There may be no clearer evidence a player has made it then when divisiveness begins to swirl around their name.
Fresh off his sophomore season and helping the Lakers reach the Western Conference Finals, Austin Reaves may be the proof to this theory, as he has already complied his fare share of fans and detractors around the basketball stratosphere.
After going undrafted, Reaves’ face is now plastered on billboards around Los Angeles, is a member of team USA, and inked a multi-million dollar contract this summer. In nearly every sense, Reaves has made it, and cemented himself as one of the league’s budding young stars in the process. His approval rating, however, has yet to reflect that.
Ask any non-Lakers’ fanbase about their thoughts on Reaves, and their responses will likely range wildly. The main hostility that has surrounded him often is rooted around the friendly whistle he’s received through his first two seasons in the league.
Despite how the argument ignores the non charity stripe element to Reaves’ game, which is you know — pretty good — there is definitely some truth to the idea that Reaves has received a generous whistle.
According to Cleaning the Glass, no player that logged at least 1000 minutes and was not listed as either a forward or big had a higher shooting-fouled percentage (% of shot- attempts a player is fouled on) than Reaves last season. To repeat, no player.
To add some further context to this, 20.7% of Reaves’ shot-attempts resulted in a shooting foul, that’s a higher rate than the likes of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luka Doncic, Trae Young and the king of the whistle himself, James Harden.
This is not to say that Reaves drew more free-throws than these players, but more outlines that that nearly a quarter of his shots resulted in a trip to the line. An almost unfathomable rate for a second-year, undrafted player that relies almost entirely on outmaneuvering the opposition.
As a result, there has naturally been some opposing opinions on how and why Reaves draws so many calls.
In his supporters’ eyes, the flurry of free-throws is a byproduct of Reaves’ on-ball craft, the deft angles he takes on the floor and his thirst for contact. For others, his free-throws are conceived from grifting, Lakers’ exceptionalism and simply finding shortcuts.
In reality, the truth probably lies somewhere in-between.
Even his most extreme detractors will at least praise Reaves’ ability to create separation and get to his spots regularly despite a lack of overt athleticism. Two skills that it’s worth noting gets defenders off balance and makes them prone to foul calls.
On the other side of the coin, Reaves has also shown he’s taken lessons at the Ric Flair school of selling, as he himself has admitted to studying the foul-drawing ability of James Harden and Trae Young to implement into his game. Two players that have notoriously received backlash in their careers for their excessive trips to the line.
Regardless of where you stand on the Reaves’ foul-drawing spectrum, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore it or him.
Last month, the Lakers released a 15-minute long video composed entirely of Reaves’ And-1’s this past season. The video was a perfect embodiment of Reaves and the foul-drawing debate — as each finish through contact (often initiated by him) showcased his acrobatic shotmaking, and the type of hell he puts defenders through when leveraging their own bodies and league guidelines against them.
Something like the hand-checking rule has made it more difficult to defend on the perimeter than ever before, and players like Reaves are simply taking advantage.
Like it or not, it’s what players have sought out in every era of the sport. In a game dictated on finding even the slightest of advantages on a per-possession basis, loopholes can’t be ignored if legal. And those players who are percieved too pure to muddy the honor of the game? They too have exploited the rules to their benefit.
What often is viewed as cheating the sport or shaking a fist at the basketball gods is also ignoring the fact that it takes a certain level of skill to even do so.
Not every individual can go out there and draw fouls for the sake of it. A player needs to be able to manipulate the defense with the threat of their scoring, ball-handling, driving and passing to get their defenders’ limbs in places they shouldn't be.
For every finger that points out the referees helping out Reaves, there are countless others overlooking the fact that he ranked in the 80th percentile or better among all wings in efficiency at the rim, midrange, from three, AST%, and eFG% last season.
And it’s worth pointing out that not everything is foul-baiting, as the bruises and shiners Reaves annually sports can attest. The guy gets hit a lot. But unlike other players who tend to shrink against an uptick in physicality, as Reaves’ playoff run recently exemplified, it's nearly impossible to faze him.
Perhaps his best NBA skill then is the ability to not only take punishment, but seek it out despite the consequences. Whether it’s taking a charge (8th most in the league) or getting smacked in the face trying to secure a rebound, Reaves lives for the scrum.
So yes, he’s going to get the whistle a lot in his career, and it will undoubtedly annoy every other fanbase when it happens. But, don't let it overshadow all the other positives that help compose the promising player who has carved out a role for himself.
Reaves has found an important niche, but it’s only a singular gene in what is still an evolving basketball-playing molecular composition.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.