league.
Outside of his own scoring chances, Reaves’ work out of the pick and roll has also allowed him to flourish as a passer. Always possessing obvious feel in the area, Reaves has also demonstrated a veteran-like knowledge of the tricks of the trade when it comes to running screen action.
Aspects like putting and keeping his man in jail/on his hip, drawing two to the ball with his probing and simply knowing the degree of zip a pass necessitates has helped patch a portion of the hole James has left in the offense.
“The thing I think he’s grown the most is just playmaking,” Davis added about Reaves. “He’s making the right reads, he’s getting in the paint using his shot-fake as guys come collapse, he’s finding the right guys so he’s definitely taking a big step from last year to this year. He’s going to be a good player.”
It is often difficult for players like Reaves to stand out and find chances to color outside of the lines of their role.
On a team with clear star power and also a deluge of ball-handling guards, Reaves has usually been pigeonholed within a 3-and-D shaped slot. While definitely capable of those duties, it also feels limiting given he’s proven to be more when given the reins to do so. His palpable change in aggression and confidence is making this fact harder and harder to ignore.
It remains to be seen if Reaves’ strong start to the season can both survive the rigors of the year and whether or not he continues to be given the freedom to shine on a lopsided roster.
But if his play and mindset to start the season is any indication, the Lakers may have their very own wolf hiding in sheep’s clothing. And sooner or later, the entire league is going to know it.