On paper, the idea of targeting the undrafted rookie playing rotation minutes on the opposing team makes sense and it’s hard to fault Lakers opponents for doing so this year. And teams have done just that, focusing their offensive attack through Austin Reaves and making no secrets about it.
The problem is, games aren’t played out on paper and, on the court, Reaves has not played according to the script.
Throughout his first campaign in the league, Reaves has exceeded expectations. Once an undrafted two-way signing, Reaves has blossomed into one of the most impactful players on the Lakers roster, leading the Lakers in net rating this season as one of only two players, along with Malik Monk, to have a positive net rating.
Helping comprise that net rating is Reaves’ team-best defensive rating as well. While defensive rating isn’t necessarily an individual stat, it does help paint a picture of Reaves as one of the team’s best players on that end of the court this year.
But that isn’t something opposing NBA teams have caught up on quite as quickly this season. and to varying levels of success, have attacked Reaves defensively. Most of the time, it’s been a decision they have later regretted.
Reaves recently spoke about being targeted by opposing teams in a recent interview on “The Lakers Expectionalism Podcast” and why he’s comfortable with being targeted on that end.
“Honestly, it doesn’t bother me because the numbers say — well, I don’t know what the numbers say because I’m not a huge numbers guy — but I would say they go in our favor when just go into straight ISO against me... It’s the NBA, everybody is going to have success at some point if you isolate against anybody. You can think of the best defenders to ever play the game, they get scored on. And I’m not putting myself in that category. I think it’s frustrating for offensive players because they see me, they see my build, they see that, um, I’m not the most athletic person in the world, but I think it frustrates them that I stay in front. So I think that’s an aspect, or a frustration level, where they’re like ‘ah, I’ll get it next time,’ and they keep going back to it and back to it. But it don’t bother me at all. That’s one of my jobs on this team is to play defense and compete on that end, so that’s what I do.”
Teams picking on Reaves has been a season-long occurrence. Back in December, Mirin Fader of The Ringer broached the topic with members of the Lakers in a profile of Reaves. Against the Mavericks, a game remembered more for Reaves’ game-winning 3-pointer, it was Reaves’ defensive effort that proved just as vital as his long-range makes.
In February, Ty Lue outright admitted postgame that he told his team to target Reaves late in the game.
Tyronn Lue said that he told team to put Austin Reaves in any action if Lakers took lead coming out of final timeout.— Law Murray (@LawMurrayTheNU) February 4, 2022
While Reggie Jackson did score with Reaves defending him to win the game, it was both not entirely the fault of Reaves’ that Jackson knocked down the game-winner and it has very much been the exception, not the rule, this season.
Jackson and the Clippers aside, this season has been filled with teams learning that, contrary to everything from his physical appearance to his path to the NBA and status within the league, Reaves is one of the team’s best defenders. And the Lakers have been thankful for those revelations nearly each and every time.