When Austin Reaves looked at his phone after a Los Angeles Lakers game against New Orleans in March, his heart sank.
One of his old Facebook postings had reappeared and was being widely shared online.
“I saw ‘SportsCenter’ posted it,” Reaves said to FOX Sports. “I was just like,’S—.’”
Reaves, then 13, shared a meme in 2012 that said, “When I need some peace and quiet, I set my phone to LeBron mode, no ring.” A portrait of five-time champion Kobe Bryant shrugging was in the backdrop. (Of course, LeBron James was still months away from winning his first of four titles.)
Now Reaves shared a locker room with James, the superstar who had taken Reaves under his wing. Reaves chose to deliver the unpleasant news himself.
“I summoned Bron and said, ‘Look, I was s—-ing on you back in 2012.’” ‘I was a Kobe fan,’ claimed the 24-year-old. “[James] just laughed it off.”
Since Reaves signed a two-way deal with the Lakers in 2021 after going undrafted out of Oklahoma, the two players have formed a solid connection both on and off the court. And it has paid off for both this season, as Reaves has emerged as a breakthrough star for the squad, winning the respect of the NBA’s most feared player whose team urgently needed a boost.
After returning from a hamstring injury on Feb. 7, Reaves was pivotal in the Lakers’ season turnaround, helping them jump from 13th to seventh in the Western Conference. Reaves averaged 17.6 points in the 23 games after the All-Star break, up from 10.8 points in the 36 games before his injury.
Reaves also shone in the Lakers’ first-round playoff series against Memphis, scoring 16.5 points per game while shooting 44.7 percent from the field and 34.4 percent from outside the arc. He scored 21 points on 7-of-15 shooting with four assists on Monday night to help the Lakers take a 3-1 series lead against the reigning champion Golden State Warriors.
Many people in the basketball world were taken aback by Reaves, who grew up on a farm in Newark, Arkansas, surrounded by over a hundred cows.
But not James, who had an early impression of the guy dubbed “Hillbilly Kobe,” a nickname given to Reaves by a graduate assistant at Oklahoma in recognition of his southern drawl and ferocity.
James wanted to analyse Reaves after the Lakers signed him. So he examined footage of him from Oklahoma, where he transferred in 2018 after two years at Wichita State. James was impressed by what he saw.
Reaves exudes a boldness. He’s not afraid to stand guard or take huge shots. He’s constantly on the go, hustling. On the court, he makes sound judgements by letting the game define how he responds.
However, Reaves feels James stepped up his game.
James recently told Reaves something that has stayed with him.
“I had come off a ball screen and I had already made up my mind that I was going to get him the ball,” Reaves recounted of a specific game situation involving James. “Obviously, that is never a terrible choice. But the way they were protecting us required me to go downhill, to the basket, or to create a play for someone else. “He approached me and said, ‘Don’t worry about getting me the ball. I’m going to discover clear methods to influence the game and do what I do. Simply be yourself. And grab anything the defence offers you.”
They were simple words, but Reaves absorbed them. It triggered something in him. It provided him the freedom to be himself.
In fact, he believes he would not have matured into the player he is now if he hadn’t spent the previous two seasons with James.
“He obviously knows he’s not a normal human,” stated Reaves. “But he doesn’t always realise how much weight his remarks carry. He has the ability to instill something in a group of men or an individual just via his words.”
Shortly after entering the Lakers locker room, Reaves sensed a connection with James, both in terms of how they saw the game and the world.
“I think it just started off basketball-wise, IQ-wise,” said Reaves. “I believe we met on an IQ level simply by playing the game correctly and knowing the game.” That thing comes naturally to both of us.”I believe it evolved from there. He’s the best player of all time, this, that, and the other. But, at the end of the day, he’s still a human doing human things. He’s entertaining and cracks a lot of jokes. Our characteristics complement each other.”
The two players come from opposing backgrounds and are at quite different phases of life, yet they have formed an unexpected bond that everyone around them can see.
They often tease one other behind closed doors in the locker room.
Reaves makes goat sounds and blurts out “bahhhhh” as he goes by James, in tribute to James being regarded as the best player of all time, the GOAT.
And, of course, James had a good time with Reaves.
While a reporter was interviewing Reaves for this article, James kept interrupting, saying across the locker room, “one-on-one special, huh” and “one-on-one time with AR.” For a time, Reaves ignored the heckling, until he burst out laughing – and shot back.
“Dude, get the camera back on him,” Reaves replied, as James laughed and abruptly stopped speaking.
Their connection has carried over onto the court, with Reaves proving to be an excellent complement to James.
Reaves scored 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting in Game 1 of the Memphis series, including nine consecutive points in the fourth quarter, en way to a 128-112 win. He scored a team-high 23 points, six assists, and four rebounds in the Lakers’ 117-111 victory in Game 4.
Nothing has surprised James.
“I knew from the first practise we had when we grabbed him that he wasn’t going to be a two-way player for long,” James said after Game 1 of the Memphis series. “…I’m not sure. I’ve been in the game long enough to know excellent basketball-IQ guys and the kind of players that complement my style. And I knew straight immediately that Austin would be it.”
Reaves will be a restricted free agent this summer after earning just $1.56 million this season as his contract was converted to a regular agreement in September 2021. His performance has placed him on the brink of a large payoff.
If the Lakers utilise his Bird rights, they could pay him $50.8 million over four years. They may also match any deal he signs with another club. If a club invokes the Arenas provision, he may make even more – one possible offer sheet from The Athletic predicts he could earn $98.6 million over four years if a team rates him that highly.
“I never thought that was realistic,” Reaves replied, laughing and shaking his head. “Obviously, you want to be the best in the league.” “However, that’s a lot of money.”
Reaves shrugged when asked how he intends to spend his first large payday. He spent much of his life in a community of less than 2,000 people, hunting and fishing in his spare time.
“I don’t spend a lot of money,” he said. “I keep it. So that’s something I’ll have to consider.”
Reaves is now regarded as a local hero. Despite playing for one of the most famous organisations in sports, the 6-foot-5, 197-pound shooting guard claims he sometimes goes unnoticed in Los Angeles.
“I don’t really look like an athlete,” remarked Reaves. “I sorta skate that way… People will pass by, glance at their pals, and ask, ‘Is that Austin?’”
He has even pretended not to be himself at times.
“I’ve done it before as a joke,” he said, a sheepish smirk on his face. “And then, when I see their face, I’m like, ‘Oh no, I’m kidding, it’s me.’”
Reaves has stated his desire to stay a Laker, playing for the team that Bryant, his boyhood idol, spent his entire 20-year career with, and alongside the game’s current top star.
Reaves’ play mirrors his demeanour, which is a blend of confidence and humility.
On any given night, he’s content to be a star or a sidekick. He’s ready to face charges. He has no qualms about risking his body, as seen by his estimation after Game 3 versus Memphis that he was smacked in the face three or four times.
James has enjoyed witnessing Reaves convert a two-way deal into a two-year contract and then become an important member of the club. Reaves has been struck with awe throughout it all, something the 38-year-old superstar in his 20th season finds charming.
In fact, James decided to discuss Reaves after being questioned about being the oldest player in NBA history to finish with 20 points and 20 rebounds during the Lakers’ Game 4 victory against Memphis.
“I just love being able to make plays and be out there with my teammates, giving them experiences they may not have had before,” James said. “This is Austin’s first playoff series, and after the game, he was just talking about how much he enjoys it.” He claimed it’s the best thing he’s ever been a part of in basketball… That made me really happy.
Darvin Ham, the Lakers’ coach, also admires Reaves. He saw him grow from “undisciplined” in the preseason due to his herky-jerky style of play to one of his favourite players he has ever coached.
This season, Reaves has grown significantly.
He refined his shot and mastered angles, improving from 48.8 percent from the field and 36 percent from beyond the arc in his first 36 games to 57.8 percent and 44.3 percent in his last 23 games. He has also developed into one of the team’s finest perimeter defenders.
Ham has seen Reaves and James build a strong bond.
“I think it’s just a couple of guys who have a genuine passion for the game of basketball,” Ham said. “Austin grew up watching LeBron and is overjoyed at the prospect of playing with him.” LeBron sees this young guy who is continuously working on his game and trying to improve in all aspects.”
Seeing the enthusiasm with which Reaves plays has been a shot in the arm for James during a trying season.
In March, Reaves set a career best with 35 points against Orlando, prompting James to brand Reaves a “BAD MUTHA” in a tweet.
There was the moment Reaves yelled “I’m him” after hitting a 3-pointer late in Game 1’s fourth quarter. (“I’m extremely happy for him, and I want him to do it again,” James stated later that night.)
Then, in Game 6 of the first round, during the Lakers’ series-clinching triumph, Reaves closed off a Euro-step with a reverse layup, prompting James to approach his teammate and duplicate the Euro-step with him – twice.
But one of James’ favourite Reaves moments had nothing to do with his performance.
Last month, during a game against Chicago, Reaves hit a one-handed shot over former teammate Patrick Beverley, then dropped his hand to the ground, making the “too small” sign.
Beverley had done the same to James three days before after scoring on him in a game.
Reaves was out for vengeance.
“That AR’s always got my back,” James remarked. “Always.”
Then he took a nice jab at one of his favourite colleagues.
“Even though he loved Kobe more than me back then,” James joked, “I forgive him.”