It didn’t take long for Austin Reaves to ascend from a perceived luxury to sheer necessity for the Lakers this past year.
The undrafted guard turned heads in his rookie season not with outward flash or dynamism, but instead, with his ability to fill in the gaps between the team’s stars and veterans through his wide range of utilities.
Across his scrappy defense, nuanced skill on offense and pure hustle, Reaves emerged as the Lakers’ very own roll of human duct tape. Whenever a roster, lineup or matchup issue presented itself — which was often — it was the 24-year-old who was smacked onto it with the hope that he could bandage all the faults around him.
It was a lot of responsibility, and a bigger role than Reaves likely expected on a team with championship aspirations. But he was game for it at every turn. This did not come without its downsides, however.
The additional wear and tear on top of the obstacles that naturally come with adjusting to the NBA likely impacted multiple aspects of Reaves’ individual game over the course of the year. The area that arguably saw the biggest hit was his 3-point stroke.
On the surface, Reaves’ 31.5% shooting from beyond the arc this past season definitely left a lot to be desired. And for good reason. However, it is also a number that requires far more context, which when zooming in, is suggestive of both dormant ability and room for improvement.
For example, when removing garbage time and heaves, Reaves actually shot the three-ball at a more palatable 33% clip according to Cleaning the Glass. While still not up to league average, it highlights how much Reaves’ raw percentage was bogged down from simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
According to the league’s tracking data, 8.2% of Reaves’ 3-point attempts came very late into the shot clock (four seconds or less) this past season. This mark was the highest percentage on the team.
This manifested due to the rookie often throwing caution — and his numbers — to the wind with full-court bombs at the end of quarters. He also fell victim to multiple “grenades” from his teammates — disadvantageous passes which forced Austin to hoist a prayer late into the clock.
The combination of heaves and friendly fire resulted in Reaves converting just 19.2% of these attempts, bringing down his overall 3-point percentage in the process.
Outside of those suboptimal shots, a large portion of Reaves’ looks in his first campaign actually consisted of quality chances.
Serving as one of the team’s primary benefactors of LeBron James and Russell Westbrook’s playmaking and driving gravity, Reaves ranked in the 95th percentile of the league in terms of shot quality (measures location, openness and type) according to The BBall-Index.
Unfortunately, Reaves also struggled to convert these looks at a healthy rate, as he canned just 34.8% of wide-open (defender at least six feet away) opportunities on the year.
However, these misses were not always the norm. In fact, we can maybe pinpoint exactly when — and more importantly why — Reaves crashed smack dab into the dreaded so-called “rookie wall.”
As the chart below illustrates, the biggest dip in terms of Reaves’ shooting stroke occurred at the start of January up until the end of March.
It was also around this time that Reaves’ minutes normalized as a consistent part of the rotation. In conjunction with this, Reaves also began to see a drastic uptick in terms of the ground he covered on the court per month, with his miles logged spiking in January and again in March.
The sudden bump in energy exertion, as well as the sheer amount of basketball being played, is something the rookie himself admitted to having factored into his shooting drop-off.
“Probably a little bit of everything,” Reaves recently told the Athletic. “I’ve never played a season over 37 games – 40 games at max. So I played 61 games this year, but the 82-game season, and I was traveling still when I wasn’t playing. So it’s definitely a thing.”
Those within the player performance side of basketball operations have attempted to track when exactly a player typically hits their breaking point, with some hypothesizing that it comes when a rookie exceeds the number of games they previously played at the collegiate level, or once they’ve reached the halfway point of the NBA season.
The Lakers’ 38th game of the season took place on January 2nd, which nearly coincides with Reaves’ shooting decline as well as marking his most games played in any season of his pre-professional career.
Prior to the new year, Reaves actually drilled 39% of his wide-open attempts. However, within that three-month stretch leading up to April — where his mileage was at the highest — Reaves was able to convert on just 29.6% of his chances.
In rewatching all 105 of Reaves’ 3-point attempts during that span (which alone equaled his output with Oklahoma during his senior year), one trend immediately emerged when it came to a majority of his misses — they tended to be well short.
Although he’d never let on, the physical side of the game had begun to crash down on Reaves. His misses barely grazed the front of the rim, and his legs, which likely felt like cement blocks during this stretch, served as proof of this. He was not only playing more but also trying harder.
According to the league’s Second Spectrum data, among Lakers who appeared in at least 50 games last season, Reaves ran the sixth-most miles, contested the third-most shots, posted the second-fastest average speed on defense, and topped the team in terms of overall average speed. And for good measure, Reaves also drew the most charges in his entire rookie class.
In an attempt to be everything, everywhere and all at once, Reaves’ body was often found thudding against the hardwood for loose balls and was physically punished by stronger opposition on a nightly basis. The latter has been a point of emphasis this summer.
“It’s my big focus,” Reaves disclosed to Jovan Buha. “I go in there with a good attitude every day, and whatever they tell me to do, I do. Just putting my body in the best position so the rookie wall or whatever, it doesn’t hit you like that. And you can more push through it because you’re in better shape and better conditioning.”
Reaves has already reportedly put on additional 12 pounds in hopes of improving his defensive versatility and enduring the rigors of an 82-game season. That strength increase is also something Lakers’ co-owner and assistant general manager Jesse Buss believes will help him become a “more consistent perimeter shooter.”
Time will tell if Reaves’ struggles with his shooting stroke were indicative of future clanks, or just the latest young player adjusting to their new surroundings.
The peripherals, such as his catch and shoot numbers in college as well as his impressive touch around the rim and marksmanship from the free-throw line last season suggest Reaves has the tangible tools every good shooter needs.
Perhaps most critically, Reaves also has the trust in himself—and his shot—to not let any misses or excuses prevent him from letting it fly when needed.
“At the end of the day, I felt like there was not an excuse for me missing shots,” Reaves also shared to the Athletic. “I gotta make shots, even if it’s late in the year, early in the year, whatever it is. I have confidence in myself, with all the work that I’ve put in, to make shots in those situations.”
There is no doubt that Reaves hit the rookie wall hard this year. Although this was not due to any lack of ability, but more so because that is simply how he approaches basketball. That is how he’s wired. Full steam ahead, body and misses be damned.
Fortunately, all indications are that his bumps and bruises have since healed, and he is priming himself to find a lot more of the bottom of the net this upcoming season.
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