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New Season, New Austin Reaves

On the heels of success in increasingly prominent roles in the regular season, playoffs and with Team USA, Austin Reaves appears ready to lean into his inner-alpha dog.

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Milwaukee Bucks v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — In the middle of the third quarter of a win over the Warriors during the Lakers’ preseason rematch of the Western Conference semifinals, Austin Reaves set up what should have been his first seemingly impossible moment of wizardry since returning from Team USA.

All in one motion, Reaves corralled a loose ball bounding towards halfcourt and hurled it towards the rim, placing it perfectly for new Laker Jaxson Hayes to convert the circus-style connection. Instead, however, Hayes left his alley-oop layup short, as the Arena groaned in disappointment for the highlight that nearly was.

Asked if he had anything to say to Jaxson Hayes for failing to convert his end of the potential highlight Austin delivered the front half of, Reaves said jokingly, “I kindly reminded him like ten times that he just isn’t very good.”

It took a moment for the stunned media room to realize that the typically deferential Reaves was actually taking a lighthearted jab at his brand-new teammate. While it was made in good spirits, it seemed out of character for the typically deferential and demure Reaves.

In either of his first two seasons, Austin never would have poked fun at a teammate’s miscue, no matter how minor. Without a long-term contract or a body of work in the league to hang his hat on, any kind of assertion of ego would have come with significant risk. Typically, Austin was apt to fall in line and play a supporting role, especially in front of the media.

Now, however, the Lakers are asking Austin to grow into a bigger on-court role, one which has created space for his entire persona to flourish. With his basketball future as safe as it has ever been, Austin has taken the opportunity to assert himself as a leader near the top of the Lakers’ food chain.

After a long pause, Austin followed up on his aforementioned jab with some praise for Hayes.

“Nah, I’m just messing with him obviously,” Reaves said. “Jaxson has been really good doing what we, as a team and as a coaching staff ask him to do, so I can’t be more proud of what he’s done...”

Still even this kind of older sibling admiration is representative of Austin’s changing relationship to his teammates. Finishing his comment, he couldn’t help himself from reminding the room where he stood on the botched highlight, “...but yeah he uh, he smoked that one.”

At the Lakers’ next preseason game, a matchup against the Bucks, I got a chance to ask Darvin Ham if Austin’s demeanor has changed since his glow-up on a national, and then international stage.

While Ham denied any inherent change in Austin’s personality, he readily acknowledged the change in his surrounding circumstances.

“Austin’s the same old Austin. Just happy-go-lucky, down-to-earth, beautiful human being that he’s always been. He’s just tapping into a higher level of focus, understanding that now it’s not just hit or miss with him.”

Ham continued, stressing the Lakers’ reliance on the 25-year-old third-year player, “He’s one of the individuals that we’re gonna depend on on both sides of the ball to be there for us night in and night out and make an impact to help our team be successful.”

Nonetheless, Ham settled on the idea that even though the environment around Reaves may have changed, giving the world a chance to see more of Austin in a bigger role, nothing about the man in the middle has moved much at all.

“[He’s] still the same kid, and that’s the thing I love about him, man.”

Still, as a sign of Austin’s growing stature, Ham couldn’t help capping off his praise for Austin’s steadiness with a bit about his newfound celebrity, joking,

“And he’s not afraid to tell Taylor Swift no.”

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 find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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