LAS VEGAS — Watching Austin Reaves on the basketball court, you think to yourself, “Nice player, but nothing special.”
Suddenly, he’s hit three or four shots in a row or made a couple of sweet passes to a teammate leading to buckets and the thought process becomes, “Yeah, he’s pretty good.”
Not everyone travels the same road to play for their country. It’s not always about the superstars and the highly acclaimed. Sometimes, you take a divergent path to get a spot on USA Basketball’s roster.
In Reaves case, it was definitely not the usual route. He was undrafted, signed a deal with the Los Angeles Lakers a couple of years ago, came off the bench playing with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook, eventually evolving into a starter. He played a pivotal role in the Lakers reaching the Western Conference Finals in this year’s NBA Playoffs, ultimately getting swept by the eventual champion Denver Nuggets.
Grant Hill, the managing director for USA Basketball, was paying attention. Reaves, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Arkansas who played collegiately at Wichita State, then Oklahoma, was asked to join the national team which will travel to the Philippines later this month and compete in the FIBA World Cup.
“I was shocked,” Reaves said at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center about how this all came to be. “As a kid, you watch (USA Basketball) and you fantasize taking that last shot to win the gold medal. Now, I’m here and with a chance to contribute and be part of it. It’s a tremendous honor personally and to also represent the Lakers.”
Where does he fit in? Every player on Steve Kerr’s roster has started for their NBA team. Some will be asked to serve in a different role than what they’re accustomed to. In Reaves’ case, it won’t be a problem. His versatility will allow him to fit in nicely.
“He’s got a high basketball IQ and coaching against him, I noticed how he can do a lot of different things well,” Kerr, who coaches the Golden State Warriors, said of Reaves. “He’s a very talented player and he’s definitely going to help us, regardless of how he’s used.”
We’ll get an idea of what Reaves’ role will be like Monday night when Team USA plays Puerto Rico at T-Mobile Arena in a tuneup for the World Cup, which begins Aug. 25 and runs through Sept. 10. The tournament is a prelude to next Summer’s Olympics in Paris and the winner and runner-up will be granted automatic spots in the field. So it’s an important event.
There’s no guarantee any of the 12 players on the World Cup roster will make the trip to France come 2024. But it’s a great opportunity to show they should be included.
Reaves said adjusting to international play and playing with different teammates hasn’t been a problem .
“I know these guys from having played against them,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting comfortable with each other.”
While Reaves forges his niche with the national team, his role with his NBA team is firmly established. Last month, the Lakers signed the former free agent to a four-year contract extension worth $56 million.
“I love being in L.A. I love playing for the Lakers,” Reaves said. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”
Other than getting out on the golf course where he’s a scratch golfer, or going to work out, Reaves doesn’t head out too often.
“The traffic sucks,” he said of Los Angeles’ notorious freeways and high volume of cars on the road at any given time. “But you learn to deal with it.”
At age 25, he still has room to grow emotionally. Being around James has helped him learn to be professional and maximize his abilities on the court.
“The thing LeBron has taught me is never waste a second,” he said. “Make the most of your time and be productive.”
His numbers with the Lakers indicate Reaves is paying heed to James’ wisdom. In his rookie season, he averaged 7.3 points in 23 minutes per night. Last year, his scoring average improved to 13 points per outing while averaging almost 29 minutes while shooting 53 percent from the floor and nearly 40 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
His USA Basketball experience should help his development even further.
“It’s an opportunity to grow as a player,” Reaves said. “I feel very blessed and I’m trying to take advantage of it.”