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Austin Reaves is here to stay

What the undrafted rookie’s stellar season finale says about his future, and why it’s a whole lot brighter than you might think.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Bizarrely, in way that only makes sense for its consistency with the Lakers’ season-long proclivity for perverting the expectations of the fanbase and themselves with shockingly putrid results, the team reversed course to conclude its season-long train-wreck with a rare display of beautiful basketball. Without LeBron, AD, Melo, or Russ in the lineup for the team’s final three games, the vast majority of the playmaking burden fell upon the youth movement, opening the door for the Arkansas boys to put a bow on the steaming turd that was the 2021-22 Lakers season.

Veteran’s minimum signing Malik Monk exploded for 18 of his career-high 41 points in the fourth quarter, helping the Lakers rally back from being down 13 at the start of the period to force more basketball. But when Malik inexplicably sat out the final three minutes of the fourth and the entirety of the overtime, the Lakers ceded complete control of the offense to undrafted rookie Austin Reaves, who played all of the game’s final 20 minutes, seizing his opportunity to shut the door on a shell of the Nuggets sans-Jokic.

However, in typically dysfunctional 2021-22 Lakers fashion, with the Nuggets mentally packed up to head to San Francisco to start their first round series against the Dubs, the final buzzer sounded on a victory and the Lakers immediately Woj-bombed their head coach off the team and into the night without “[telling him] shit”.

The news was an unfortunate distraction from what should have been a young player’s coronation — Reaves finished the game with a career-high in points, rebounds, and assists, becoming just the fifth Lakers rookie with a triple-double in his 31-16-10 outing.

Undrafted players rarely crack NBA rotations for substantive minutes, especially in their rookie seasons on teams with championship aspirations. But when they do, it’s often for their ability to fit into the team’s larger star-driven scheme. By necessity, undrafted players survive as complimentary players, fitting into off-ball and defensive-oriented roles while typically lacking the on-ball juice to blossom into a franchise’s centerpiece — every year, there are 60 picks for teams to take a chance on guys with that kind of potential.

For much of the season, that’s exactly who Austin Reaves was. He augmented superior scorers like LeBron James and Malik Monk by doing the dirty work on both ends while accentuating the offensive advantages they attained. All season long, I have loved him as a rebounder, intermediary playmaker, and on-ball defender, but had yet to see him simply go to work for more than a possession or two at a time, typically only in the case of an extreme mismatch or in pure garbage time.

It wasn’t the gaudy stat totals that left me in awe — plenty of it players put up crazy stats in meaningless games — it was the way that he got there. This was no aberrant shooting night from downtown. This was Austin going to work and converting tough shot after tough shot from all three levels and a plethora of angles.

He was especially prolific in the overtime, scoring seven of the Lakers’ 11 points on 3-5 shooting, displaying the gall of a primary shotmaker as he isolated and created shot after shot for himself and his teammates.

Although he didn’t make this particular look, one of just two overtime misses, Austin’s second-greatest highlight of the night may have been this peak-Hardenesque ankle-breaking step-back against Zeke Nnaji.

The move typifies Reaves’ incredible balance and functional strength — far beyond what one might assume possible for a player with his relatively un-chiseled appendages — qualities that have also underscored his success on the defensive end. This offensive creativity, combined with his elite decision-making, could help Austin explode into being a more voluminous scorer at some point as his career continues.

However, the missed shot was also emblematic of some of Austin’s mid-season struggles. His mediocre 31.7% from downtown belies how brutal his long-range jumper was at times. Leading up a two-game stretch of DNP-CDs, Austin had made just 5-31 threes, and it appeared the extended schedule and heavy minutes in comparison to college had caught up to him — as noted before and after Reaves’ bounce-back by Frank Vogel. Without the threat of a 3-point shot, his secondary playmaking eroded as opponents parked in the paint, daring him to shoot.

Following his involuntary sabbatical, Austin made 41.2% of his more than four threes per game, a rate closer to the above league-average mark I’d expect from him as he improves his strength and overall conditioning, especially given his sharpshooting from the line (83.9%).

