How Austin Reaves unlocked LeBron James, Anthony Davis -- and the Lakers

ByDave McMenamin ESPN logo
Saturday, April 29, 2023

AUSTIN REAVES TURNS the corner out of the FedEx Forum visitors locker room, bounding down a back hallway after showering and getting dressed following an upset Game 1 first-round win against the Memphis Grizzlies. An hour prior, he was pounding his chest and proclaiming "I'm him!" after scoring nine straight points in the final minutes of the Lakers' 128-112 win.

As he walks, an influential set of eyes are fixed upon him.

LeBron James, fresh off his 175th career postseason win, is looking at the guy who just won his first. A few paces behind, James doesn't need to see Reaves' face to know that it is, indeed, him.

"This motherf---er," James says, shaking his head in delight at the sight of Reaves' tousled brown hair, still damp from the shower, peeking out from his hoodie.

The second-year guard, undrafted out of Oklahoma and originally signed by L.A. to split his time between the G League and the Lakers on a two-way contract, had just dominated the Grizzlies with 14 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter. James happens to be in the middle of an interview about Reaves when who else but the 24-year-old comes into view.

"I don't give a f--- about, like, athleticism; how great you can shoot the ball; how high you can jump; how fast you can run," James tells ESPN as he files out of the arena after Reaves. "I like high basketball IQ guys. Obviously, you got to have that s--- to win a championship. You got to have guys that can do extraordinary s---. But like, I've always had a liking to guys that just know how to play the f---ing game of basketball."

Much like how the Lakers went from a 2-10 start this season to one of the hottest teams in the league heading into the playoffs, Reaves' ascent was steep. He played fewer minutes on opening night than Matt Ryan -- a 3-point specialist signed to a non-guaranteed deal and waived in December -- but became perhaps the Lakers' most consistent player after the All-Star break. He's already done enough to assure him a future option to stay in L.A. And just how long Reaves can extend the current wave he's riding could determine how far the Lakers can go this spring.

In the Lakers' final 11 regular-season games, Reaves averaged 19.8 points and 6.1 assists while shooting 58% from the field, 46% from 3 and 90% from the free throw line. L.A. went 9-2.

REAVES REACHING THE zenith of his career couldn't have come at a better time.

Just two games after the All-Star break in February, when L.A. was eager to acclimate the new players acquired at the trade deadline, James suffered a torn ligament in his right foot that would sideline him for a month.

D'Angelo Russell, who replaced Russell Westbrook at point guard, missed seven of the Lakers' next 14 games because of various injuries.

While all the discourse around L.A.'s roster revamp was centered on the departures of Westbrook and Patrick Beverley and the arrivals of Russell, Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, Mo Bamba and Malik Beasley, the new group's developmental period opened the door wide open for Reaves.

"The trade deadline isn't always what you bring in," Rob Pelinka, Lakers general manager and vice president of basketball operations, told ESPN. "It opened up a lane for him [Reaves] to really get on ball a little bit more and kind of show some of the skills that might have been dormant when there were other players playing.

"[It was] definitely a consideration around Austin and how do we free up more -- both time for him and then ability to make plays with the ball in his hand. Because the analytics show, he's highly effective."

In the final 10 games of the season, L.A., when shooting directly off passes from Reaves, had a 70.2% effective field goal percentage, which ranked fifth among 40 players with qualifying assist opportunities during that time, according to Second Spectrum.

"I think the brand of basketball we played since the trade deadline, it's been really good," Reaves said. "Everybody's been involved in the flow of the offense and then everybody's just making the extra pass. So it's easy, because you've got defenses scrambling."

His game stood out even more when he shared the floor with James and Anthony Davis. In the 390 minutes the three played together during the regular season, the Lakers outscored their opponents by 14.3 points per 100 possessions. They were also the best Lakers trio on the defensive end, allowing just 102.2 points per 100 possessions when on the floor together.

"He's a good complement for us," Davis said. "He just knows how to play the game and he's tough. When you put guys like that around me and Bron, kind of the same role as AC [Alex Caruso]. ... Guys who just do all the dirty work but also can play, it really complements me and Bron."

Parallels were quickly drawn between Reaves and the departing Caruso. Both were four-year, undrafted players with a glue-guy playing style and, both American-born, white players -- a rarity in today's NBA.

The same week Reaves signed his two-way contract with L.A. in the summer of 2021, Caruso signed a four-year, $37 million contract to join the Chicago Bulls.

"It was kind of like a story at that point," Reaves said. "I just knew if I just kept grinding, my game would be appreciated more as a basketball player instead of someone trying to come in and fill what Caruso did for this organization."

Russell, who has become fast friends with Reaves, hitting the golf course together as much as schedules allow, sees the stereotypes Reaves has to combat.

