MANILA, Philippines — It’s been just over a week since the 2023 FIBA World Cup commenced, and with four games now under his belt, it’s fair to say that Austin Reaves has exceeded expectations so far for Team USA. The Lakers guard has played a significant role in the Americans’ ongoing undefeated stint in the tournament.
Coming off the bench, Reaves is currently averaging 11.8 points, 3.8 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and 2.3 steals in 20.9 minutes per game. The USA men’s basketball team has played four games in Manila and in one of those, specifically against Greece, the undrafted guard was rewarded as the player of the game honors — on a team that features the likes of Anthony Edwards, Paolo Banchero, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Ingram and some of the upcoming superstars in the NBA.
Reaves’ contributions to the second unit, arguably Team USA’s strongest asset in the tournament so far, have stood out. Not only has he provided consistent scoring (he led the team with 15 points in last Monday’s victory against Greece) but according to head coach Steve Kerr, he’s done a superb job taking on some point guard responsibilities for the team and pushing the pace that unleashes their deadly transition offense, all while playing hard on both ends of the floor.
Like his past two seasons with the Lakers, the 25-year-old has excelled in his role as a connector for Team USA. Reaves has seen consistent minutes on the court and has earned Kerr's trust to close out games, much to the delight of the Philippine crowd.
And speaking of those fans, nothing brings them more joy than seeing the Laker — who has become the most popular basketball player in town — thrive and shine in the World Cup. Every single time Reaves is introduced as a member of the US squad, scores, holds the basketball, or even just checks into the game, the sellout Manila crowd reacts as if they just found out that they no longer have to pay their monthly taxes.
As if the MOA crowd wasn’t enough, Filipino Lakers fans camped in the hotel to greet Austin Reaves after the game. A lot of “You’re HIM!” chants when he walked inside the hotel.— Nicole Ganglani (@nicoleganglani) August 26, 2023
Video by Klaus Lagumen pic.twitter.com/CmAkfPN2C6
It’s been an eventful week for Reaves, who has been greeted and celebrated by his Filipino fans wherever he steps foot anywhere around town. And as someone who’s currently covering the FIBA World Cup here in Manila for Silver Screen and Roll, I’ve had the chance to sneak in a couple of interviews with Austin himself, after the games and during Team USA practice.
Here is a collection of quotes I’ve garnered from Reaves in the past week, in which he’s talked about his experience in the tournament so far, the warm reception he’s gotten from his fans here in Manila, his thoughts on his role on the team, the lineup adjustments that Kerr has implemented in the last two games, and more.
On the love he’s received in the Philippines:
In Team USA’s first game in Manila against New Zealand last Saturday, it was established that Reaves was the most popular player on the team, at least in the Philippines. In a game that featured local politicians, celebrities, and influencers present in attendance as part of the crowd at the Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena, it was Reaves who heard the loudest cheers in the fully packed stadium.
After the game, Reaves reflected on the ovation and love he’s received since stepping foot on Philippine soil, and talked about what it has meant to him:
“It’s special to me. I knew coming out here, there’s a lot of Lakers fans, which is lovely,” Reaves said. “I love that and I appreciate that. But just the way they greet me and appreciate me like you said the love, the ovations and all that like, I don’t take that stuff for granted because you know, looking back three years ago if you told me that I would be here with this amount of love, I’d look at you sideways and go ‘Ah, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
“It’s special and it’s something I don’t take for granted.”
Did Reaves expect this kind of reception?
When asked whether or not he anticipated being treated like a rockstar in the Philippines, the Lakers guard said that he saw it coming thanks to his assistant coach Phil Handy, who visited the Philippines last June and is currently in town to support his mentee.
“Yeah, I kind of saw it coming. I was talking to Phil Handy and he was telling me how popular the Lakers are,” Reaves said. “It’s just special for me. I’m from a super small town. Not a lot of people expected me to be here representing the country so for them to accept me the way they accept me, means a lot to me.”
On whether he’s grown uncomfortable under the spotlight:
Of course, being under the Philippine spotlight is no easy task. Just ask any local politician or celebrity who holds a certain status and they’ll tell you firsthand that it’s not always a fun experience and that it can get uncomfortable at times.
That experience becomes a little more extreme if you’re a Laker visiting the Philippines, a country that has an enormous, die-hard fanbase that bleeds purple and gold — as someone who was born and raised here in the Philippines, I would estimate that 80% of basketball fans in the country are Lakers fans.
All of that is why it’s not a surprise to learn that Reaves is a bit weirded out by all the fame. But even though it can be a little wild at times, the incoming third-year guard admitted that he still appreciates the love he’s gotten from this basketball-crazy country and said that it’s a testament to all the hard work he’s put into his growing basketball career and how far he’s reached.
