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Austin Reaves could be the 3rd star the Lakers have been waiting for

Julian Catalfo / theScore

With the 2023-24 campaign approaching, we're diving deep into some of the players we're most interested in watching. First up: an undrafted success story who may hold the key to LeBron James' twilight years.

While many cite the Lakers' trade-deadline makeover as the turning point of their season and the reason they reached the Western Conference finals after a rocky start, the strongest force behind their in-season improvement was Austin Reaves' ascendance. Of course, the deadline played a part, because shipping out Russell Westbrook helped pave the way for Reaves to take on a bigger offensive role. He seized that opportunity and never looked back.

The undrafted second-year guard had proven himself to be a diamond in the rough pretty much from the moment he debuted for the Lakers in 2021-22, but until partway through last season, he looked like a guy who'd contribute mostly as a gap-filling role player - a spot-up threat and connective passer who could hold his own defending at the point of attack. Then the Lakers started putting the ball in his hands, moved Westbrook out of the way, and watched him explode. Reaves emerged not only as a credible initiator, self-creator, and three-level scorer but as someone who could do those things at an elite level against the best defenses in the league.

In 23 games after the All-Star break, Reaves averaged 17.6 points and 5.5 assists on 20% usage (up from 14% before the break) and 73% true shooting (66/44/86 splits). For the season, only Nikola Jokic and a bunch of low-usage screen-and-drive centers bested Reaves' 69% true shooting mark. His 1.08 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler put him in the 91st percentile league-wide. And he mostly carried all of that over to the playoffs, where he averaged 16.9 points and 4.6 assists on 62% true shooting while frequently serving as the team's primary playmaker in crunch time.

On top of his red-hot shooting, his remarkable efficiency was the product of a blossoming dribble-drive game that's equal parts guile and power. He shot 80% at the rim (97th percentile among wings) and showed an uncanny knack for drawing contact, finishing eighth in the league in free-throw attempt rate. Crucially, he also proved capable of capitalizing on the defensive attention he garnered as a scoring threat; he demonstrated the processing speed to not only pass his way out of trouble when defenses converge on him but to throw unexpected passes that catch rotating defenders on the wrong foot.

L.A. performed 8.5 points per 100 possessions better during the regular season and 13.5 points per 100 better in the playoffs with Reaves on the floor, the best on-off differential for any player on the team. Reaves, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis formed the Lakers' most-used three-man group across the regular season and playoffs, and they were utterly dominant together, outscoring opponents by 219 points in 827 shared minutes. Throughout the LeBron-AD era, arguably the two biggest issues the Lakers have faced are their mediocre half-court offense and the massive talent gulf between that dynamic duo and their next-best player. Reaves could be the solution to both problems.

Andrew D. Bernstein / NBA / Getty Images

The Lakers have been lauded for their moves this summer, even though those moves mostly involved retaining players who were already on the roster. That included bringing back Reaves on a steal of a contract - four fully locked-in years at just $56 million - which was the maximum amount they were able to offer him as a restricted free agent with only two years of service time. (A team with cap space could've signed him to an offer sheet that reached $100 million over four years, but fortunately for the Lakers, no team did.)

There's certainly nothing wrong with running back the team that went 19-8 after the deadline and surged all the way to the West finals, but with James turning 39 next season and Davis' always tenuous health, the extent of the Lakers' near-term upward mobility is contingent on Reaves' continued growth. While there are other youngish players on the roster who can improve, none have the kind of upside the Arkansas native offers. Considering what's at stake in the twilight years of one of the two greatest players ever, Reaves is among the most important players in the league.

If he can simply sustain the level he reached in the second half of last season, that'd be a great outcome for L.A. If he can build on it, this team can start to dream very big. There's obviously no room for him to improve on the efficiency front, but the Lakers should give him the opportunity to ratchet up the volume and take on a more onerous creation load. He did that in the postseason while LeBron dealt with the effects of a foot injury, and spreading out the on-ball touches is going to become increasingly necessary as King James nears 40.

The good news is that, for now, there appear to be very few holes in Reaves' game. He can shoot from a standstill or on the move, off the catch or off the dribble; he can drive to score, or to pass, or to draw contact; he can run the show or play off of other creators; he can navigate screens and contain dribble penetration as an on-ball defender; and he makes sharp rotations as a help defender. Ramping up his workload may expose cracks in some of those areas, but L.A. can go into next season feeling confident in the scalability of his well-rounded skill set.

At 25, Reaves is on the older side for a player with only two years of service time. But whatever dampening effect that might have on his long-term projection should be offset by the rapidity of his development over those two years. One way or another, this critical season is going to tell us a lot about how good he can be.

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