PHILADELPHIA — Three-point game, 11 seconds left. With LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook all on the court, who gets a crack at the tying basket?
Faced with this scenario on Friday night, the Lakers went with a fourth option. James was the inbounder in an action designed for Austin Reaves. And while the 24-year-old has hit some big punches before, what happened in the close game against Philadelphia was perhaps even more telling: He was fouled behind the line by Tobias Harris, who winced at the whistle – fooled again.
Later, Reaves (who scored 25 points) would blame himself for only making the first two at the foul line in what would end up playing out as an overtime loss: “If I don’t make them, my mom will call me or my daddy will call me or slap me because they’re free,” Reaves recently told the Southern California News Group.
But in the first quarter of the season, the Lakers came to rely on a somewhat startling revelation: If you give Reaves, who averages just 10.9 points per game, the ball on offense, something good is about to happen. No one would mistake the skinny sophomore guard for an All-Star, but he’s quietly become one of the NBA’s most effective scorers.
“He has all my faith and the faith of our coaching staff,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said, “in the sense that every time he’s in the game and he’s got the ball between the hands, he’s going to make good play on both sides of the ball.”
What might serve him best is a kind of old-fashioned footwork that’s as unpredictable as it is clever. He has foul balls, like the one that stunned Detroit’s Jalen Duren last month as Reaves dived for an up-and-under. His false header along the baseline was a go-to move, like when he hoodwinked Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and passed a Defensive Player of the Year nominee for a shot out of the glass. He’s found ways to shake his head or legs in his shooting motion when he senses a defender nearby, which brings him to the line at critical moments like the end of the game with the Sixers.
He’s a borrower: Reaves admits he fired the ball partly from former team-mate Rajon Rondo and tried to foul like James Harden. His fake header from the corner draws a throwback to former Hawks star Steve Smith’s “Smitty” move. He was a fan of Manu Ginobili – some of the advanced footwork is reminiscent of the Spurs legend. After a long break at a recent press conference, Ham compared Reaves to longtime Phoenix swingman Dan Marjele because “he could do a bit of everything.”
Reaves jokes that he has no choice but to get in his bag because he’s not as athletic as the competition: “I wish I could dunk it all, but I can’t. ” But his teammates notice his dedication to the craft.
“He’s been playing amazing for us,” Davis said recently. “He constantly asks all the older guys questions, and he really wants to improve. He’s watching a movie, admitting his mistakes.
Reaves caught the eye earlier this season as he enjoyed a legendary 50-40-90 line of fire (FG%, 3FG% and FT%). His 3-point percentage has dropped in the game since, but he’s still shooting 51.5% from the floor, 37.2% from three and 90.8% from the line in 25 games. On Saturday afternoon, Reaves was the only player to shoot those averages or better while playing at least 500 minutes (the Clippers’ Luke Kennard had high shot counts but played less than 400 minutes this season).
If that sounds surprising for a player who was shooting 46-32-84 last season, well, yes. Even as a college player, Reaves has never put together a shooting season as impressive as this one. Reaves acknowledged a slight change in the emphasis of his form…but there’s no other real secret, he said.
“Just a bit of emphasis was really getting my ‘end to end’ following,” he told SCNG. “Instead of pushing it, really snapping the wrist and holding it, staying in the shots was the goal. But in the end, it was just being in the gym every day, a few times a day to repeat it.
Statistics site Cleaning the Glass puts Reaves at the head of some fascinating metrics. Golden State’s Stephen Curry, for example, averages 1.38 points per shot attempt, one of the best marks for a guard. Granted, on much lower usage – Reaves attempts 6.8 shots versus Curry’s 20.3 – Reaves is right behind him at 1.37 PSA.
Nor is there a rotational guard in the NBA who fouls on a higher percentage of his shot attempts than Reaves, who reaches the line one in five shots – a number tied with forwards like Paolo. Banchero from Orlando or Jimmy Butler from Miami rather than a guard playing as a wing. It also helps that Reaves is fourth in charges drawn this season with nine in 25 games.
Most convincing may well be his influence on the team’s attack. Davis, one of the NBA’s leading scorers over the past month, and Westbrook, a pace-driven assist machine, have the best on-court differential in offensive rating (plus-9.0 and plus-8.0). But Reaves is right behind them with a differential of more than 5.4: although he is not the engine of the attack on the field, he is arguably the best complement to the Lakers for this purpose.
Even the Arkansas native didn’t know about some of his more flattering efficiency metrics until a recent interview, but it fits the way he tries to play the game: he’s always looking for an easier shot.
“I don’t feel like I have to get into the paint and force the stuff,” he said. “I can reach the paint, use fake shots, reach the free throw line, make plays. I never want to be one-dimensional, so the pictures I take in the painting are really good. These are never really super hard shots.
And with Reaves taking them, the Lakers may have unusually high confidence that the points will somehow follow.
California Daily Newspapers