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.
Austin Reaves enters his third NBA season as somewhat of a made-man among Lakers faithful. Players who follow his path and play his style often become instant favorites within any fanbase, but Lakers fans are prone to fall especially hard for the players like him; players who come from humble beginnings only to outplay those who have more name recognition and pedigree.
Reaves truly is somewhat of a Cinderella story. One of the lone bright spots in his rookie season, Reaves clawed his way into the rotation as an undrafted player whose combination of skill, grit, and general passion for the game stood out in contrast to a veteran group who, ravaged by injury and the general decline that comes from aging out of the league, seemed to understand fairly early in the season that their lofty expectations would not be met. Then, last season, Reaves steadily worked his way into a steadier and more consistent rotation spot, before fully cementing himself as a starter and key closer heading into the postseason.
Then, once the playoffs began, Reaves proved worthy of the upped stakes and intensity of the postseason, announcing his arrival in the loudest way possible — taking over down the stretch of Game 1 of the Lakers first round series against the Grizzlies, announcing to the world that he was him and doing it all while silencing the road crowd. Over the course of the rest of the team’s postseason run, Reaves had a few down moments, but mostly continued his upward trajectory and showed that he was ready to compete at whatever level was needed for a team with title aspirations.
Reaves then parlayed that success into a new contract this summer and then a key role on Team USA for the FIBA World Cup where Reaves showed that his ability to thrive and produce at a high level next to players with more name-brand recognition was not a fluke. And now he will look to continue down that same path and take the next step forward on this season’s team.
What is his best-case scenario?
When a player so far exceeds what seemed even imaginable just two seasons ago, putting any sort of limit on what is possible for them feels like a dangerous game to play. I mean, if you told me heading into the 2021-22 season that by October 2023, Austin Reaves would have done everything written above, I would have hit you with more than a healthy dose of side-eye. Yet, he we are.
Austin Reaves enters the 2023-24 season as the Lakers third-best player and someone who, if you just started to rattle off random achievements in which each advancing one the prestige or plain old difficulty jumped up a level, I wonder how far we could get before we absolutely ruled it out.
I mean let’s try....
- Austin Reaves has a 50/40/90 season (last season he was 52.9/38.9/86.4)
- Austin Reaves averaged 6+ assists a game (last season he averaged 3.4)
- Austin Reaves averaged 18+ points a game (last season he averaged 13.0)
- Austin Reaves makes the All-Star team
That last one feels like a real stretch, but the other ones feel well within the realm of possibility. And, let me tell you, if Reaves averages 18 and 6 on 50/40/90 shooting the Lakers are going to be a damn good basketball team. And if the Lakers are that good, that final one doesn’t feel too far out of reach either.
So, if we’re actually talking about his best-case scenario, it’s that another leap is coming and that all the strides he made after the trade deadline, in the playoffs, and through the summer are proven to be just the opening salvo for a young player who has dedicated himself to putting in the work and becoming the best version of himself that he can be.
Thought there were interesting glimpses of what a LeBron/Wood/AD front court can do & look like.— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) October 10, 2023
Here, Horns cross for Bron that flows right into their inverted screen game w/Reaves. Think Wood filling corner here is important/highlights the ability to space/5-out even while big pic.twitter.com/K2iRyAlArm
And that player, with all the shooting skill, all the feel for the game, all the mental toughness, and all the competitiveness that he possesses simply finds a way to keep on making incremental improvements in every facet of the game to the point that all those boosts on the margins add up to something truly substantial.
Suddenly, here’s a player with an even more refined jumper, a tighter handle, is stronger and has that much more an ability to get to the spots on the floor he wants to in order to either get his shot up cleanly, generate an advantage to draw a foul, or put the defense off balance so he can create an easy shot for a teammate.
What is his worst-case scenario?
First, I think it is important to establish a couple of truths about Reaves that also serve to contextualize his general contributions to the Lakers both generally and, more specifically, playing winning basketball.
Regardless of how well or not well Austin plays in comparison to the production he provided after the trade deadline and through the playoffs, Reaves’ general feel for the game and the nature of how he competes on a possession-to-possession basis will almost always lead to him being a useful NBA player.
Said another way, he’s simply too smart a player and his decision-making — whether that’s him making the correct pass out of the pick and roll, when to make cut or set a screen, how he’ll compete defensively or on the backboards, or any other countless scenarios — will typically lead to him helping more than he hurts whenever he’s on the court.
With that context established, the pathway to Reaves’ worst-case outcomes won’t just be related to his inability to maintain the production and level of play he’s shown he’s capable of, but him actively taking a step backward in these areas as teams incorporate him more into the gameplan on both sides of the ball.
Coming off the season he just had, and based on what we saw this summer, teams are certainly going to make Reaves a bigger part of their focus — not only in how they defend him and the attention and resources they throw his way, but in how they put him into actions on the defensive side of the ball in attempts to make him guard at a high level in hopes of getting easy baskets, wearing him down, getting him to commit fouls or some combination of all them.
The fear for Reaves, then, is that rather than take a step forward and find ways to boost his production and effectiveness on both ends, some of those gains are given back in the form of more missed shots, more mistakes and an overall dip in effectiveness based on generally wearing down in the face more physicality and involvement by the opponent whenever he’s on the floor.
As a player who isn’t one of the elite athletes in the league, Austin is already someone who plays so hard just to be as effective as he is. And, in both his rookie and sophomore campaigns, he wore down during different stretches of the season when the asks on him went up and his role expanded. Next season, it’s not out of the question that opponents will try to facilitate this same effect via targeting him as often as they can when he’s on defense and then throwing more resources — both physically and schematically — at him on the other end.
Again, the nature of Austin’s game means I’ll always want him playing a key rotation role. I also think some of these pathways to him struggling more than expected are mitigated by his high skill level — particularly as a shooter — and the craft he plays with as a ball handler and passer. So, I don’t necessarily believe these outcomes are that likely. But, it’s also not so farfetched to be dismissed entirely.
What is his most likely role on the team?
When Austin steered his way to the Lakers by dissuading teams from drafting him in the second round, he did so because he thought a role on this team offered him the best chance to be successful early in his career and a pathway toward maximizing his skill set.
He wasn’t wrong. He’s an ideal player to slot next to LeBron and Anthony Davis and his fit only improves when you add more skill, more basketball IQ, and more athletes around him.
On this season’s Lakers, then, where he shares a backcourt with D’Angelo Russell and Gabe Vincent, and then has frontcourt talent like Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, Taurean Prince, Christian Wood, and Jaxson Hayes next and behind LeBron and AD, Austin finds himself in the perfect situation where he can play to his strengths on both sides of the ball and often do it as the other team sends resources towards other players.
With that, I expect Reaves to be much closer to his best-case outcomes than the worst-case ones. His ability to slot into any lineup type and oscillate between on and off-ball roles regardless of who he shares the floor with will enable him to have the type of positive impact that will continue to help the Lakers win games — and, just maybe, reach their ultimate goal of claiming that elusive 18th championship.
You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.