But his greatest highlight from the season-ender, of course, was his game-saving steal into a game-tying coast-to-coast finish, conjuring memories of similarly choreographed scenes, like the one that was catalyzed by Smush Parker’s singular iconic NBA moment and the underrated steal that preceded “The Last Shot.”

After the game, asked about Austin’s torrid closing stretch, Malik Monk said, “Man, he been playing like this his whole life.”

The fellow Arkansas native went on to double down on his credibility as an expert on Austin’s game, saying “it’s not surprising for me ‘cause I’ve been watching him...we’re the same age, so ever since I’ve been going up [the basketball ranks], I’ve been watching him doing the same thing.”

At Lakers’ exit interviews the following day, Reaves talked about showcasing that bigger version of his game more often as his career unfolds.

“I always want to grow and get better, continue to make strides forward,” Reaves said.

While it’s fair to assume Austin of course would love to grow into the kind of franchise player who gets to make all the plays down the stretch every night, and not just in Game 82, his status as an undrafted rookie on a team full of former superstars and established vets forced him into a smaller role than his true talent may have warranted — even as he climbed the pecking order as the season went along.

Without a hint of hubris or subtextual frustration, he acknowledged the reality of where he’s come from beside those who have already been there, saying “at the end of the day, I realize that we’ve got guys on the team, so I do what it takes to help the team be successful.”

At some point, as Reaves continues to prove what he can do on the court, he’ll be asked to take the shots he often shied away from when sharing the court with no-doubt future Hall of Famers. If he can shoot as consistently as he did in his last few games, he should be able to make the transition to primary piece pretty smoothly because of how much else he offers to the team whenever he’s on the court.

The auxiliary benefits that typify Austin’s play abounded in his performance against the Nuggets, even as he carried a greater offensive burden. Here, he beats Boogie Cousins off the dribble to find Stanley Johnson for a late-clock corner three, and when he misses, Austin has outworked Boogie to gain position for the board and the follow.

A superlative offensive rebounder, Austin ranked in the 70th percentile in offensive rebound rate among all wings in his rookie season. Of his career-high 16 boards at Denver, six of them came on the offensive glass. As his minutes and uncontested board-stealing teammates trend in opposite directions, I anticipate Reaves’ rebound rate and totals to continue climbing.

A couple of possessions later, Austin flashed some of the passing vision that has helped grease the Lakers’ typically clunky offense, especially when stationed next to a more potent advantage-creator. Of his career-high 10 assists, my favorite was this perfectly lofted touchdown pass to a streaking Talen Horton-Tucker.

Moments like the one above were mostly absent this season, but were a staple of the 2020 title team’s game-to-game highlight reels, helping weaponize the Lakers’ talented finishers without needing a numbers advantage at the onset of the possession. However, only LeBron, Rondo, and now Austin have proven consistently capable of threading the needle on these types of connections. And with Rondo (traded) and AD (injured) out for most of LeBron’s season, the Lakers typically lacked both a finisher worthy of finding on the break and a playmaker capable of executing that read on the court at the same time.

With how well he’s played, there is a strong argument to be made that the Lakers should have given Austin a longer guaranteed contract than the one they did, which is set to expire at the conclusion of his second NBA season. Still, Austin will become a restricted free agent so long as the Lakers extend him the qualifying offer at that point, something they’ll almost certainly do assuming he plays at least as well as he did this season.

Along with Talen Horton-Tucker, Reaves is the centerpiece of the Lakers’ new youth movement — one that the franchise needs to accentuate and accelerate this offseason if they have any hope of contending in the near future. His level of confidence is staggering, especially amongst rookies, but it isn’t abrasive or unfounded. Austin’s game is one that is hyper-adaptable and built to thrive in almost any complementary wing role, and on his career night, showed signs that he may soon be ready for more.

Teams always need high-level role players, and crave the ones who can do more than they’ve been tasked with, without taking all of the scrapping that is endemic to winning basketball off of the table. Health willing, I am absolutely certain that Austin Reaves will make a ton of money in the NBA, and probably for a very long time.

If he isn’t already a “guy,” he’s well on his way towards becoming one.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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