Austin Reaves can be described as unassuming in a variety of ways.
When you watch him play for the Los Angeles Lakers, he doesn’t immediately stand out as one of the most important players on the court. The skinny guard second-year guard out of Oklahoma is surrounded by star talent in Los Angeles, but sooner or later you realize that he’s involved, play after play after play.
Over the last two weeks, the Lakers have needed him. The 16-time world champions are 9-12 overall and 13th in the Western Conference Standings. They’re also 20th in net rating, 26th in offensive rating and despite being the fastest-paced team in the league, only 14th in scoring, much of that coming from a dreadful start to the regular season.
Still, over the last couple of weeks, there’s been a glimmer of hope in Hollywood. They’re 7-3 over their last 10 games, and while three of those victories are against the tanking San Antonio Spurs, are showing a little bit more offensive firepower than earlier in the season. Despite the start, new head coach Darvin Ham made some adjustments and is beginning to establish an identity in Los Angeles, and that starts with Reaves.
Reaves, who is hilariously nicknamed “Hillybilly Kobe” on Basketball Reference, has been somewhat of another revelation in the Los Angeles organization the last season plus. The 6-foot-5 guard was a standout player in college, but nobody expected much to translate to the NBA. So far, he’s thrived alongside the star-studded roster of the Lakers, becoming one of the most efficient players in basketball. It seems it’s made him more confident attacking the basket.
Reaves’ shooting splits are 53.5/40/91 for the season, nearly on pace to join the heralded 50/40/90 list of efficient scoring. Even crazier, Reaves is among the league leaders in TS% at .705, almost unheralded for a guard of his level. Typically when you look at the leaders in true shooting, it’s big men at the top who get shots around the basket. Last season, the top 10 players in true shooting were all big men.
When guards do crack the top 10 list, it’s pure catch-and-shoot guards like Duncan Robinson and Joe Harris, who have both made the top 10 in the last three seasons. Reaves is shooting at a very high clip from deep, but he’s taking significantly less percentage of shots from distance than both of those players.
When Robinson was top 10 in 2020, 88 percent of his shots were from beyond the arc. When Harris was top 10, 63 percent of his shots were from distance. Reaves is only taking 47 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, showing a balanced approach to his offensive repertoire.
During the Laker’s run, Reaves’ has seen his minutes go up over time. He currently averages 28.8 minutes per game, but during this 10-game run, he’s at 32.4 minutes per game. He’s also seen an uptick in production and over that stretch, his production is 15.7 points per game, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists on 61.6/46.4/92.7 shooting splits. His best game of the season came against the Portland Trail Blazers, where he scored 22 points on 7/10 shooting to go along with five rebounds. It wasn’t one conventional thing he did exceptionally well, but his ability to contribute by doing a little bit of everything. He scored on a short roll to the rim, attacking one-on-one against an unbalanced defense, and off catch-and-shoot situations.
He’s also been productive on the defensive end, taking away a lot of the lead guard defensive responsibilities from Westbrook and James to allow them to rest and taking it upon himself to come up with stops. Currently, the Lakers are a much better team with Reaves on the court on both ends, as he leads the team in on/off offensive rating difference at +8.0. That’s even compared to James, one of the best players in league history, who’s a -7.1 difference with on/off production this season for the purple and gold, and Davis, who is +5.3. Not to say that Reaves is better than either player (really, I’m not saying that at all), but his impact on the team’s productivity is clear.
When the Lakers won the 2020 championship, a big reason for their success, along with James and Davis playing at superstar levels, was that their role players such as Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope weren’t afraid to do the little things and helped establish the identity of that Lakers team. Moreso than anything else, the team lost those attributes over the last two seasons, letting Caruso walk and trading KCP and others in the Russell Westbrook trade. They lost their identity and lost players like Reaves, that find ways to do the gritty things that make bad teams good, or good teams great.
Reaves’ increased production has paid dividends to the Lakers on the court. If they want to get back to the playoffs, players like him will be key to the team’s success.