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Austin Reaves’s Persistence Pays Off With Unexpected Lakers Role

The undrafted rookie has carved out a role for himself amid the Lakers’ many future Hall of Famers. What a journey it’s been from Newark, Arkansas, to Los Angeles.

Johnny Dombrowski

Austin Reaves took his customary seat in the back row of the Lakers’ meeting room while the team reviewed film from the previous night’s game against Oklahoma City. Lakers coach Frank Vogel paused the tape on a clip of Reaves defending Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had the ball on the right wing.

“Should we double? What do y’all think?” Vogel asked the group. Essentially, Vogel was asking if Reaves would need help—or if he would be able to handle the assignment by himself.

LeBron James was the first to speak up, according to Reaves, asserting that he could take SGA by himself. A chorus of agreement poured in, with multiple players saying: “No, he can guard him.” Then Trevor Ariza chimed in: “This motherfucker can guard him,” Reaves remembers Ariza saying. “We don’t need to [double].”

“We said, ‘Helllllll no,’” says guard Malik Monk, one of Reaves’s closest friends on the team. “We seen from the get-go that he’s a competitor. He’s not going to let nobody step over him.”

At the time of the meeting, in late October, Reaves had played four games for the Lakers, logging substantial minutes by playing hard-nosed defense and draining open shots. He was trying to earn his keep and prove that he belonged as an undrafted rookie out of the University of Oklahoma. Reaves turned a two-way spot over the summer into a two-year contract with the Lakers. Suddenly he found himself earning quality time off the bench.

After his teammates vouched for his defensive prowess that October afternoon, James turned around in his seat. Reaves recalls James looking at him and saying: “You gained a badge,” making an NBA 2K reference signifying a special achievement.

Reaves smiled. He was seen. Seen for who he is, for what he’s capable of. LeBron James had faith in him. “He’s arguably the greatest player ever,” Reaves says.

You gained a badge. Those four simple words carried everything a ballplayer fighting for his spot craves: trust and respect.

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers
Reaves gets into his stance during an October game against Phoenix
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Reaves has emerged as a defensive stalwart and a smart playmaker for the Lakers. The 6-foot-5, 197-pound guard has become a spark, embracing tough defensive assignments and making the right reads offensively. He was averaging more than 20 minutes a game before a hamstring injury sidelined him for two weeks in mid-November. He returned to the lineup in late November and is already making an impact, scoring a career-high 13 points to go along with five rebounds and two assists in a 116-95 win over Oklahoma City on Friday. He’s trying to figure out where he fits in with a group that features ball-dominant superstars James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, and Carmelo Anthony.

“There’s been multiple times where I’m on the court with four Hall of Famers,” Reaves says. “Then you got me, from the middle of nowhere, in Arkansas.”

Reaves smiles bashfully, letting out a laugh. A dimple on the right side of his face surfaces. He means “middle of nowhere” proudly, but at times he seems uncomfortable talking about himself. This kind of media attention is new. His scraggly brown hair droops across his forehead as he glances down at the table in front of him on this mid-November afternoon.

He speaks with a Southern drawl. There’s a politeness and a warmth to him, a boyish shyness, but also an edge and uncanny confidence. He believes he can compete with anyone on a basketball court. “It’s always been my mentality, honestly: screw everybody that doubts me. I can go prove to you why I’m here.”

He grew up in Newark, Arkansas, a small town of fewer than 1,200 people. Newark is where he learned to dive across the hardwood for loose balls. The place where he began to develop the work ethic that allows him to shoot late into the night. He remembers when few knew his name. When college coaches didn’t think he was athletic enough, good enough, to play in Division I.

Back when he was riding four-wheelers around his family’s farm, gazing at the hundred-plus cows roaming the grass, all he could see beyond that was miles and miles of rice fields. He never envisioned he would be here. In the NBA. “You can only dream,” he says. “It was something I wanted to do but didn’t know if it was possible.”

Now that Reaves has made it, he’s proved not only to himself but to others that he belongs. “He earned it,” Rajon Rondo says. “His whole career, nothing was given to him.”