“Yeah, it’s weird for me. But when I’m not in it, I don’t think about it. I’m a normal human, I go home, I talk to my family. I didn’t bring my system, but I play a lot of video games,” Reaves said. “When everything’s happening, I appreciate all that and I love the love.
“But outside of the moments, I try not to think about it because I don’t want to get too high on it. I want to stay even-keeled and be the person I was even before I was here.”
On his summer filled with career milestones and achievements
It’s not only the Philippines that appreciates and loves Austin this much. The Lakers proved that when they re-signed their homegrown guard to a long-term, four-year, $56 million contract deal this summer, which will keep him in Los Angeles until at least 2026. That’s in addition to his new signature shoe deal — reportedly worth seven figures — with Chinese shoe brand Rigorer.
Add in that he’s now representing the United States on the biggest basketball stage in the world, suffice it to say that it’s been an incredible and memorable summer for the Arkansas native. He shared his thoughts about it moments before Team USA practice last Sunday:
Signing a long-term contract with the Lakers, a signature sneaker deal, and now competing for Team USA: It’s been an incredible summer for Austin Reaves.— Nicole Ganglani (@nicoleganglani) August 30, 2023
How does he feel about all this?
“I feel it’s kind of well deserved. I feel like a I’ve worked for this.” pic.twitter.com/M8JcWHcJd9
On Team USA’s slow starts in the tournament so far
Four games in, it has become evident that one of Team USA’s biggest weaknesses in the tournament so far is their slow start to games. One against New Zealand, where the Kiwis opened the game with a 14-4 lead, and then the other versus Montenegro, their most recent match, where the United States trailed 11-4 to start the first period.
When asked about their sluggish starts, Reaves expressed confidence in the team’s ability to figure their problems out during the game. Just like Kerr, Reaves is well aware that Team USA has enough depth to make up for the obstacles they’ve faced and believes that they have the ability to wear their opponents down in the midst of the game. Their hard-fought victory (85-73) against Montenegro is proof of that.
“You know, coach said many times that these games are not going to be the most beautiful thing in the world but at the end of the day if we win, none of that matters,” Reaves said. “I think all that kind of contributes to not (panicking) and feeling like we’re always in the game and have a chance.”
Reaves’ impact on the second unit
The team’s second unit, led by Reaves and Indiana Pacers All-Star Tyrese Haliburton, is one of the reasons why they’ve survived their awful starts. The Americans’ bench unit has outscored the starters in three out of their four games so far.
As part of that, Reaves became the first player to tally 15 points, five rebounds and five assists off the bench in a FIBA World Cup 2023 game, according to FIBA stats. He’s the first U.S. player to do it since the FIBA World Cup in 2010.
Kerr has commended Reaves and Haliburton specifically, for leading the charge in pushing the pace, moving the ball around on offense, and getting out in transition with the unit.
Steve Kerr echoed the same sentiment postgame. He commended both Haliburton and Reaves for leading the second unit. Same unit that cut the lead to 14-16 in the first quarter and concluded it with the lead a one point lead 19-18. pic.twitter.com/iDGx1P1blH— Nicole Ganglani (@nicoleganglani) August 27, 2023
“It kinda makes the game easy because we’re able to play in transition, and playing with these guys makes my life really easy because we just got to play the game the right way because like I said, the egos are non-existent,” Reaves said about the second-unit after USA’s first victory in the tournament against New Zealand.
On the decrease of his shot attempts after Kerr’s lineup adjustment
It didn’t take long for Kerr to try a new solution to the Americans’ slow starts. In their third match against Jordan, the Golden State Warriors head coach replaced Brandon Ingram, who was turning into an awkward fit on the starting lineup, for a connector type of player in Josh Hart.
Since Ingram was slotted into the second unit alongside Reaves and Haliburton, the team has made more of an effort to increase the New Orleans Pelicans forward’s shot attempts, making it a point to give him the ball more to help him find his rhythm and create shots for himself. That has affected Reaves’ scoring production and touches in the second unit, but he told me that didn’t bother him one bit.
I also asked Austin his thoughts on the lineup adjustment (slotting in BI with the second unit) and how that has decreased his touches and scoring production.— Nicole Ganglani (@nicoleganglani) September 1, 2023
“I don’t really care as long as at the end of the day we win gold and I’ll go home with the biggest smile on my face.” pic.twitter.com/qYOywfjn8K
On Kerr trusting him to close out games:
Still, Reaves adjusted to the lineup change by doing what he does best, which is to find ways to impact the game whether he’s scoring or not. He has looked out of sorts at times with the new second-unit lineup (he tallied his lowest-scoring game of the tournament against Jordan when the lineup adjustments were implemented) but that didn’t stop him from attempting to get to the free-throw line, giving it his all on defense and fighting for loose balls and rebounds.
