Austin Reaves’ ascension from undrafted rookie to NBA role player to playoff closer in the span of just two seasons shouldn’t be overlooked for its uncommonness. Let the record state: that is hard to do!
With success, however, also comes expectations. A byproduct of Reaves’ rapid climb is the assumption that not only are there more rungs remaining, but he’ll keep rising.
The biggest step the guard took last year, specifically during the Lakers’ Western Conference Finals run, came in his on-ball evolution. After primarily working off-the-ball next to the likes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Reaves swiftly earned the trust of his teammates and coaches as he made the most of every on-ball rep he was allotted.
No matter the gravity of the situation, Reaves showed poise well beyond his experience. As the team’s chief initiator, he allowed James and Davis a brief reprieve as he carved up defenses with his nuanced technique and moxie.
When he was checked by a smaller defender, Reaves created space with his body by putting the player in jail as he came off a pick. When matched up with a bigger defender, Reaves used their aggression against them, often drawing whistles with an assortment of head and shot fakes. And in the instances when it seemed like the defense shut off all remaining escape routes, he conjured an opening out of thin air as if he was pulling a rabbit from his hat.
Reaves’ impressive showing with the ball in his hands made it clear that he was ready for more. And although it’s only been seven games into the season, the Lakers seem to agree.
While noting that it is a small sample, Reaves’ responsibility on the offensive end has grown exponentially. According to Cleaning the Glass, the 25-year-old is posting career-highs in both usage rate (21.7%) and AST% (18.2%) while also averaging more dribbles and time per touch than ever before.
Although the increased shot-creation duties were expected given Reaves’ aforementioned flashes and James navigating his 21st season, the transition hasn’t been a smooth one for the third-year player.
After multiple seasons of hyper-efficiency, the guard is currently posting his lowest points per shot attempt and true shooting percentage to date. To compound matters, he is also turning it over a whopping 16.7% of the time, an unfortunate new career high.
Whenever there is a severe dissonance like the one Reaves is currently experiencing, multiple factors are typically at play. And in most cases, it comes with the package.
First, it is worth noting the role that fatigue may currently play as an important baseline. Between the regular season and the playoffs, Reaves logged over 1000 more minutes in his second year in the league compared to his first. Beyond his extended year, Reaves also played a large role on Team USA during FIBA play this past summer, which culminated just weeks before the Lakers’ training camp.
Although touching multiple branches, the fatigue element is not an all-encompassing excuse for Reaves’ uneven start to the season.
For example, with the ball in his hands more frequently, this has put Reaves in a position where it is up to him to consistently break down the defense to create an advantage or scoring opportunity. Given he does not possess the athleticism or size to do so innately, he has had to turn to his ball-handling or the reliance of a screen to do so.
According to the league’s tracking data, 7.4 of Reaves’ shot attempts per game this year have come after he has taken at least one dribble with 2.9 of those after 7+ dribbles. That former mark is nearly three more per game (4.5) than his output last season.
The degree of self-creation and energy exertion has negatively spilled over into multiple facets of his game, his legs and jumper most notably. After making strides with his perimeter scoring, Reaves’ shooting touch has cooled off through the Lakers’ first seven games.
Between his midrange and 3-point attempts, Reaves is only shooting a combined 33% on all shots that have not come at the rim.
While the laws of positive regression suggest Reaves’ shooting will normalize over a larger sample, what’s more telling than the misses is how his expanded role has impacted how his shots are derived.
Given the Lakers’ putting Reaves literally into the middle of the action, the guard has not been able to benefit from his star teammates’ gravity as often as he once had. Only 40% of Reaves’ makes this season have come via an assist — down 16% from last year and 34% from his rookie season.
This has emphasized the necessity for Reaves to execute on his own and often, on the move.
The changes to his utilization have not entirely shredded his off-ball past. He is still setting inverted screens for James and is still relocating for a spot-up chance. Yet they have had to take a backseat with Reaves’ evolution from finisher to creator.
Per the league’s Synergy data, 38% of Reaves’ play profile has come as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, which equates to 5.9 possessions per game. These are both up from his 26.3% rate and 2.8 possession average last season.
While he is no stranger to operating out of the pick and roll, the challenges Reaves has faced have come more from adjusting how to do so specifically in the Lakers’ new 5-out system.
Although a 5-out setup theoretically creates more space and openings for a ball-handler to exploit, a player still must nail down where the boundaries and gaps in the alignment are. This rewiring period takes patience and practice, especially when you also couple in a slew of injuries to key players and have to learn the tendencies of new teammates.
There have been multiple instances when Reaves has manned the Lakers’ offense where he visually seems rigid, unsure, and doing what he thinks is right versus what he feels is right, characteristics that are antonymous for a player who has shined thanks to improvisation.
It is the embodiment of a dancer who is following the painted footsteps on the floor rather than the beat of the music. He is passing to spots not teammates.
Some, if not all of this, was to be expected. Given his unbelievable career trajectory, Reaves was due for some growing pains, and that’s okay, if not welcome.
Even though he may be tired, shots aren’t going down, whistles have stopped being called, and he’s learning a new dance routine in front of an audience in real-time, there is tremendous value in learning from mistakes and failures.
Unfortunately for Reaves, these mistakes simply feel crueler because they are happening nightly on a national stage and in a newly expanded role for the Lakers of all teams.
Although it may still feel like it, Reaves is no longer the underdog in every matchup. He already got paid, his face is on billboards, and his name is circled on scouting reports across the league. Guys want and know how to specifically attack him whenever they get the chance. And that’s okay too.
The good and the bad. They’re both part of the process.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.