“He has a blue-collar mindset,” Rondo says. “He’s proven a lot of people wrong already in his young career.”

“Sky’s the limit for the kid,” Rondo adds.

The Lakers are trying to bury early-season struggles and injuries and jell into a cohesive unit that can compete for a championship. In August, the team traded for Westbrook, hoping he would rejuvenate the roster and give James and Davis a third superstar to play with. It’s been an up-and-down start—the Lakers are 15-13 and still learning how to play together, with lineups often looking out of sync. The team’s defense is lackluster at times. Reaves has been a bright spot, never going outside of his role. He makes the right pass, drains the open shot, and is always looking to get others involved. Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy compares Reaves to Alex Caruso, whom Handy describes as “a winning-factor type of player.”

Handy noticed Reaves’s tenacity in his college film. “He’s just very unassuming,” Handy says. “A lot of people look at him, ‘OK, who is this? Who is this white kid on the Lakers?’

“People look at it from that standpoint,” Handy says, “but man, he’s just a basketball player and he’s not afraid to compete against anyone.”

“He’s a nasty competitor,” Handy says, adding later: “I just love his fearlessness.”

Friends back home ask Reaves if it’s hit him yet, living this fantasy life. Reaves usually says it hasn’t. Sometimes, though, while he’s sitting on the bench, mid-game, watching James or Anthony pull off a spectacular move, the magnitude of the moment hits him. These guys are insane, he thinks to himself.

But he can’t afford to be starry-eyed. His teammates might be superstars, might make millions, but they are still human beings. They breathe, they eat, they cry, they bleed, too.

He has to keep fighting for his minutes and staying in the moment—not looking ahead, not looking behind—otherwise, the opportunity could disappear. “I go to the gym, and I’m not even trying to sound like a fan or anything, because, I mean, I’m around these guys every day,” Reaves says. “LeBron, Russ. AD, Melo. Like, I could literally pick up the phone and call any one of them right now and have a conversation with them.

“You could have told me that 10 years ago,” he says, “I would have told you you was crazy as hell.”

Charlotte Hornets v Los Angeles Lakers
Reaves drives to the hoop during a November game against Charlotte
Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

Reaves is in good spirits when he walks into the lobby of a hotel near the team’s practice facility in El Segundo. He’s wearing a black hoodie that says “Jaxxon” and Lakers purple mesh practice shorts. When asked what “Jaxxon” is, he shrugs and says he doesn’t know. “Someone sent it to me, so I just put it on.”

He prefers to be in sweatpants, wearing them to nearly every game he missed with a hamstring injury. He’s simple, low maintenance, focused on hoop. “He doesn’t care about the shiny stuff,” says Aaron Reilly, his agent at AMR Agency.

Reaves kept living at the hotel for a few months after the Lakers offered him a two-way contract in August. The team footed the bill, so Reaves continued to live there even after he secured a permanent deal in September worth more than $1 million annually. “There’s no reason to go spend $5,000 a month on an apartment, which is literally insane to me,” he says. “Back home it’s like $500 a month, a thousand if you want a nice place. Out here, it’s like, golly.” He remembers initially looking at the monthly rates. “It just hurts.

Reaves moved to his own spot in early December but isn’t much interested in decorating it. He doesn’t go out much and doesn’t care to frequent the fancy coffee shops or juice bars nearby. When Reilly and Reggie Berry, a partner at AMR, asked him where he wanted to eat dinner recently, he asked to go to Denny’s (and ordered pancakes). He misses his mom’s home cooking, particularly Nicole Wilkett’s banana pudding.

His life was simpler back in Newark, when he used to do “country things,” as his older brother, Spencer, who plays professionally in Germany for Bayer Giants Leverkusen, calls them. If the two weren’t playing one-on-one in basketball or wiffle ball, they hunted for duck and deer and fished at a nearby pond. Life is accelerating much faster now, but his family still keeps Austin grounded. Janet Reaves, his paternal grandmother, never misses a game on television. She often stays up until one or two in the morning to watch him play from her Indiana home. Her eyes threaten to shut, but she refuses to fall asleep. “He might get in,” she says.

