LAS VEGAS — Less than two weeks after his breakout second season with the Lakers ended in a Game 4 defeat in the Western Conference finals, Austin Reaves was back in his tiny Newark, Ark., hometown, playing spades with his brother, Spencer, and best friend, Trent.
In the middle of a hand, Reaves’ phone buzzed on the table.
Another friend was sending him a link to a tweet from a Lakers content account known as @RefrigeratorLAL. “Following her breakup (with British singer Matty Healy), Taylor Swift was reportedly seen in an Arkansas Bar this weekend,” it read, “with star Laker basketball player Austin Reaves.”
“I pulled it up and I was like, ‘What the …?’” Reaves said, befuddled.
To state the obvious: No, Reaves did not go on a date with Taylor Swift. He has a girlfriend. He’s never met or communicated with the world-renowned pop star. During the time they could’ve possibly crossed paths in Arkansas, Swift was performing in Chicago — nearly 600 miles from Reaves’ Newark home.
And none of that was the least plausible part.
“Me going to a bar doesn’t happen much,” Reaves said. “If they would have said it was a golf course, it’d have been a little bit more believable.”
Austin going to the bar is the most unrealistic part of this whole thing
— Spencer Reaves (@SpencerReaves31) June 6, 2023
Of course, plenty of people believed it anyway. “Taylor Swift Spotted With NBA Player Austin Reaves Following Split From Matty Healy,” read one headline. “Has Austin Reaves hooked up with Taylor Swift? Rumors are circulating,” read another.
That rumor, however implausible, symbolizes the new world in which Reaves resides following his meteoric rise from undrafted college senior from the University of Oklahoma to a promising young star who’s only scratched the surface of his potential.
Last season, Reaves established himself as the Lakers’ third-best player amid that surprising Western Conference finals run, averaging nearly 17 points and five assists per game after February’s trade deadline. This summer, he signed a four-year, $54 million contract to stay in L.A. — the most Los Angeles could offer the restricted free agent. He landed a seven-figure sneaker deal with the Chinese sporting goods company Rigorer, and his debut sneaker, The Rigorer AR1, instantly sold out when released earlier this month. His face is plastered on billboards all across Los Angeles for Lemon Daddy, a new online legal platform.
The capper: He earned what’s shaping up to be an important spot on the U.S. men’s basketball team for the FIBA World Cup, which takes place in the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia from Friday through Sept. 10.
Reaves’ newfound fame raises the question: How does a kid from a town of just over 1,000 people, who wasn’t highly recruited in high school, played for two colleges and was not selected in the 2021 NBA Draft, still retain the underdog edge that got him here?
“I don’t think it shifts at all,” Reaves said of his mentality. “I think there’s still a good majority of people that probably still don’t think I’m that good — or any good at all.”
Austin Reaves’ rise in the second half of last season has him poised for further growth. (Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images)
As Reaves exited the UNLV Mendenhall Center court after a Team USA practice, where he had just completed an around-the-arc 3-point shooting competition with teammates Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, he circled back to a slight that has burned in his mind for the last six months.
“I was hurt at that time, so I get it, I guess,” he said. “Not really, but …”
Reaves was talking about his absence from the Rising Stars Challenge, the glorified exhibition for rookies, sophomores and G League standouts that kicked off NBA All-Star weekend in Salt Lake City in February. At the time, Reaves was just returning from a 16-game absence due to a hamstring injury, but he doesn’t think that was enough of a reason to be overlooked and not invited.
“It’s kind of a common theme for my life,” he said.
Coming out of high school, the no-star recruit had only three college scholarship offers. He committed to Wichita State, where he played for two seasons before transferring to Oklahoma to position himself for a better post-college basketball career. After garnering little buzz during the 2021 draft process, he turned down an opportunity to be selected by the Detroit Pistons with the No. 42 pick, as they were only interested in signing him to a two-way contract.
