LOS ANGELES - Austin Reaves has underperformed for most of the season. He went from a bonafide starter with a ceiling that was as unknown as it was optimistic to a player struggling to find his groove, relegated to the bench and proving his biggest critics right.
He's just an overrated player, scoring mainly due to foul hunting and his couple of big-time games are more of an anomaly than a sign of things to come. In fact, if he wasn't playing for the Lakers, no one would know his name and he definitely wouldn't have received a four-year, $56 million contract.
As unfair as many of these claims are, you're only as good as your last game, and lately, that hasn't been good enough. We've seen Reaves struggle handling the ball, his shot had gone ice-cold, shooting 31% from deep compared to last year's 39% and when head coach Darvin Ham sent him to the bench, he called it "just a realignment," and not a demotion, the same words he used when he took Russell Westbrook out of the starting five a year ago.
Not exactly a vote of confidence.
Reaves, to his credit, has taken it all in stride.
"Truthfully, you don't want to have that conversation," Reaves said postgame after being benched for the first time this year versus the Suns. "I would love to not have that, would love to have been playing better to not have those conversations, winning as a team. But my parents taught me at a young age that the coach is the coach and his decision, regardless of whether you agree with it or don't agree with it, you respect that. That's what I did."
Which makes Saturday's win against the Houston Rockets all the more special. With 7:06 left in the second quarter, Los Angeles trailed by four and looked to be in the middle of a long night versus a team with a talented big in Alperen Şengün and a professional villain in Dillon Brooks, but a long night turned into a fun one thanks to Reaves.
Austin Reaves doing Austin Reaves things pic.twitter.com/1BjPkVjaiC— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) December 3, 2023
The Lakers run started with a Reaves pullup jumper followed by a free throw. Then Anthony Davis gave Los Angeles the lead with a runner, and Reaves went on another four-point burst with a dunk on a LeBron James assist and then a back-handed layup that received such thunderous applause from fans that it forced Houston to call timeout in an attempt to stop the bleeding.
Few things can get Lakers fans in such an uproar early in a game. Why is Reaves playing well, one of them?
Because he is theirs.
He was brought in undrafted; they've seen him and believed in him when no one else did and no one else should've. They loved him unconditionally and spoke his potential into existence. They've created memes and merch and saw him begin to show signs of that potential last season, screaming "I'm him!" while giving Memphis buckets in the playoffs. They witnessed him representing Team USA on the world stage. The only thing that rivals the pain of not making it in the big city is the joy of making it. For the Laker faithful, Reaves arrived the moment he came to them from Newark, Arkansas.
Reaves wasn't done after the timeout. He added another three for good measure and ended the quarter with 15 points, part of a 31-8 run that ended up being the game's turning point. After that, the Lakers never led by less than double digits and coasted the rest of the way.
Will Reaves become a bonafide star in everyone's eyes, or even a consistent starter for that matter, remains to be seen. But one thing is certain, when he gets going, he's fun to watch and more importantly, he unlocks this team's maximum potential.
He's no longer just a fun player the Lakers put in the game to see what he can do. His contract isn't just a vote of confidence, it's a statement. It says we think you can be a key rotation player on a championship team for the Lakers. Even through his trials and tribulations, it's been reported Reaves is not being considered in trade packages.
On Saturday, he demonstrated once again why he remains as close to untouchable as anyone not named James or Davis can be on this team. Because when Reaves gets going and Davis and James are focused, Los Angeles suddenly becomes a team that's really hard to beat in the City of Champions.
You can follow Edwin on Twitter at @ECreates88.