She remembers when she used to measure Austin as a little boy, charting his height with marks on a wall. He used to struggle with being so much smaller than his peers, telling his mother, “I’m never going to grow!” And then he sprouted 4 or 5 inches heading into junior year and there was no more wall space. She’s sent him a text message before and after games since he was a seventh-grader: wishing him luck, telling him that she loves him “to the moon and back.” She often writes:

“Play hard, smart, and stay true to yourself.”

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers
Reaves and LeBron James during a preseason game
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Every day in practice, Reaves learns something new. The depth of knowledge in the Lakers locker room is unlike anything Reaves has ever been around: a combined four MVPs, 57 All-Star appearances, three Defensive Player of the Year honors, eight championships.

He’s watching how his teammates move, how they prepare. He notices how James is usually the first one in the gym. He remembers a game—possibly against Houston—when he rushed to set a screen for James. After planting himself, Reaves rolled to the basket. He was open but was running toward the rim too fast, losing sight of where the ball was. James threw it at him anyway. The ball rolled out of bounds.

Damn, Reaves thought. I fucked up.

During the next timeout, James came up to him. “I will throw it to you literally when you’re under the basket,” Reaves remembers James telling him. “Don’t ever take your eyes off of me when I got the ball in my hands because I’ll pass it whenever.”

During the preseason, playing Sacramento, Reaves went 1-for-8 from 3, and Westbrook came into the locker room after the game and said to him, “Way to shoot it.” Reaves was surprised. “What are you talking about? I went 1-for-8.” He remembers Westbrook saying: “No, no, no. I’m just glad you shot it.” That instilled confidence in him to keep shooting.

Rondo has been a mentor. Reaves is constantly in Rondo’s ear, asking questions about play calls and defensive coverages. The day after a game, Rondo will ask Reaves: “Did you watch your minutes?”

“I better say yes,” Reaves says. “He asks me something about it.” Rondo will ask something very specific, down to the time stamp. For example: “What did you think about the play at minute 11?”

Rondo preaches consistency to Reaves; he tells him it’s the hardest thing in the game. He likes how receptive Reaves is to learning. How Reaves never complains about rookie duties, whether it’s picking up something for the team at any hour of the day or night. And how Reaves always seems to bring a positive attitude. It’s almost a running joke: Anytime anyone asks Reaves how he feels, Reaves says cheerfully: “I feel great.”

He also respects Reaves’s basketball IQ: “I think he’s really ahead of the game for his age,” Rondo says. That’s apparent during hours-long film sessions Reaves spends with Handy, analyzing his weaknesses. “Austin’s really smart. Very cerebral,” Handy says. “He recognizes things before I even point them out sometimes. To me, that just translates to a guy that’s going to have a long career in this league.”

His teammates quickly saw that he doesn’t back down. One practice, early in the season, during a five-on-five scrimmage, Reaves defended James. James went into the post, backed him down, and turned and shot a fadeaway 15-footer. Reaves stretched his hand high, contesting right to the fingertips of James’s follow-through.

Good defense, Reaves thought. Then he realized James’s shot went in. OK, whatever. You made one.

The next defensive possession, Reaves bent his legs low, tried to stop James again. Sure enough, James hit a shot over him in the exact same spot.

Fuck.

“He starts talking shit,” Reaves says.

And what did Reaves do?

“I talk shit back! You got to.”

James then subbed out of the scrimmage. “He kindly told me that I might be able to get a stop now,” Reaves says.

This is the part of hoop where Reaves thrives: the shit talking, the one-upping. The hard fouls, the battles. Whether it’s against a Los Angeles Laker or against his brother Spencer when they were younger, Austin never gives up. As a kid, he used to cry after Spencer would bully him in the post, but would always come back for more. “I always got beat up,” says Austin, who was little and scrawny at the time. Nicole used to play with them, until games got too aggressive. “I figured it was time for stitches before too long,” she says.

Reaves is a gamer in the purest sense. One can imagine him diving across concrete during a pick-up game— and not calling a foul even if he was bleeding. He pops up quickly after being hit—and there’s been plenty of that instances lately. “I try to be in the right place at the right time,” Austin says, “but it ends up being the right place at the wrong time.”

At one practice, Lakers center Dwight Howard, who has a good 5 inches and nearly 70 pounds on Reaves, grabbed a rebound and swung his elbows out as he pivoted. Reaves happened to be there, and got clocked in the head.

“Then you got LeBron saying I need a helmet,” Reaves says, laughing. “They all say it now.” They also joke that he needs a mouthpiece. He just might: He got hit in the head three times in one minute against the Spurs. And, against the Grizzlies, Steven Adams set a hard screen on him that was so brutal, he says: “My jaw still hurts to this day.”

That’s part of why his teammates respect him. “Nobody’s going to bully him,” Monk says.

Reaves has had three surgeries to repair torn labrums dating back to his sophomore year of high school, and he’s spent time playing through each of those injuries. His shoulder popped out of its socket multiple times, but he played through it. It would take two people to put on his nasty, smelly, black shoulder brace.

“I think a lot of people don’t really understand the competitive nature that this kid has,” Handy says. “He’s a tough kid.”

In a game against the Thunder, an altercation broke out at half court. Reaves wedged himself between his defender and another guy in front of him and was pushed. Then he remembers Anthony saying: “Fuck no. I ain’t going to let anybody push you.” Anthony then shoved the culprit.

Sometimes when Reaves gets hit in the head without a foul call, his teammates on the bench will call out: “Damn, ref! You don’t see that, ref?!” It’s little moments like that, or when his teammates yell out, “Oh, OK, Austin!” or “We see you, AR!” that it is clear he is gaining his teammates’ trust.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Los Angeles Lakers
Reaves dives for a loose ball during an October game against Cleveland
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Outside of Reaves’s childhood home, a two-story brick house, are miles of rice fields. There are no stoplights in Newark, and no neighbors within a mile of Reaves’s home. There’s a giant power plant. Two restaurants: Moore’s Dairy Creme and the Pizza Place. There’s a supermarket and a couple of gas stations, including an Exxon where old-timers drink coffee and excitedly talk about upcoming high school games.

Newark is a quiet, comforting place where people say “Yes, sir,” and “Yes, ma’am.” “Nothin’ too complicated,” says Cade Crabtree, one of Reaves’s best friends from Newark. There’s a small degree of separation between people here: “They either know ’em, or they are related, or they’ve heard of somebody,” says Brian, Austin’s father. Nicole used to tell Austin and Spencer to be on their best behavior in public because if they weren’t? “We’ll hear about it,” she says.

Nicole and Brian both played for Arkansas State: Brian, a point guard, remains fourth on the school’s all-time assists list; Nicole, an all-conference player, was a fantastic scorer.

Spencer thought Austin had potential since the two began playing, given how instinctual he was. “He had the IQ,” Spencer says. “I could just tell how smooth his game was.” So he pushed him and would often drag him to the gym. In middle school Spencer told him it would take a lot of work to make it in basketball. Austin’s heart wasn’t really in hoops yet. He preferred baseball and was a talented shortstop and leadoff hitter.

By seventh grade, though, he began to fall in love with basketball. Janet and Austin would watch Lakers games, because Janet was a huge Kobe Bryant fan. She admired his relentlessness. Once, they watched him shoot poorly all game before making four clutch baskets in the last two minutes. Janet turned to Austin: “Hey, you’re gonna miss shots, but regardless, you gotta stay confident.”

Austin hung on her every word. Janet instilled good sportsmanship in Austin, telling him if he ever got a technical foul, she would walk out of the gym. One game, as a seventh-grader, Austin missed a free throw and was so mad at himself that he let his emotions get the best of him. Janet understood that emotions can get high in the heat of the game, and even though Reaves didn’t receive a technical, she wanted to teach him to keep his cool. So she left the gym.

Before she reached home, she heard her phone ring. It was Austin. “Mamaw” he said, his name for her, “I’m so sorry. I won’t do that again.”

As Austin got older, he realized he’d have to do more to stand out to college recruiters, coming from such a small place. Monk, who grew up in Lepanto, Arkansas, a similarly sized town about 75 miles from Newark, transferred to a bigger school for that same reason. “Most people don’t know where Arkansas is. Most people don’t know Arkansas has basketball players,” says Monk, who played against Reaves in the state championship when the two were ninth-graders.

“We always carried a chip on our shoulder to let people know we’re not backing down. We here and we going to do the same thing that you can do, probably even better,” Monk says.

Reaves flew under the radar, though, not just because he attended a tiny 2A school (Arkansas has seven divisions), but because he didn’t immediately pass the eye test as a skinny kid who didn’t exactly pop athletically. The one year Reaves played AAU, he remembers walking onto the court and often hearing defenders say: “Oh, I’m guarding the white guy.”

“I’m just like, ‘Say less,’” Reaves says. “And then in three possessions, the coach is switching him. It’s just a good feeling because nobody thinks you can play until they see it.”

He grew accustomed to being underestimated, to being thought of as a one-dimensional, stand-in-the-corner shooter. “You get a white guy out there, more often than not, the brothers are going to go at his head,” Berry says. “But, with Austin … if you watch him hoop, he’s not going for that shit.”

He spent nights in the gym, laboring on his shot, missing nearly every school dance except for prom. He didn’t even want to go to that: “My ex-girlfriend made me.” He played more of a facilitator role his first two years at Cedar Ridge, as Spencer was the team’s go-to player. Once Spencer graduated, Austin took over.

Still, college coaches weren’t too interested. Dillon Buchanan, then an assistant coach at Jonesboro High who helped local kids get recruited to play at the next level, first met Reaves as a junior. He was impressed by Reaves’s court awareness and playmaking abilities. What he lacked in strength, Buchanan noticed, he made up with intelligence. “His feel and the way he used his body was so high level,” says Buchanan, who was sure Reaves’s game would translate to the next level, even if recruiters weren’t as convinced.

Reaves wasn’t as confident then. He watched Spencer accept an offer to play at the University of Central Missouri, a Division II school. Nicole mentioned that the two of them could eventually end up playing together again, implying that Austin could follow suit and play D-II. “No,” Spencer said. “He can go do bigger and better things.”

Austin was a bit surprised by his brother’s answer. I don’t know. I don’t even think so, Austin thought. “I guess he seen something else that, I mean, not too many did.”

But the more he played, the more self-assured he became. He scored 73 points in triple-overtime against Forrest City, a 5A school that won state that year. It was the talk of the town. “It dawned on us, like, this is a big deal,” Crabtree says, “this don’t happen very often.” Reaves continued to dominate, dropping more than 50 points twice. “He became like Bigfoot,” Buchanan says. “People were like, ‘Ah, we hear about it but we don’t really believe it.’ It was like folklore.”

Buchanan would call college coaches on his behalf and tell them about Reaves’s talent. He’d drive him to college camps all over the country in his black Chevy Equinox, as the two became close as family. They went to mid-majors and high majors, including places like Purdue, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Creighton. Buchanan remembers hearing a similar refrain: “Oh he’s good, he’s talented, we just don’t think he can play here.” Essentially, he gathered coaches didn’t think Austin was good enough.

They’d drive home, and Reaves wouldn’t look the least bit upset. “Hey, you’ll see,” he’d say, referring to college coaches, and then turn the radio up, and belt out one of his favorite songs, like Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself.”

He wouldn’t let anyone dampen his spirit.

Buchanan kept advocating for him, and one college coach finally listened: then–Wichita State assistant Kyle Lindsted. “He kept sending me videos of this scrawny little dude that was getting buckets,” Lindsted says. Once he began to recruit him and watch him play more, Lindsted saw not just talent, but intangibles: “Grit, and moxie, and smarts with toughness.”

He went to see Reaves in Newark, so far “out in the middle of the woods” that his GPS lost its signal. He began to panic when he stopped seeing streetlights. “I was literally scared to death,” Lindsted says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” The trip was worth it: He believed Reaves was a steal.

Wichita State finally offered him a scholarship, when Reaves and Buchanan visited campus. On the way home, the two stopped at Hog Wild Pit Bar-B-Q in Wichita to celebrate. While eating, Austin spotted something outside. He leapt onto the booth across from them.

“Oh my gosh,” Reaves said. “That is the most beautiful picture I’ve ever seen.” It was a cow standing in a snow-covered field. He took a picture.

Marshall v Wichita State
Reaves while playing for Wichita State in the 2018 NCAA tournament
Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

His first season at Wichita State, though, was hindered by his nagging shoulder. He dislocated his right arm and had surgery. He recovered with extensive rehab, and eventually contributed as a solid role player. But after two years in Wichita, he felt he needed to prove himself at a higher level, so he transferred to Oklahoma, where he made an immediate impression on his new teammates. “That was all we could talk about,” says Jamal Bieniemy, a former OU teammate, “was how he could do so many things other than just shoot the ball and how good he was and his feel for the game.”

Anthony Rini, an Oklahoma graduate assistant at the time, realized early, “This kid is very special,” Rini says, “doing some things you just can’t teach.” Reaves flourished for the Sooners, becoming a dominant scorer. In his final collegiate game he dropped 27 in a second-round NCAA tournament loss to Gonzaga.

When Reaves hired Reilly to represent him, he told his new agent: “Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it.” Reaves began working with a skill-development trainer for the first time in his life, Allen Watson, who helped with strength and on-court performance training leading up to the draft. “It was all foreign to him,” Watson says. “He was just basically playing off his God-given ability.”

They focused on diet, too, as Austin went about 85 percent vegan for more than a month. They worked on mobility and core strengthening, as Austin dropped 11 percent of his body fat. “I used to hate weight lifting,” Reaves says. “I was with A.I. when he said, ‘Why would I want to lift when this shit’s heavy?’ But now, I’m actually kind of enjoying it.”

Reaves ended up working out for 17 NBA teams. He wasn’t nervous for any of the workouts, except for the one with the Lakers. When he walked into the team’s practice facility, he saw the gold championship banners. The retired jerseys. Greatness in every corner. There was a history there. A history he wanted to be a part of.

He returned to Newark for the draft. As he pulled into his family’s garage, he was taken aback when he spotted a chicken perched by the door. Apparently his mom had added chickens to the farm since he had left. He embraced his family and his pets: a German shepherd named Sniper and a miniature goldendoodle named Harley. Reilly and Berry stayed in a nearby cabin that Brian had built by hand with the help of a couple of his friends.

The day before the draft, Reilly and Berry received word that the Lakers were interested in Austin and that they liked the way he played. AMR Agency, whom Reilly affectionately calls the “agency of nerds,” ranked the second-round teams and teams without picks in terms of fit, using a combination of analytics, playing style, personnel, and more. They ranked the Lakers first.

The day of the draft, Reaves’s parents cooked their hearts out: steak, chicken, mac and cheese, sweet potato fries, ribs. The Detroit Pistons called when considering the no. 42 pick, telling Reaves’s camp that they’d draft him and offer him a two-way contract. Reaves’s camp told the Pistons not to draft him unless they were willing to offer guaranteed money. They had faith that Austin would find the right fit in terms of potential two-way opportunities after the draft, even if that meant not hearing his name called that night. Austin had faith, too.

“People live to get drafted,” Reaves says. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to get drafted. Everybody wants to get drafted. But hearing my name called that night was not as important as being in a good situation for myself.”

He eventually accepted a two-way opportunity with the Lakers and approached summer league ready to show that he could play a role. He wasn’t going to go out there and try to score 40, because he wouldn’t be doing that on the Lakers if he did make the team. He shined, and then continued his steady play later at James’s minicamp in Las Vegas, about a week before training camp.

This was the first time Reaves had played with James and his new teammates. It was one of the biggest moments of his life, but he reminded himself that it was just basketball. One play, he crossed over Rondo, and Davis was coming down to block him in the lane. Reaves quickly dished a perfect pass to James for the dunk. That was the moment he knew he could play with them.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers
Reaves confers with Russell Westbrook during a preseason game
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

He was beginning to get to know them off the floor, too. In the hotel, he received a FaceTime call from an unlisted number. He didn’t pick up. The person called back. Reaves declined again. A text arrived: “This is RW. Call me back.”

Reaves couldn’t put two and two together. “Who’s RW?” he thought, before soon realizing his mistake. That was Russell Westbrook! He immediately called him back. “All right, rook,” Westbrook said to him, before asking him to pick a few things up.

The night before Reaves was supposed to leave Las Vegas to return home, Reilly received a text from Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka’s assistant saying that Pelinka wanted to get on a Zoom with Reilly and Reaves the next day at 5:15 p.m. Reilly wasn’t sure what to think. Was Austin about to get a contract? Was he about to get cut?

When the call began, Pelinka said how happy he was with the way Austin had been playing, according to Reilly. Pelinka had noticed Austin spending late nights at the gym by himself. And he said Austin would be a great fit for the team and that they wanted to bring him up to the club and offer him a two-year contract.

Austin began to tear up. He looked up at the ceiling and couldn’t speak a word. He had made it. He was a Los Angeles Laker. An NBA player. He called his brother, his parents, and then his grandparents to celebrate.

Then that other part of Austin kicked in. That stubborn part, that competitive part. He vowed to be one of the hardest-working players on the team, to give 100 percent on every possession. Do whatever it takes to stay on the floor.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Lakers
Reaves and Malik Monk help up Anthony Davis during a November game against Oklahoma City
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

After finally making his first official NBA bucket against the Suns, a pull-up in the middle of the lane, Reaves was starting to make an impact. The team, however, was struggling to find a rhythm. Losses mounted. Some called for Vogel’s firing.

After a 105-90 loss to Portland on November 6, the team flew back to L.A. The team ate dinner on the plane. Before eating his orange chicken, Reaves cracked open the fortune cookie in front of him: “Control what you can control.”

He was stunned, reading the message, because he’s lived by that phrase for most of his life. He would come to embody that sentiment in the coming weeks as he dealt with his hamstring injury.

He was so used to playing through pain that he didn’t consider he couldn’t do it anymore as a pro. Handy says the team missed his “energy” and “how hard he plays.” His teammates felt his absence. “We needed him,” Monk says, “because he going to be the first one to dive on the floor and bring the juice.”

“It’s just like the little things, man, that he does,” Monk says, “that wakes everybody else up.”

Reaves’s family helped keep him positive. When the Lakers lost to the Timberwolves, 107-83, on November 12, Janet texted him: “Well, that was ugly. I think the basket in the second half had a lid on it. I know it’s hard for you to sit out, please don’t come back too early until you’re completely ready. Goodnight. Love you to the moon and back.”

Reaves didn’t play the first night he was cleared to return. The next game after that, he played just under six minutes. “Keep working hard,” Janet texted him. “Your minutes will come. You proved it before, you’ll prove it again.”

She was right. He has slowly worked his way back into the lineup and is looking more like himself. Against the Kings, he crossed over Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton, then spun toward the middle of the floor, draining a tough turnaround jumper while falling away.

Some people ask Reaves whether he’s gone Hollywood or is getting too big time. He shakes his head. He can still count the number of close friends he has on one hand. He still feels like a regular person, able to walk through L.A. without getting noticed.

He feels grateful to be on the court at all. He remembers playing the Spurs, early in the season, when he and Monk sat together on the bench for a while. They talked about how far they had come from Arkansas. The cattle Reaves grew up next to, the cornfields Monk remembers.

“Who would have thought?” Reaves said to him.

“Me,” Monk said.

Reaves paused: “Not really me.”

He knows that things work in mysterious ways. That everything he wants is right here, right now. But he won’t stay complacent. He’ll keep working. Keep earning his spot. That’s just how he likes it. Just as his grandmother taught him.

Play hard, smart, and stay true to yourself.

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