Reaves and his agents, Aaron Reilly and Reggie Berry of AMR Agency, preferred he went undrafted and have a shot at earning a roster spot elsewhere. They made a tiered list of potential teams based on Reaves’ fit and opportunity, and the Lakers ranked No. 2 behind the Milwaukee Bucks. Reaves signed a two-way contract with Los Angeles a few days after the draft, with the understanding that he’d have a legitimate chance to make the team. Then at a players-only minicamp led by LeBron James, he made his mark. James and Anthony Davis were so enamored that they recommended the front office immediately add Reaves to the 15-man roster.
“I’ve been around the game long enough to know great basketball IQ players and I know the type of players that fit with my game and I knew Austin would be that right away,” James said after Reaves’ fourth-quarter flurry in Game 1 of a first-round series against Memphis this year.
Playing for the Lakers alongside LeBron comes with greater publicity, endorsement opportunities and admiration from a global fan base. It also comes with more scrutiny and skepticism. As Reaves rose from back-of-the-roster filler to rotation player, from established starter after his Rising Stars snub to the Lakers’ third-most important player and Team USA honoree, he, like former Lakers guard Alex Caruso, has been dismissed as the Token White Lakers Role Player. There is a sense that he’s riding the coattails of his purple-and-gold platform.
“I’ve got a good memory,” Reaves said, smirking.GO DEEPER'I'm HIM': Austin Reaves –and Rui Hachimura –showcase Lakers' suddenly loaded supporting cast
Reaves returned to Arkansas a week after the Lakers were eliminated and stayed there through the beginning of July, partly to map out the various possibilities of his upcoming restricted free agency. He and his representation were thrilled when the Lakers reached out as early as they legally could and offered that $54 million, with a player option in the fourth year, but knew they might get bigger offer sheets from teams with significant cap space, such as the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets.
The Spurs, fresh off of having drafted No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama, considered two offers for Reaves, according to multiple league sources not authorized to speak publicly. One for the maximum amount of dollars and years (approximately four years, $100 million) and a smaller, shorter structure (three years, $60 million). In both cases, if the Lakers matched the offer, Reaves’ salary would’ve ballooned for Los Angeles in the third and/or fourth year due to the rule informally known as the Arenas provision.
Ultimately, L.A.’s insistence that it would match any offer sheet Reaves signed scared off the Spurs and all other potential cap-space suitors.
“It was crazy,” Reaves said of free agency. “We waited what, like, 15 hours or so (for teams to make their offers)? But after that, like I said, I wanted to be in L.A. The relationships that we have with the front office, players, really the whole city, is something that you can’t really hold out on. …
“(Los Angeles is) home to me. The way the fans treat me, the organization, teammates, there’s no other place I would rather be.”
The new deal, which keeps Reaves under contract through at least 2026, cements him as one of the Lakers’ pillars. He and Davis, who signed a three-year, $186 million extension with a final year player option that keeps him in Los Angeles through at least 2027, project as the franchise’s foundation in a post-James world.
That status comes with higher hopes and expectations. In July, Lakers head coach Darvin Ham said in an interview with #thisleague UNCUT, a podcast from NBA reporters Marc Stein and Chris Haynes, that he believes Reaves “will be an All-Star at some point soon.”
While Ham can be somewhat hyperbolic in his praise for his players, that’s part of what makes him such a player-friendly coach. Nonetheless, he wouldn’t throw a prediction like that around lightly, and Reaves was flattered by the praise.
“I personally think it’s possible just for myself,” he said. “There’s probably not many people out there that do.”
One of Reaves’ goals going into next season is to play 82 games for the first time. After hitting a wall midway through his rookie season, he trained hard last summer to be better prepared for his sophomore year. Even so, he appeared to run out of gas at times during the playoffs — most notably between the end of an opening-round series against Memphis and the beginning of a second-round series against Golden State.