Perhaps the biggest compliment he’s earned in this tournament was Kerr’s trusting him to close the game against Montenegro alongside Haliburton, Edwards, Mikal Bridges and Jackson Jr. Reaves rewarded that trust by helping that group build an 11-point lead and escape the game with their fourth win in a row.
I asked Austin Reaves after USA’s 87-73 victory his thoughts on Steve Kerr trusting him to close the game.— Nicole Ganglani (@nicoleganglani) September 1, 2023
Reaves: “I feel like Steve and the coaching staff do a great job of just playing off that with feel.” pic.twitter.com/5EL94aznrI
Kerr, named last year as one of the 15 best coaches in NBA history, had this to say about his decision to stick with Reaves in the closing lineup:
“I just felt like both Ty and Austin were playing great. And we went back to Ant and JJ and decided to keep these guys on the floor,” Kerr said. “It’s a good lineup. I think we had this lineup down the stretch against Germany if I’m not mistaken. And so it’s a lineup that we trust and we liked and they were playing well and in a good rhythm and they got the job done.”
This speaks volumes to Reaves’ vital impact and role on the team, and it’s further proof of his ascendance into becoming one of Team USA’s best players. Two years ago, who would’ve ever thought that an undrafted guard from Newark, Arkansas would be in the closing lineup in a significant game for the USA men’s basketball team in the FIBA World Cup tournament?
Whether you’re a Lakers fan or not, it’s easy to admire Reaves’ remarkable journey, because it’s been one of the most improbable we’ve ever seen.
On hitting a clutch three-pointer against Montenegro:
The best players find ways to produce, especially during the most important moments of the game, even when they’re struggling. And with two minutes to go in the fourth quarter against Montenegro, Reaves knocked down arguably the most clutch three in the tournament so far (despite struggling to score all game) to increase the Americans’ lead to seven, putting the MOA crowd into a frenzy.
AUSTIN REAVES!— Lakers Legacy (@LakersLegacyPod) September 1, 2023
Huge, stepback clutch 3.
His first actual basket of the game. pic.twitter.com/n2U33noz5B
When Reaves was asked postgame about his biggest basket of the tournament yet, he said that it was a shot his team expected him to make and one that was a good confidence boost for himself.
“It’s one of those plays if it goes in, I look good,” Reaves said. “If it doesn’t, everybody’s looking at me sideways. It’s basketball, and anybody on our team expects me to take and make that shot… It was a good feeling.”
Reaves’ growing relationship with Mikal Bridges:
Outside of the court, Reaves’ stint with Team USA has given him opportunities to promote his brand and of course, network. Lakers fans may have noticed his growing relationship with Nets star Mikal Bridges. who seems to be the teammate he’s closest with on this roster.
The two have often been spotted in pictures together in their summer tour, and even during the games, where I’ve seen them regularly exchange jokes and laughs and mimick each other’s three-point celebrations.
So in my attempt to be an “investigative” journalist, I asked Bridges about his growing bromance with Reaves as they’ve spent the last three weeks together. Here’s what the Brooklyn Net told me after their second match against Greece:
I asked Mikal about his relationship with Austin Reaves. Here’s what he had to say:— Nicole Ganglani (@nicoleganglani) August 30, 2023
“He’s goofy man, he plays around too much. All the time.” pic.twitter.com/lcJzfkSUwm
And no, I didn’t mean to start the propaganda to get Bridges to the Lakers. Let’s leave that job to Austin, who has proven that he can excel in any role he’s asked to do.
On whether or not he knew Darvin Ham played in the PBA
On a lighter note, I also asked Reaves the same question I asked Phil Handy last June — on whether or not he was aware that Lakers head coach Darvin Ham spent some time in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), the country’s professional basketball league.
Apparently, both Reaves and Handy had no idea, which means it’s probably safe to assume that Ham isn’t really that vocal about his time as a basketball professional in the Philippines.
I asked Austin Reaves if he knew that Darvin Ham played professional basketball here in the Philippines. Like Phil Handy, he had no idea . Here’s what he said: pic.twitter.com/AoZd4RJGVU— Nicole Ganglani (@nicoleganglani) August 27, 2023
I asked @94feetofgame if head coach Darvin Ham told him about his basketball stint in the Philippines.— Nicole Ganglani (@nicoleganglani) June 19, 2023
“Darvin didn’t tell me. I told Coach last week I was going to the Philippines and he didn’t talk about his experience here so I’m about to get on his case about that.”
What Reaves has been additionally vocal about, though, is how his time with Team USA is going do wonders for his career and development moving forward — just in time for the anticipated third-year leap that the Lakers are hoping for him to take this upcoming NBA season.
Hopefully, this FIBA chapter in Reaves’ inspiring career thus far is only the beginning of more milestones that await him moving forward.
You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani