One of L.A.’s new two-way players, Austin Reaves, grew up in the small town of Newark, Arkansas – population 1,200. Basketball is a family business for the 23-year-old, as his parents both played college hoops at Arkansas State, and his brother is now playing professionally in Germany.
But Reaves actually first fell in love with baseball before turning to the orange ball in seventh grade, and eventually winning three state titles at Cedar Ridge High School.
Below is a transcription of our conversation with Reaves during the Las Vegas Summer League, as we got to know the kid who grew up a huge Kobe fan a little better:
MT: What’s the origin story of how you fell in love with basketball?
Reaves: It started with baseball. Baseball was really my first sport, and that’s what everybody thought I was going to do. But I played too much, kinda got burnt out on it. I played basketball in fourth, fifth and sixth grade because it was what my friends did. But in seventh grade, I decided I wanted to quit baseball, start playing basketball and really just try to get my school paid for. It went from there.
MT: OK back to the baseball for a moment! How did that all go down? You must have been pretty good…
Reaves: I was solid. I started playing almost every weekend when I was five, and it wasn’t t-ball, it was baseball. People weren’t sugar coating us. It was very serious, like we were 15 years old trying to win any tournament. The team that I was on, we were really good. We weren’t used to losing. The expectations were high, but I just played too much. Almost every weekend from 5 to 11 or 12. Not completely year round, but almost. You’d have a little bit of a break during school time. But all summer, there wasn’t much time to do anything but play baseball. So I think that’s part of the reason I wanted to do some other things, and basketball really jumped out.
MT: What positions did you play?
Reaves: Shortstop. And pitched a little bit, but I didn’t like pitching. I got on base … I led off. Never was a power hitter, but I did what I had to do to get on base.
MT: You’re listed at 6’5’’ now … were you always tall, or did you have a growth spurt later?
Reaves: I was always the littlest kid, and then I grew my sophomore year to junior summer. I grew like six inches.
MT: OK, but as the shortstop and leadoff hitter, you had to be a really fluid athlete with some speed…
Reaves: Yeah, you could say that.
MT: What was the peak moment for your Arkansas Little League squad?
Reaves: For travel ball, we won all the state tournaments they had. When I was eight, we went down to Louisiana and won a regional tournament. The crazy thing was that the team we had, everybody was from Newark and Batesville, a town 15 minutes away. Everybody else we were playing against was recruiting kids and all that. So it was special for us to be able to go play against teams that had kids from all over their states, and for us to have guys from the small towns around us.
MT: So it’s funny you brought up Little League. My six-year-old twin boys just finished playing in the Pony World Series in Southern California, and had a great time. Now, they only played baseball for a couple of months … they also play two other sports … and we’re trying to be super aware of emphasizing the fun of it and letting them dictate things as much as possible. But do you have any advice to any parents or kids out there about avoiding that burned out feeling you had?
Reaves: You basically said it, just really let them do what they want to do. You can coach them, but if you’re pushed into something for so long, it doesn’t really matter what it is in life. You’re going to get tired of that. So really just let them find the love for the game themselves, and not force it upon them.
MT: Sage words! Sports aside, before we get to basketball, what was it like growing up in a small Arkansas town?
Reaves: It was very calm … Newark has 1,200 people. When my grandpa was still alive, he was my closest neighbor. Probably 400 yards up the yard. You couldn’t see another house from where I lived. It was simple; you could really get away. The majority of people want to see everybody be successful. It’s really a good place. Back home now, every time I play, I’d say 85 to 90 percent of people in my town are tuning in, which is really special.
MT: They must have enjoyed the game-winner vs. Phoenix in the first game in Vegas…
Reaves: Oh yeah, lots of people were reaching out and congratulating me, but most of all just for winning the game.
MT: Let’s get back to your transition from baseball to basketball. How did that evolve?
Reaves: My 6th to 7th grade summer, my brother (Spencer) – who’s two years older than me – had a team camp in the summer, so me and my best friend went with them to play. And we were murdering people. Thirty-balling people. And it was like, ‘Oh.’ That was also around the time where my dad said I needed to pick a sport and try to get my school paid for. The fast pace of the game stood out to me; you’re always doing something. So at that time, my brother was already really serious into basketball, so he had a gym key. And at that point my brother was dragging me out of the house to go play whether I wanted to or not. He saw potential in me, and I knew I loved the game, I just didn’t know what it took to be successful.
MT: Watching your game here in Summer League, your instincts for the game are pretty obvious on both ends of the court. Was that always the case?
Reaves: I feel like I was always kinda like that, but especially when I went to Wichita State with Coach (Gregg) Marshall, the attention to detail with him was, you do it or you don’t play. All those little things that come natural, I was made to do, and now it’s just a habit. And that’s a good habit to have. But I credit my parents, my brother and the coaches I’ve had for teaching me more than the things that were instincts.
MT: There are more NBA players that have come out of Arkansas* than some may think, including L.A.’s own Derek Fisher, Scottie Pippen and Glen Rice … but I know you were a huge Kobe fan…
Reaves: Yeah I was really just a Kobe fan. My grandma was a diehard Kobe fan. It started with her. She just liked his mentality, the way that he approached the game. Being around her when I was younger, we were always watching games and stuff like that. But D-Fish was good too, you can’t knock him for anything he did. He won a lot of games and a lot of rings.
*There were five active players last season from Arkansas: Mike Conley; Bobby Portis; new Laker Malik Monk; Daniel Gafford; and Keljin Blevins.
MT: How’s grandma enjoying watching her grandson rock the Purple and Gold in Summer League?
Reaves: She’s been crazy. She’s lost it. She’s a sports junkie, but definitely a basketball junkie. She texts me every day before the game and gives me her little words of advice. But it’s not regular words of advice, it’s stuff that actually helps because she’s a basketball mind and loves the game.
MT: Would you mind sharing a recent text from Grandma?
Reaves: I definitely can.
GRANDMA: “Good luck tonight. Be aggressive on offense, and you’re really playing good defense. Most importantly, be yourself. Love you.”
MT: Beautiful, especially from a trusted source! What do you say back?
Reaves: One hundred percent. I usually say ‘Thanks, love you too.’ Kinda short, but I definitely want to text back.
MT: Let’s track back to high school for a moment. How did it end up that you guys won the state title in your division in your first year?
Reaves: So me and my best friend (Cade Crabtree) moved up (to varsity) and we both started as freshman. We really didn’t have a lot of guys on the team, coming from a small town. He had a brother that was my brother’s age, so it was us four, and the other guy was basically our brother, he was with us all the time. It was really all about winning. We didn’t care who did what. We understood that our older brothers (both juniors) would score, and we’d do all the dirty work. We bought into it for our team to be successful … we won state titles my freshman, sophomore and senior year. It was a 3A school, and it goes to 7A.
MT: When did you start to get recruited?
Reaves: Not really until the summer between my junior and senior years, but I only had two offers, and I think one of them got pulled. It took until midway through senior year, I probably had three offers at the end of it, with Wichita State being the last one.
MT: You’d mentioned that your parents played in college, and that your dad had discussed getting your education paid for. How did that influence things?
Reaves: They really wanted me to go to school and get an education. But other than that, they wanted me to be successful in a sport because they saw all the hours that I put in to what I wanted to do.
MT: When did you get better than your brother?
Reaves: Aww, man, it took a long time. Probably not until … man … he’s beat me a lot. Probably my senior year of high school. Because before that, he’d wear me out. Then I started getting a little groove going, beating him here and there. But especially when I went to college. We both were in college, but when we came back for summer we’d play. I’m not going to say I beat him every time because he still gets me. That’s one person I hate playing 1-on-1 against. He just makes every shot, and we play make-it, take-it, of course. It’s just frustrating playing him. He might throw it up right-handed – he’s left handed – and it’ll go in.
MT: Yeah he’s got all your angles … and that big brother confidence.
Reaves: He knows everything I do.
MT: You had two years at Wichita State before transferring to Oklahoma. What was that whole process like, and when did you start to realize that you had a future as a professional player?
Reaves: I always thought that I had the skill, but had to work on my body and things like that. Going to Wichita was an eye opener for me of course, but I knew I wasn’t going to be the best player there, and would have to buy into a role. I think that’s something that makes me unique – I’m not against buying into a role. You could tell at Wichita that they wanted me to be a catch-and-shoot shooter, so that’s what I did. Then going to Oklahoma, switched roles and get the best I could. So, college experience was really good. I had a lot of fun, a lot of good teammates, and played for two coaches that are successful at what they do. But it really clicked my first year at Oklahoma. Coach (Lon) Kruger came up to me as I was walking to my car, and said ‘I want you to know that I think you can be really good and really play at the next level.’ Coming from a coach like that that’s been around basketball for a long time, and he’s very successful, really knows what he’s talking about really set in that all this was possible.
MT: One of the newest Lakers, Malik Monk, happens to be from Arkansas, and someone you played against. What are your recollections?
Reaves: My freshman year, yes. We played them twice that year, and we beat them both times. If it was a 1-on-1 matchup, he definitely killed me. We played them in the state finals, and I think he had like 27, as a freshman. He played really well.
MT: Monk was eventually a massive national recruit, of course, before going to Kentucky…
Reaves: Oh, yeah, Top 5 I think. We probably shouldn’t have won that game. My brother, actually, it was probably the best game I’ve seen him play in person. He had nine at half, but in the second half, he came out and just couldn’t miss. I think he had 29 in the second half, and literally at the end of the third and the fourth, I don’t think anybody else really did anything, we were just playing defense.
MT: But now, you guys had two sets of brothers who knew each other’s games incredibly well … you must have had ridiculous chemistry and cohesion, especially for a high school team.
Reaves: It was amazing. Everything we ran … that’s why we won games. We were never more talented than a lot of the teams we played. We were definitely not more athletic. Our post man was probably 5’10’’. He just did his job. I did my job. My best friend did his job. Then we let (our older brothers) do what they did. It was a really good fit, and we just knew how to play together because we grew up together.
MT: Your brother’s now with Bayer Leverkusen, which I know as a big German Bundesliga football (soccer) club. How has that been going?
Reaves: He texted me today, and was like, ‘Free movie, popcorn!’ and something else, and said, ‘I love it here.’ That sums it up. But I mean, he loves basketball, more than probably anybody I’ve ever met. It’s good to see him be able to play and get paid to do something he loves.
MT: While he’s doing his thing abroad, does he get a chance to watch your games? Is he giving feedback?
Reaves: He watches every game. It’s 2 or 4 a.m. his time, but he’ll wake up and watch the games (he records). It’s come to the point where he finally knows that I know what I did wrong, but he’ll send words of encouragement. He just texted me after the game I went 1 for 8 from the field here, and said, ‘Just remember, I went 2 for 25 from 3 over a 4-game stretch in college.’ Words to pick me up and things like that.
MT: Word is you and your two-way partner Joel Ayayi have struck up a good friendship already … what’s that been like?
Reaves: It’s been awesome. I knew him a little bit because we played (Gonzaga) in the tournament and they killed us. But he’s a good dude. Genuine. Someone you want to be around. He can make people laugh. And on top of that, he’s a really good basketball player. High IQ. Someone that knows the game, and can see things during games to help others on the floor. Really just being around him is awesome, and I can’t wait to have a lot more time with him.
MT: OK last thing. You’re playing in the game against Detroit on Saturday, and LeBron and Russ walk in. You’re a pro too, but is there something there where you’re thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m about to spend the whole season working out in the same gym at the UCLA Health Training Center’ … or whatever.
Reaves: It’s crazy … in the game, when they walked in, I had no idea they were coming, nothing. So I remember the time now when everyone was going crazy, but I didn’t know what it was at the time because I was playing. But during the game, we were on defense, and someone (on Detroit) shot it from the corner. Another (Piston) was on the block, and he wasn’t checked out, so I went down and cracked him. I heard someone behind me say, ‘Good!’ or something like that. I’m like … I don’t really hear people. But that voice sounds real familiar. Who? So I keep playing or whatever. Then I go to the bench, and I look over, and it’s LeBron and Russ. I’m like, ‘Oh! That’s crazy!’.
It’s just things like that, I mean, the IQ that he has is off the charts. There’s not much else you can say. It’s LeBron, arguably the best player ever. It’s going to be fun just to be around him and four or five other potential Hall of Famers on the team. It’s a great opportunity to go in and just learn. All of them are high IQ guys, done a lot of things and been real successful, so it’s going to be super fun.
MT: That’s great. Now just to clarify … you think LeBron basically pointed out a defensive IQ play you made?
Reaves: I do. I think someone rotated, and dude was on the block and nobody was by him, so I went and cracked down. The ball came off hard and someone else got it. And then I heard ‘Good,’ and thought the voice sounded real familiar.
MT: And it wasn’t on some highlight dunk, but a random and quick defensive decision.
Reaves: Just a little play. That’s how you know someone has high IQ.