After making a crucial mid-range shot in the fourth quarter of his first NBA playoff game, an energized Austin Reaves jogged back on defense and screamed toward the L.A. Lakers bench saying, “I’m him! I’m him!”
The meme-mable moment was one of the defining images of the 2023 NBA playoffs. It was extra special for Reaves because his basketball journey is better than a Hollywood script.
He came into the league as an undrafted free agent. He earned himself a roster spot with the Lakers in 2021 on a two-way contract before securing a fully guaranteed two-year, $2.4 million contract. This summer, he’s expected to attract several suitors in free agency. The Lakers can’t afford to lose Reaves and must do everything within their power to keep him on their roster.
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka told reporters during his end-of-season media availability that the team intends to keep its young core together, and at the top of that priority list is Reaves.
Pelinka sees Reaves as a major part in making the puzzle fit to compete for championships. But the league’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement might make it challenging for the Lakers to retain Reaves, who could potentially command a lucrative deal somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 million to $80 million.
The Lakers can offer Reaves — who is a restricted free agent — a four-year deal worth about $51 million. Opposing teams could offer Reaves nearly twice that amount, but the Lakers can match it.
“We have a lot of great young players,” Pelinka said. “Austin, in particular, had an incredible year. He defines really what’s at the heart of playing for the Lakers. He’s a selfless, team-first guy. He lives in the gym. He loves the big moment. He’s been able to meet the big moment. I think he’s a guy that, regardless on what his deal is, I don’t think it’s going to change him as a person. And we’ll hang our hat on guys like that, that compete, love the game, love their teammates. We’re proud to have him as part of this franchise.”
The blockbuster three-team trade in February that brought D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Malik Beasley to the L.A. and sent Russell Westbrook to Utah had a major ripple effect. But it wasn’t the result most expected.
Russell, who was thought to be the most valuable piece in the Westbrook trade, had a roller-coaster second tenure with the Lakers. When he was making shots, he was a major contributor. But when he struggled to score, he was useless on the court and became a defensive liability. Russell struggled mightily in the Western Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets, averaging just 6.3 points and shooting an abysmal 13% from 3-point range. D-Lo was so awful in the WCF that he lost his starting spot in Game 4. The Nuggets went on to sweep the Lakers and advanced to their first NBA Finals.
Vanderbilt had his moments on the defensive end, but was offensively challenged (shot under 20% from the field). He was in and out of the starting lineup and barely played in the fourth quarters. Beasley was suppose to provide the Lakers with some much-needed 3-point punch. But a terrible shooting slump (25% FGM) got him benched and the only time you saw him on the court was during garbage time.
Ultimately, the biggest benefactor in the Westbrook trade was Reaves.
Moving Westbrook elevated Reaves and gave him more opportunities as a primary playmaker, especially on pick-and-rolls. Reaves’ accent into the starting lineup coincided with the Lakers’ late-season push. AR earned the trust of Lakers head coach Darvin Ham and his staff, as well as the team’s superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who have embraced him with open arms.
There are approximately 450 guys playing in the NBA, and Reaves feels he belongs in this rare community.
“His game speaks volumes,” former Lakers guard and Spectrum SportsNet analyst Derek Fisher said about Reaves, who is becoming a fan favorite and something of a cult hero in Lakers Nation.
“[Austin is a] balanced offensive player. [He] can score at all three levels; at the rim, mid-range, pick and roll, shoot the three,” Fisher added. “He can guard multiple positions. Great basketball IQ. There’s no surprise in his production.
“Austin is a great example of it’s now where you start, it’s where you continue to finish as you move through your journey. Everybody’s journey is different. He has proven himself. And he’s not done yet.”
Fisher can relate to Reaves. Like Reaves, Fisher grew up in Arkansas. D-Fish was a key role player on the Shaq-Kobe teams in the early 2000s. His big moment came during the 2001 playoffs where he got in a zone and the Lakers rode his hot hand all the way to a second straight NBA title.
Reaves’ coming-out party came in Game 1 of the first-round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies. His fourth-quarter takeover carried the Lakers to an unexpected road victory in one of the most hostile environments in the basketball.
“There’s a lot of emotions. You dream about being on a stage like this,” Reaves said. “It’s the playoffs. I got hot late.”
On six straight possessions when the game was hanging in the balance, Reaves was responsible for 13 Lakers points that allowed L.A. to pull away. Reaves made two mid-range shots, a layup, a 3-pointer, knocked down two free throws and assisted on a Davis dunk.
He scored 14 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter on 5-for-5 shots from the field. For the game he was 8 for 13 from the field. Not a bad playoff debut for the second-year undrafted guard from Oklahoma.
“When you got guys like Bron and AD, it makes life a lot easier,” Reaves said. He said his first impressions on the playoffs is that the game is more physical but a lot of the “little stuff” stayed the same.