He is working with the Lakers’ strength and conditioning team this offseason — including throughout his time abroad with Team USA — to better handle his increasing workload. He also is working to sharpen his ballhandling and playmaking as he prepares to run more of the offense next season. Reaves can shift between either backcourt spot, but says, “I want to get back to playing point guard a little more and what we did at the end of the year. I feel comfortable and like I’m able to do that.”
Plus, there was one new wrinkle that Reaves, who prefers to spend his summers in a low-key manner, couldn’t possibly turn down.
Austin Reaves has become a prominent member of Team USA and has formed a bond with Mikal Bridges. (Joe Murphy / NBAE via Getty Images)
Before Team USA’s 117-74 exhibition win over Puerto Rico on Aug. 17 in Las Vegas, the public address announcer introduced the 12 members of the team to the crowd. He went in numerical order, which meant Reaves, at No. 15, would be the last player introduced.
The crowd cheered loudly for the team’s past NBA All-Stars: Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton, Brandon Ingram and Jaren Jackson Jr. When it was Reaves’ turn, the crowd of 7,262, including Reaves’ mom, stepdad, girlfriend, aunts and agents, erupted, granting him by far the loudest ovation.
Vegas is a hotbed for Lakers fans, routinely attracting a raucous crowd during summer league in July. But Reaves is a fan favorite in Los Angeles and elsewhere because of his gritty and selfless style of play.
“It’s special,” Reaves saidof the reaction from the crowd. “Anytime you go anywhere and you’re appreciated — and obviously playing for the Lakers helps — it feels good. You want to go out there and just play the game the right way and give them a show.”
Somewhere on the sidelines, Grant Hill watched the moment unfold. The new managing director of USA Basketball has had Reaves on his radar for years, well before he became a crowd darling.
When Hill was covering the NCAA tournament for CBS as a commentator in 2017, he spoke with then-Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall, who told him to keep an eye on Reaves. Hill recalled Marshall telling him that Reaves had the highest NBA upside of any of the players he coached, a group that includes All-Star guard Fred VanVleet, who moved from Toronto to Houston in free agency, and Washington Wizards shooting guard Landry Shamet.
“I got a chance to become familiar with him,” Hill said. “Just kind of kept an eye on him.”
Years later, as Reaves ascended over the second half of the 2022-23 season, Hill and USA Basketball coach Steve Kerr circled back to the player they identified as the type of connecting piece that would bolster the rest of the roster. They believed he’d help more than some established All-Star guards, including Atlanta star Trae Young.
Before Hill’s recruiting pitch, Reaves seriously considered playing for the German national team. He has German ancestry, and his brother plays professionally there and recently became a dual citizen. But when offered the chance to represent his home country, Reaves couldn’t turn down what he deemed a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
To some, Reaves’ inclusion was surprising. How would a role-playing guard who was coming off the bench until late in the season help Team USA in international play?
“He just has it,” Hill said. “He has a great understanding. … You can plug him in anywhere. He’s a guy that just figures it out.”
Reaves delivered in Team USA’s five pre-tournament exhibitions, averaging 11.4 points and solidifying himself as the group’s third ballhandler and playmaker. He was instrumental in their come-from-behind win Sunday over Germany, scoring 16 points, including 10 in the second half, as Team USA fought back from a 16-point deficit. Reaves played the final 12:38, with Team USA outscoring Germany by 19 points during that stretch.
Across two games at Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Arena, Reaves was easily the biggest draw among the players.
“It honestly hasn’t set in really yet,” he said of his fame and fanfare. “I’m a very low-maintenance person. I like to hang out with my family, golf a lot. But to be in a different country and, you know, I was with my family and I was walking through the hotel and someone was screaming, ‘Austin, hey, can I take a picture?’ For that to happen over here, it’s special to me. I never take any of that for granted.”
