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Could Austin Reaves find his way into the Lakers’ starting lineup?

After the last couple months of the 2021-22 season saw Austin Reaves regress a bit from what was a blistering start to his rookie campaign, could he begin his second pro season as a starter for one of the league’s highest-profile franchises?

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Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every weekday, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at Austin Reaves.

If you’re a young player on the Los Angeles Lakers, you probably shouldn’t get too comfortable in the City of Angels.

Ever since LeBron James joined the team in the summer of 2018, the team has continuously shed prospects for veteran talent. Whether it was swapping the so-called Baby Lakers for Anthony Davis in a trade that saw Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart depart for New Orleans, or the recent transaction that sent Talen Horton-Tucker and Stanley Johnson to Utah for Patrick Beverley, the team has consistently shown that they’re much more interested in investing in their present than their future.

Last year, the organization showed that this strategy isn’t only isolated to trades, as they used the free agency period to sign a litany of known-name veterans who almost to a man proved to be past their NBA expiration date.

They’ve reversed course a little this offseason by signing many young players including Troy Brown Jr. (21 years old), Lonnie Walker IV (23 years old), and Thomas Bryant (25 years old, who last played for the Lakers as a rookie in the 2017-18 season before he was waived to make room for LeBron and a hypothetical second star to sign that offseason).

But other than Max Christie, who will be playing his first NBA regular season games with the Lakers this season, the team currently has no homegrown talent — well, other than Austin Reaves, of course.

After hitting a little bit of a rookie wall towards the end of a pretty promising rookie season, the undrafted Reaves will look to continue proving that his should have been one of the 60 names called in the 2021 NBA Draft.

But more importantly, he will have a chance to compete for a sizable role on a Lakers team that should have much higher hopes than the results of last season’s roster.

What is the best case scenario for Reaves?

For Reaves, I’m not willing to cap his individual ceiling at “sizable role.” I agree with The Athletic’s Jovan Buha in thinking that he could, and probably should be the team’s starting shooting guard on opening night.

Even after penciling in Russell Westbrook as the team’s starting point guard, Buha projected Reaves to open up games with the Lakers’ first line. And even if the Lakers do trade him, the current marketplace of potential trades doesn’t seem to include ones that return them another point guard. If the team also intends to bring Patrick Beverley off the bench, even if they plan to include him in their projected closing lineups, Reaves could easily end up being a logical choice for either of the two starting guard spots.

A significant improvement in his strength, conditioning, and 3-point shooting in the offseason would help Reaves secure a starting role, but given how well he played last year along with the free agency period not netting an obvious upgrade at his position, I think all of that is more than plausible.

What is the worst-case outcome?

The hard thing about evaluating Lakers players that were with the team last season and how they will contribute this season is that, well... the team sucked last season. Whether they’re realistic or not, this 2022-23 team will have higher expectations than the results the 2021-22 team provided.

Because of that, it’s hard to really determine if Austin Reaves can be a rotation player for a successful NBA team despite the individual successes he enjoyed during his rookie season.

One player that could really impact Reaves’ minutes in a negative way would be Kendrick Nunn. Who knows what role Reaves would have had last season if Nunn — the use of the Lakers’ mid-level exception at the time — was able to play.

If Nunn is fully healthy and can play like he did at times with the Miami Heat, he could end up stealing a decent amount of minutes that Reaves could have received. In addition, new signees like Lonnie Walker IV and Troy Brown Jr. could prove to be better than Reaves in camp. If that happens with Buddy Hield or Bojan Bogdanovic also coming to the team via a Westbrook trade, Reaves could easily find himself buried deep in the Lakers depth chart at his position.

With that, he may be struggling to receive more than 10 minutes per game, let alone the 23.2 he averaged in the 2021-22 season.

What is the most likely role for Reaves?

The most likely role for the 24-year-old from Arkansas is somewhere close to the 23.2 minutes per game he averaged last season.

The biggest negative of Reaves’ game was his inconsistent 3-point shooting (31.7% last season), but it’s not like Walker, Brown, or any of the Lakers’ other perimeter signings are clearly superior shooters in comparison to Reaves.

However, Reaves’ defense was actually the most consistently impressive part of his game, giving him a definite advantage over Walker in that regard. In the 2021-22 season, Reaves had a D-LEBRON (B-Ball Index’s defensive impact metric) of -0.05 while Walker’s was -1.85 during his final season with the Spurs. And although Hield or Bogdanovic would be much better than Reaves at 3-point shooting, those two don’t come close to playing defense as well as Reaves, posting a -1.70 and -1.44 D-LEBRON last season, respectively.

Reaves did cool off towards the end of the season due to his strength and conditioning not being at a high enough level, which dragged down his overall averages. However, Reaves provided a reason for optimism on that front in a conversation with Buha, noting that he now weighs, 209 pounds up a dozen from 197 the preseason prior. Reaves spoke to his offseason weight-training regimen:

“It’s my big focus,” Reaves said. “I go in there with a good attitude every day, and whatever they tell me to do, I do. Just putting my body in the best position so the rookie wall or whatever, it doesn’t hit you like that. And you can more push through it because you’re in better shape and better conditioning.”

If improved conditioning allows him to maximize his already impressive IQ and become more consistent with his shot from beyond the arc, then Reaves should have at least as big a role as the one he had last season, even when considering the additions of Nunn and others to the rotation.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Donny on Twitter at @donny_mchenry.