Reaves was instrumental in helping the seventh-seeded Lakers knock out the Grizzlies in six games. But he was far from done. He may not have produced highlight-reel moments against the Golden State Warriors in the conference semifinals, but he was a major factor in knocking out the defending NBA champs and essentially ending the Dubs’ dynasty.
Reaves was the steady hand Ham turned to whenever the Lakers offense goes off course. Each time the Lakers called on No. 15, he delivered in big-time fashion.
“We trust him with the ball in his hand, early in the game and late in the game,” LeBron said about Reaves. “I’ve been around the game long enough to know great basketball IQ players. I know the type of player that fit with my game. I knew Austin would be that right away. I’m gonna give a lot of credit to Coach [Frank] Vogel in throwing him into the fire and learn on the fly, and allow him to make mistakes. Play through a lot of stuff. But I knew the type of player we would get in Austin.”
Reaves was a huge Kobe Bryant fan growing up in Newark, Ark. Because of it, he was given the nickname Hillbilly Kobe. But former Lakers forward James Worthy, who now works for Spectrum SportsNet, may have the best nickname for Reaves’ old-school style of basketball: “Pistol Pete” Reaves.
Pistol Pete is a reference to the late great Pete Maravich, a basketball pioneer who mesmerized fans with a unique style that was the epitome of the way the game was played in the 1970s.
“I believe in all our ball handlers. I believe in [D’Angelo] Russell. I believe in [Dennis] Schroeder. But I have to say this, Reaves is the best decision maker of the three, especially down the stretch,” Worthy said. “He can pass. But more importantly he draws fouls. He can complete the old-fashioned 3-point play. When he gets the ball and starts to navigate and the defense is beside him or behind him, he is going to get that little bump, shot, floater or he’s gonna make the right decision.”
Reaves is a 3-handicap in golf, so he is extremely dialed in when it comes to details. And he is ultra competitive.
“He doesn’t panic. A lot of guys will make a pass one second too early. Not Reaves,” Worthy said. “He will wait. He is so fun to watch. Extremely smart player.”
For the past two years, the Lakers had been searching for a No. 3 option to complement LeBron and AD. As it turned out, the missing piece to their complicated puzzle was sitting under their nose. Or, sitting on their bench.
Reaves’ confidence grew with the increased playing time. Having more opportunities with the ball in his hands elevated his profile. Other NBA players, like Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard, were taking notice. Lillard tweeted: “My bad … Reaves like that.”
Reaves enjoyed a major breakout in the final three months of the season, and the Lakers posted the league’s best record since the All-Star break. In his final 18 regular-season games, Reaves averaged 18 points per game, shot 57% from the field, 42% from the 3-point line, and nearly 6 assists. In 64 games in his sophomore NBA season, he averaged 13.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists while shooting 52.9 percent from the floor and 39.8 percent from 3-ball range.
Reaves took his game to a higher level in the playoffs. He averaged nearly 17 points per game, five assists, and shot 56% from the field. He was even better in the conference finals, averaging 21.3 points, 5.3 assists while shooting lights out from the field (55%) and from behind the 3-point line (56%). He also was a perfect 15-for-15 from the free throw line. The Lakers were outplayed by the much more disciplined and cohesive Nuggets, but Reaves was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing playoff finish.
Reaves told reporters that the biggest lesson he learned in his first playoffs was how mentally taxing it was.
“I think the mental part of basketball and probably a lot of other sports is maybe more of the battle. You definitely become mentally drained at points of the year,” he said. “[You have] to keep that strong to have the discipline to stay up on your other treatment because when you get mentally drained sometimes all you want to do is lay in bed and go to sleep. So, the mental part is just as big as the physical part. And that’s basically what I’ve learned in this playoff push.”
L.A. owned the third-best net rating after the trade deadline, even with LeBron missing 16 games. With Reaves in the starting lineup with James, Anthony Davis, Russell and Vanderbilt, L.A. outscored opponents by 37 points in 77 minutes down the home stretch. During the play-in game against Minnesota, Reaves played the entire fourth quarter and overtime. It said a lot about Ham’s confidence in the second-year pro. Whenever Reaves was paired with LeBron and AD on the court, the Lakers +/- metrics were sky high.
Reaves has carved out a nice role on a squad with two players on the NBA’s top-75 team. His big jump puts the Lakers in a challenging spot to re-sign him this offseason. NBA insider Shams Charania said it would be tough for the Lakers to match any offer north of $60 million.
If a team offered Reaves four years, $90 million, which is not entirely impossible, the Lakers will have to bite the bullet and absorb the salary cap hit.
“I want to be here,” Reaves told reporters during exit interviews. “[L.A.] feels like home to me, in a sense. Obviously, it’s a lot different than my actual home. It’s a little bigger. A lot more people. Worst traffic. But, I told somebody a couple of months ago that it feels like home for me. The way the fans support me; players, coaching staff, front office. This is definitely somewhere I want to be, but we’ll see what happens.”