A-R you so COLD man!!! 🙏🏾👑 #TeamUSA🇺🇸
— LeBron James (@KingJames) August 8, 2023
As Hill expected, Reaves has helped bring the team together, on and off the court. “I think he’s as good as advertised,” Hill said. “I’m very pleased. And at some point, I think he’ll have a moment — a big moment. I believe he’s that kind of player. A guy not afraid of that kind of moment.”
Reaves packed his golf clubs for the trip and on Monday played nine holes with Hill before the team flew that night from Abu Dhabi to Manila for the World Cup. He has earned rave reviews from teammates, coaches and staffers for, among other things, his low-maintenance attitude, dry sense of humor and immense basketball skills and IQ.
“He fits in wherever we put him — that’s the beauty of Austin,” Kerr said. “He’s a connector. He’s a hell of a basketball player. … Just so poised out there all the time. He’s a guy who enhances any lineup that he plays with.”
Reaves has become close with Bridges and Johnson, two other glue-guys who were used to sacrificing for their teams before showing they could thrive in much larger roles after last season’s trade deadline. Each lacks the typical star pedigree that comes with most Team USA mainstays, having spent multiple seasons in college rather than entering the draft early.
The trio often shoots together and messes with one another after practice. In one instance, Reaves made a Kobe-style left-handed 3-pointer over Bridges’ nonchalant semi-contest.
“I’ve been trying to show people I can do that,” Reaves joked.
Austin Reaves drills a left-handed 3 on Mikal Bridges pic.twitter.com/5zKUKYUZKf
— Jovan Buha (@jovanbuha) August 6, 2023
Reaves and Bridges have formed an especially tight friendship as two of the team’s jokesters. In one of Reaves’ interviews, Bridges eavesdropped, putting his arm around Reaves and occasionally chiming in.
“Mikal is an idiot, and I don’t like him,” Reaves quipped.
“He’ll definitely talk some trash and stuff like that,” Team USA teammate and Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler said. “Probably a little quieter to other people that don’t really know him well, but when you start to get to know him, he opens up a little more. He’s a very, very funny guy. Very dry sense of humor.”
Reaves has even played into the idea of being a lead recruiter for the Lakers, following a long line of Team USA being the soil for seeding super teams — most famously in 2008 when James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh formed a bond that led them to team up in Miami in 2010.
“I can’t speak on that,” Reaves said, laughing. “But I like some of the guys we’re playing with. So … yeah.”
Big picture, Reaves and the Lakers hope his experience with Team USA — which is known to lead to a bump in production for younger players in the following NBA season — and his growth at the end of the season will allow him to take another leap from solid starter to the Lakers’ third star.
The experience has certainly provided Reaves with more name recognition among his peers. Warriors big man and former Olympian Draymond Green sat courtside for the Puerto Rico game and sought out Reaves in the bowels of the arena, interrupting an interview to dap him up. “Good s—, my boy,” Green said.
Even with his increasing fame — from his NBA franchise, from Team USA, from his other peers and, yes, celebrity gossip sites — Reaves insists the chip on his shoulder is permanent. The way he sees it, what’s there to be satisfied with? The big contract? The Team USA experience? His second-year strides? He has bigger goals in mind. Winning championships. Having a long NBA career. Earning a lot more money. Fulfilling Ham’s promise and making an All-Star team.
Most of all, continuing to prove people wrong, whether they neglected him during his college recruiting, scrutinized him through the NBA Draft process for being too skinny, dismissed his work of having clawed his way from a two-way spot to the Lakers’ official roster, passed him over for the Rising Stars Challenge, got skittish about offering a free-agent offer sheet that would have paid him closer to what he perceives to be his true value, or somehow contributed to a slew of other slights and snubs that only he recalls.
As the stakes rise and the challenges increase, those voices in Reaves’ head only grow louder.
“That’s why I’m here, and what pushed me to get here is the people who doubted me,” Reaves said. “I always have to keep that.”
The Athletic’s Joe Vardon contributed to this story from Abu Dhabi.
(Illustration by Sean Reilly / The Athletic. Photos: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)
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