"In the NBA you see a white guy, he's usually the shooter and he usually can't guard anybody," Russell told ESPN. "Or he's tough and can't do anything else. For him to have a little bit of everything, I think it ... helps the situation. And ... he's a killer. When you recognize a killer that [has the mentality of], 'I'll score 40 on you ... and then I'll try to score 50 on you.' He's that guy. Like if he's going, he's going to go and there's no holding back.

"I think that's what people recognize. He can really take the game over."

Reaves followed up his Game 1 flourish in Memphis with 23 points and six assists in the Lakers' Game 4 overtime win to go up 3-1 in the series. He helped secure the extra session by taking a pass from Hachimura on the wing, blowing by Xavier Tillman, Euro-stepping around Desmond Bane and finger-rolling a layup off the glass with his right hand and over the outstretched arm of Jaren Jackson Jr., to tie the game with 43.1 seconds left in regulation.

Lakers coach Darvin Ham admits when he observed Reaves in open runs last summer, he wasn't sure what to make of his game.

"At first I was like, 'Man, this dude is so undisciplined,'" Ham said.

Reaves remembers a sequence during an early-season practice when he started to change his coach's perception.

"I shot, like, a left-hand scoop layup high off the glass over AD," Reaves said. "And I made it. He came over and was like, 'Oh, you have that in your bag?' And I kindly was like, 'I think I have a lot in my bag that a lot of people don't know.'"

Ham laughed when informed of Reaves' version of events.

"I mean, he works on that," Ham told ESPN. "He said, 'No, I work on that shot, Coach.' So it's like, to his credit, he does. I played with wild guys. I've coached wild guys. He's more in the light of, there's a method to his madness, you know what I mean? He's not just out there trying s---, right?

"As our relationship grew and grew and me seeing him and seeing how he's manipulating different scenarios on the floor, you just gain that trust."

THE LAKERS WANT that trust to continue well into the future. L.A. will have to extend a $2.2 million qualifying offer to make Reaves a restricted free agent, and because of his early Bird rights, the Lakers can offer him a first-year salary of up to $11.4 million, according to ESPN NBA front-office insider Bobby Marks. If he signs an early Bird deal, it will have to be for at least two years, not including any option years.

"I think about it quite a bit, honestly," Reaves said. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't, just because, I've played basketball for so long and in college, there wasn't an NIL deal, so I was basically playing for free. You get your school paid for, but I wasn't that interested in school. So just to see and have the opportunity for all the times that I've questioned basketball -- even in high school, like, 'Am I ever going to get a Division I offer?' When I'm at Wichita State, 'Am I going to get an increased role?' Really getting to a place here I can be myself, it means a lot that, all the time that I put in that it's coming to the top now."

There certainly could be outside offers. A rival Western Conference executive told ESPN that Reaves' combination of age, skill set and salary slot would make him an attractive option for "literally every team in the league." A franchise with the requisite salary-cap space could backload a multiyear offer to Reaves that would pay him $60 million over four years, starting at $11.4 million but leaping to $18.5 million in the final two, according to Marks, but both Reaves and the Lakers sound committed to striking a deal.

"I would love to be here my whole career," Reaves said. "Just the way that the fans treat me, the love they have for me, as an undrafted player, it's kind of like they raised me type of vibe. ... It feels like it's meant to be. It feels like this all happened for a reason and this is where I should be."

After Caruso walked in 2021 and then Malik Monk, Reaves' Arkansan youth basketball buddy, left the Lakers for Sacramento last summer despite L.A.'s desire to keep him, the thought of Reaves leaving would be a brutal o'fer for a front office tasked with surrounding James and Davis with reliable help. L.A.'s intent is to keep Reaves in the fold. But recent history has only cemented the maxim that money talks.

Said Pelinka: "There's a mutual desire. ... Those are the type of guys you want in your program - that it's team first, it's sacrifice everything to win a game, competition above individual stats. That's kind of what the DNA -- especially for our young guys -- that we wanted to represent. And he's an example of that."

Ham believes Reaves' run can continue to evolve from novelty act to role player to full-fledged legitimacy.

"He's not going to be satisfied," Ham said. "He's a kid that wants to extract as much out of the league as he possibly can during his playing career, which is just starting out. I think the sky's the limit. I think he could potentially be an All-Star."

But first, there's a playoff run to tackle.

"I was joking with him [James] the other day," Reaves said of his conversation with LeBron ahead of the postseason. "I was like, 'Man, you've taken all these teams to the Finals. Take me! Take me!'"

If Reaves keeps playing the way he has in this first-round playoff battle against Memphis, he'd be taking James to the Finals, too.

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