The (semi-serious) case for Austin Reaves as the best player in the world

Los Angeles Lakers star Austin Reaves continues to dominate on the FIBA World Cup stage.
Austin Reaves, Team USA
Austin Reaves, Team USA / Ezra Acayan/GettyImages

Austin Reaves has been the star of the show for Team USA. Not necessarily in terms of on-court impact — he scored eight points in 18 minutes off the bench in Wednesday's win over Jordan — but definitely in terms of fan adoration. The Filipino crowd had lots of love for the Los Angeles Lakers star ahead of the U.S. squad's debut.

Reaves' ascent has been utterly meteoric. He went undrafted out of Oklahoma in the summer of 2021. Two years later, he's a face of USA basketball with a new four-year, $53.8 million contract from the Lakers that already feels like a massive underpay.

We have reached the point where folks are dubbing Reaves the best player in the world.

It goes without saying that Reaves is not the best player in the world. The tweet above is a reference to U.S. track star Noah Lyles, who expressed earnest confusion over why NBA champions are dubbed "world champions" when it's a domestic league. The backlash from prideful NBA players has been severe.

We can save Lyles' argument for another day, and also recognize that Reaves isn't even the best player in the tournament. That said, it's important to recognize Reaves' bubbling popularity and the simple fact that he is probably better than even his most ardent supporters realize.

Los Angeles Lakers' Austin Reaves receives star treatment in FIBA World Cup play

Reaves' spunky defense and electric shot-making made him a staple of the Lakers' rotation last season. By the conference finals, he was the team's third option. Some might even argue that he's the third leg of a 'Big 3' next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

In the conference finals, Reaves averaged 21.3 points and 5.3 assists on .549/.560/1.000 splits.

Equating Reaves' stardom to his Lakers co-stars is probably an extreme measure, but Reaves isn't just a fun novelty either. There's a tendency to write off players in Reaves' position as simple hype mechanisms. He plays for the Lakers, he has the underdog storyline. It's easy to lob him into the same category as a player like T.J. McConnell.

That's not an accurate portrayal of what's happening with Reaves. Or at least, it's not the full story. Reaves is definitely a product of perfect circumstances. Had he signed with the Charlotte Hornets after the draft, he's probably not in the same position today. The Lakers gave Reaves a major national platform with a crappy roster that allowed him to rapidly elevate to the level of LeBron James' co-star.

Reaves is, however, a truly great basketball player. Maybe not superstar great, maybe not even All-Star great, but he's going to vastly outplay that contract. No team offering Reaves more than $13.5 million annually is going to look plain stupid. In fact, it already does. The Lakers didn't even have to fight for him in free agency.

Not many guards can do what Reaves does. He checks a ton of boxes — elite 3-point shooting, quality defense, rim pressure, foul-drawing — and his skill set is scalable depending on the role required of him. Reaves spent time as the Lakers' point guard and lead playmaker last season. He also spent time as a spacer and slasher working off two all-world offensive players in LeBron and AD. He looked perfectly at home in both capacities.

Reaves shot 39.8 percent from deep and 74.6 percent within five feet of the rim, which was his most frequented area of the floor. Reaves boasts the perfect analytical shot profile. He draws fouls better than almost any non-"star" in the NBA and he's a talented creator for others, on top of his very competent self-creation. That's not common.

The Lakers — and Team USA — will continue to embrace just how good Reaves is. He's not the best player in the NBA, but he's far more than a media figurehead too. The Lakers deserve a ton of credit for unearthing a gem and somehow keeping him for pennies on the dollar.

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