It’s a new age in L.A. Move out of the way, LeBron James. Make way for… Austin Reaves. OK, chew on that for a minute, swallow the thought, and breathe. There’s obviously room besides Reaves in the Los Angeles Lakers’ lineup for the scoring king when he’s healthy enough to return to action. LeBron is 38 though, so he can pick up the slack when Reaves or Anthony Davis needs reinforcements.
Hyperbole aside, the 24-year-old Reaves might be bumping against his ceiling already, but, LeBron is still on the shelf, Davis is too injury-prone and the Lakers need a main character for the home stretch. Reaves’ background as a farm boy from a town in Arkansas with a population of about 1,200 only supplements the story’s Tinseltown’s potential. Between his trek from shooting specialist at Wichita State to dynamic All-Big 12 scorer during his senior year at Oklahoma, Reaves was anonymous on the national scene. Now he’s the rare white American NBA superstar.
Benefitting from Russ’s absence
Since Russell Westbrook was traded, Reaves has been the Lakers’ biggest beneficiary and he’s about to get showered with gamma-radiation levels of attention. Westbrook got the toxic form of that attention. We’re not yet approaching Lin-sanity territory after Wednesday night’s showcase in a win over the Phoenix Suns, but it can’t be far behind. Following his 35-point explosion against the Orlando Magic on Sunday, the NBA’s official YouTube page compiled an hour of “Austin Reaves Highlights.” Spend the time you would have used checking out saccharine Ted Lasso content on some Reaves content instead. But, what if he never actually “goes away” like Linsanity?
Darvin Ham responded to Reaves’ career-high outburst on Sunday by inserting Reaves into the starting lineup against the Phoenix Suns. In Reaves’ inaugural frame as a starter, he delivered 10 points. By the end of the first, his confidence was growing after he left Cam Payne off-balance and sliced through the lane for a nifty tear drop over a closing big that had everyone watching staring at the ramp, imagining Jim Ross giving us all tinnitus while screeching, “Bah gawd, that’s Stone Cold Reaves Austin’s music!”
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He even notched 11 assists to pair with 25 points and was integral to Los Angeles’ win over the Suns. Those 25 weren’t just hot shooting from behind the arc either. He started off by putting Chris Paul on the menu, using his body to bump Chris Paul off of him, draw a foul, hang in the air for an extra tick and drop a slick pull-up.
But Reaves’ emergence is also a necessary superlative on Rob Pelinka’s resume. The paucity of homegrown, young talent on the Lakers roster since the 2019 purge has always made Lakers fans cynical of the LeBron-Pelinka era. Reaves would be the first homegrown talent to pop in L.A. since Alex Caruso. Caruso earned his place in the league as a contemporary Billy Hoyle-grade combo guard who emphasized lockdown defense and occasionally flashed “sneaky athleticism.” But he wasn’t generating offense off the dribble at a high-volume capacity, thriving in pick-and-rolls with Davis and getting to the line.
Late draft picks and undrafted free agents can change the trajectories of franchises in more unexpected ways than overspending on free agents. An extreme example is the Golden State Warriors and Draymond Green. Or more modestly, the New Jersey Nets finding a Benjamin on the sidewalk in the form of Stephen Jackson circa 2001. Since 2020, the Lakers have relied on more stringers and free agent temps than most of the league’s 30 regional of franchise-offices. The return of D’Angelo Russell was a popular move because it was the triumphant return of a player they’d grown attached to after he was shipped out to make room for them to draft Lonzo Ball in 2017.
Former Laker second-round pick Talen Horton-Tucker’s microwave scoring and ridiculous wingspan earned him the adoration of Laker Nation and tricked Pelinka into prioritizing him over Caruso, but he could only dribble to one side and his 27-percent career 3-point shooting had a dampening effect on the floor spacing. Discovering a playmaking wing though could be a boost for a Laker team that probably won’t contend next year, but needed to find a complementary piece for their 2024 run. Reaves might be better than complementary, though.
In his last 11 games since March 1, he’s registered 18 points, five boards, attempting eight free throws per contest while posting lots of 56 percent from the field, 37 percent from distance, and draining 83 percent of his freebies from the charity stripe. Of course, Reaves’ timing makes him more expensive to keep in purple and gold as he enters restricted free agency this summer. Defenses will adjust to Reaves’ tendencies and then we’ll see what he’s made of, but contemplating teams shifting a small percentage of their focus and effort on a contributor, who isn’t Russell or Davis or LeBron is a positive.
The Lakers will also have to shift a higher percentage of their salary cap to Reaves as well. He’s played well enough that the Lakers reportedly will be ready and willing to offer him a max contract in the four-year, $50 million range this offseason or go higher to match if he agrees to a lucrative offer sheet elsewhere.
Reaves hasn’t reached Caruso earning the fourth-highest tally among guards in the All-Star voting in the hypebeast machine, but if Caruso and some forward named Anthony Davis can lead a Bron-less squad to the postseason or play-in, he’ll do two things. Reaves will earn a place in Laker lore, secure a future on the roster and provide some nutrients in the empty-calorie roster assembled around LeBron for this season and beyond.
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