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How Austin Reaves showed growth (and areas he can get better) for Team USA

Austin Reaves was incredibly efficient offensively in the World Cup, and the ways he needs to get better on defense may not matter as much when he plays for the Lakers.

2023 FIBA World Cup - USA Men’s National Team v Italy Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Nearly two years ago, Austin Reaves played his way into a standard contract with the Los Angeles Lakers after initially signing a two-way deal. Fast forward to today, and Reaves just wrapped up a great run with Team USA in the FIBA World Cup that would have seemed improbable to even the biggest optimists about the undrafted free agent back in 2021. For the 6’5 combo guard, this stretch is the latest step in his incredible journey to becoming a household name.

Even using basic per-game statistics alone, Reaves’ FIBA numbers pass the eye test, as he was third on the team in minutes (21.8), second in points (13.8) and steals (1.3), and fourth in assists (2.3). No player in the entire tournament scored more points off the bench than Reaves, as he joined Klay Thompson as the second USA player to score 100+ bench points in a FIBA World Cup Tournament since 2010. And when breaking down the film and statistics, there are plenty of positives for Reaves, although there are a few things that he’ll need to improve upon if the Lakers want to win an NBA championship.

After shooting 31.7% from beyond the arc as a rookie, Reaves made a leap to a much more consistent 38.3% in his second season. After watching him during the World Cup, it appears that his shooting leap is here to stick, as Reaves made 21 of his 40 3-point attempts in 13 games with Team USA (friendlies included). Although that comes out to an incredibly efficient 52.5% clip from deep, it is worth noting that the FIBA three-point line is slightly shorter than the NBA.

However, it wouldn’t be crazy to expect Reaves to connect at around a 40% clip from the 3-point line this season after that success.

Aside from his absurd 3-point efficiency, the Oklahoma product was generally one of the most consistent players for Team USA, as he also shot 63% from two-point range while making 56.6% of his total shot attempts. He also continued to show a knack for drawing contact from his defender, forcing referees to call a foul and put him at the free-throw line for scoring opportunities. He paced the Americans with 4.9 free-throw attempts per game while shooting nearly 95% from the charity stripe. It at least leaves the door open to the possibility that Reaves could put forth a 50/40/90 campaign in the near future.

In addition to these unreal efficiency marks, Reaves had two rangy putbacks in the tournament where he showed off his hops, including this dunk against Italy. The biggest offensive improvement that he needs to make is his ability as a primary ballhandler and playmaker, as he might be used a lot in this role with Los Angeles. While he showed some flashes of that ability during the end of the NBA season and the World Cup, he struggled at controlling the basketball, leading the Americans with 2.1 turnovers per game. This is something that he will need to correct as he gets more reps as a lead ball handler.

The defensive end of the floor is where other question marks were raised for Reaves throughout the tournament, especially toward the final few games for Team USA. After a solid start in the tournament defensively, Lithuania exposed Reaves by posting him up with their massive size advantage at the wing position. Reaves struggled to contain the length of the Lithuanian team, fouling out and playing his worst game of the tournament by far.

In the semifinals against Germany, Reaves was attacked on the perimeter, as shifty guards like Dennis Schröder and Isaac Bonga went at him in space, collapsing the defense. With a weak second line of defense and a lack of lateral foot speed, Reaves was torched again. Former Laker and eventual World Cup MVP, Schröder, hit the dagger over him to eliminate Team USA from gold medal contention.

Against Canada in the bronze medal game, Reaves played well offensively but was targeted on defense yet again. He struggled down the stretch when he was switched onto All-NBA player Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Canada even manipulated the Americans’ switch-everything defense to create a one-on-one post matchup for Kelly Olynyk against Reaves, where he committed a foul and surrendered a basket. Late in the game, he got bullied in transition by a bigger wing in RJ Barrett, surrendering a crucial bucket.

While there are plenty of bad defensive clips, they’ve usually come without proper context. Mainly, Team USA lacked superstar defensive talent, especially when you consider how porous the rim protection was for much of the World Cup. Jaren Jackson Jr. struggled throughout the slate, leaving the guards and wings to defend the paint paint without much size and quality help defense. It cannot be forgotten that Reaves was an above-average defender within the context of the Lakers’ defensive scheme, as he had the best rim protector in the NBA behind him, allowing him to operate more freely on defense.

It’s also worth noting that FIBA is a completely different game from the NBA, as the way teams attack on each end of the floor is barely reminiscent of the same sport. NBA teams attempt to space the floor and beat you from the outside, while national teams will often overpower you with their strength and size on the interior.

Regardless, there’s no excuse for Reaves or anybody on Team USA to get torched like they did. They are rightfully disappointed that they didn’t even medal at the World Cup.

Moving forward, Reaves will have to improve at guarding bigger players who play a more physical brand of basketball. It will be interesting to see if NBA teams attempt to manufacture one-on-ones with him in the post, as you know they’ve seen the tape of his international run. Over the course of his career, it will be worth watching whether Reaves can bulk up a bit more and maintain his foot speed while being able to hold his own against bigger wings in the NBA.

So while Reaves will likely be an afterthought for next summer’s Olympic team, he proved that he can play at the FIBA level and continues to showcase improvement as well as his wide array of skills. But even for all the pop that he displayed on the offensive end, there are some legitimate questions surrounding his defense.

As training camp looms closer, Lakers fans must be cautiously optimistic with Reaves, as his defensive struggles in FIBA certainly won’t be dismissed by other NBA teams. But he showed plenty of promise too, and as he continues to grow, there are plenty of reasons to still believe he can help bring the franchise its 18th NBA championship while meeting the sky-high expectations for himself.

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