Welcome to our annual Lakers season in review series, where we’ll be taking a look back at every player on the team’s roster this season, evaluating their play, and deciding if they should be a part of the organization’s future. Today, we take a closer look at Austin Reaves.
How did he play?
Austin Reaves was one of the lone bright spots in this otherwise dark and gloomy Lakers season, taking his play in Las Vegas Summer League and turning it into a promising rookie campaign.
He wasn’t spectacular by any means in the summer league, averaging 7 points on 29.5% field-goal shooting, but that didn’t stop him from earning a spot in the Lakers’ rotation with improved performance against the best-of-the-best in the basketball world.
Reaves averaged the seventh-most minutes per game on the team (23.2) while scoring 7.3 points per game on 45.9% field-goal shooting. His days as a primary scoring option with the Oklahoma Sooners translated well to the NBA despite his small and wiry frame, as he was in the 98th percentile in the league in terms of Isolation scoring with a 6.7% and-one frequency that was tied for 21st in the entire league.
And sure, he would have almost certainly dropped far down in the league’s rankings if the Lakers gave him the same amount of isolation opportunities he received in college, but his 56% field-goal percentage on 25 attempts is still pretty impressive. Compare his place in the league to the 66th percentile that Carmelo Anthony was in this season on isolation attempts, and it shows Reaves may have what it takes to become a reliable scorer off the bench in the future (again with the caveat that Carmelo had a little more than double the amount of those attempts that Reaves had).
However, it wasn’t Reaves’ offense that made him so useful to the Lakers this season. It was his defensive ability and basketball IQ that shined among a set of teammates that had little of those two qualities. Those skills, his undrafted status, and, well, let’s be real... his complexion... caused people to draw easy comparisons to another undrafted fan favorite with the Lakers: Alex Caruso. Furthering that comp was how he thrived in basically any lineup he was put in, as he had the best plus/minus of anyone on the team the entire season at +0.9 (a statistic that serves as another reminder of how bad the Lakers were this year).
Reaves also provided what was probably the highest point of the season morale-wise, with his December buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer on the road against the Dallas Mavericks. After that, the team was hit with a rash of COVID-19 illnesses, Anthony Davis suffered his first of two injuries, followed by the team basically giving up amidst rampant trade rumors at the deadline, and overall the team was just never the same following that fun moment.
Sadly, Reaves’ individual play was also not the same following that buzzer-beater, as the rookie hit the infamous late-season “rookie wall” while also receiving increased minutes due to Frank Vogel finally playing him more since he had obviously shown he was one of the better players on the team. After a +5.3 and +5.0 plus/minus in November and December, respectively, Reaves posted +1.5, -0.4, and -4.1 plus/minuses in January, February, and March.
As I said, Vogel did play him more in those 2022 months, but then in April, with the Lakers’ play-in hopes on the line, he benched Reaves. Vogel confirmed that Reaves’ collision with the rookie wall was part of his decision to bench him, referencing “rookie fatigue” when asked to explain the two straight DNP-CDs for Reaves in the losses against the Pelicans and Nuggets that essentially eliminated the team from postseason contention.
Reaves returned to high minutes following those two losses, putting a nice exclamation point on his surprising and promising season with a 31-point triple-double in the Lakers’ otherwise-meaningless finale.
What is his contract situation moving forward?
Reaves pulled a Deion Sanders and basically told the Pistons not to draft him, leading to his undrafted status and a subsequent two-way contract with the Lakers. Just before the preseason started, Reaves had shown enough in training camp to impress Rob Pelinka and the team that they made him an official part of the 15-main roster with a guaranteed contract, meaning his draft night gamble paid off.
That contract was a two-year deal, with the upcoming 2022-23 season being a $1.5 million team option.
Should he be back?
Given the Lakers’ limitations in free agency spending, Reaves’ strong play this season, and the hope that the team would take as much continuity as they can get in their upcoming roster construction, Reaves seems to be a nearly guaranteed part of next season’s roster.
The only logical reason that Reaves wouldn’t be a part of the Lakers’ team next season would be his inclusion as a sweetener in a trade package with the likes of Russell Westbrook, Talen Horton-Tucker, and/or Kendrick Nunn. However, given the extremely low, team-friendly money on the next year of Reaves’ deal, it’s doubtful the Lakers could really get much in return for his contract even if they were foolish enough to want to deal him.
After that, we’ll see if the Lakers value him as much as fans do, as he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer, when the comparisons to Alex Caruso could sadly continue with the team letting another young and defensively-gifted player walk after another team in the league values him more.
But that’s a problem for a later date. For now, Lakers fans have a new favorite young role player to try and fill the shoes left by Caruso. And he’s sure off to a great start.