When the Los Angeles Lakers reached the final minutes of a tight game it desperately needed to win, the player with the ball in his hands on every possession on Sunday night wasn’t one of its superstars, but an undrafted second-year reserve guard who has made a career out of surpassing expectations.
Austin Reaves took over, scoring the Lakers’ last 10 points during the final 93 seconds of a 111-105 win over the Orlando Magic that breathed life into Los Angeles’ flickering playoff hopes while LeBron James is out with a foot injury.
Reaves ended up with a career-high 35 points, and Lakers fans serenaded him with chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” each time he stepped to the free-throw line down the stretch.
“It’s special,” Reaves said. “I grew up a Lakers fan, so to do it for this organization especially is surreal. Sometimes I’ve got to stop and really think about what I am doing. Obviously, I think all the odds were stacked against me from where I’m from.”
Reaves has become something more than another interesting find by the Lakers’ scouting department: The unsung prospect from rural Arkansas who played more baseball than basketball growing up is now a versatile, vital part of Los Angeles’ rotation. He’s in line for a huge pay raise in free agency this summer — after he helps the Lakers into the playoffs, he hopes.
“He carried us tonight with his play,” Anthony Davis said after Reaves added six rebounds and six assists while hitting nine of his 14 shots against Orlando. “He got whatever he wanted, pick-and-rolls, 3s, got to the line 18 times. We know what we have in Austin. We’re very confident in him.”
Reaves became only the seventh player in franchise history to score at least 35 points in a reserve role, but the way he got his points was particularly impressive. Driving to the hoop and shooting with confidence, he also repeatedly baited the Magic into fouls and then made 16 of his 18 free throws, both career highs.
“He gets a lot of those calls,” Davis said. “Me and Bron joke about it, like, ‘Man, we wish we could get some of those.’ As a guard, he’s able to — I don’t want to say manipulate the game — but to see how the game is being called and use it to his advantage, like guys who get a lot of free throws.”
Reaves said he has studied how James Harden and Trae Young draw fouls and attempted to incorporate their strategies into his game. Between his penchant for getting fouled and his physical approach on defense, Reaves regularly ends up moderately bloodied or bruised after games.
Reaves sees it as a way to help the Lakers without relying on superior strength or world-class speed. Lakers coach Darvin Ham calls him a daredevil, while James describes him as fearless.
“I’ve said many times I’m not the most athletic person in the world,” Reaves said. “I’m not the best at anything, but I think I’m really good at a lot of things.”
Reaves jokes about his limited athletic ability, yet he would be the most athletic person in almost any room in the world — except the room where he spends most of his life.
And basketball is in his blood: Both of his parents were accomplished players at Arkansas State, his mother a high-scoring 6-footer and his father a playmaking guard. He grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant, his grandmother’s favorite player.
He was modestly recruited out of high school, and he headed to the pros after five years in college at Wichita State and Oklahoma. He started out on a two-way contract with the Lakers last season but played his way into a firm NBA role as a rookie.
Reaves will be a restricted free agent this summer, and Lakers fans are already fretting about his future two years after they lost Alex Caruso, another undrafted find who played his way into a major role on the 2020 championship team. Los Angeles allowed Caruso to leave for Chicago apparently to avoid adding to its luxury tax bill, even though Caruso said he would have given a discount to stay.
The Lakers can match any contract offer given to Reaves, and it’s clear how its superstars feel about him: James cheered for Reaves’ big finish from the bench before tweeting about Reaves postgame: “You toooooo TOUGH!!”
Reaves smiled when he was shown the tweet, briefly looking like a star-struck Lakers fan once again.
“I felt like there was a really good chemistry IQ-wise from day one,” Reaves said of his bond with James. “Stuff like that (tweet) means a lot to me. Looking back in 20 years when I’m hopefully retired, playing golf every day, I can tell my kids, my grandkids.”
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