Wichita State freshman Austin Reaves has gone through a surgery on both shoulders and wears a protective wrap that the Shockers hope prevents more suffering.
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But it’s a crapshoot. One of Reaves’ shoulders could go at any minute, which makes watching him play basketball a combination of exhilaration and exhalation.
The 6-foot-5, 167-pound Reaves, so thin he can barely keep his basketball shorts on, took a shot in one of those shoulders against Michigan State in late November and it looked like he might go on the shelf for an extended period.
But one of Reaves’ attributes is a toughness that defies his bodily appearance. He was back after missing a game against Southern Nazarene and continues to be a player Shocker fans want to love.
Reaves, playing in front of his older brother, Spencer, a standout guard at Central Missouri, was at his lovable best Sunday at Koch Arena, making all four of his shot attempts, all from behind the three-point line, during a 14-point performance in WSU’s 100-66 win over Bradley.
Reaves wasn’t on the floor much, though — 11 minutes — because of foul issues.
As he made one shot after the next, though, the crowd had a reason to scream. The soft-spoken Reaves, who speaks with an Arkansas drawl that makes him even more likable, had 14 points and four rebounds.
“It’s a great feeling when you know that going into a game the crowd is going to have your back, the team is going to have your back and the coaching staff is going to have your back,” Reaves said.
You know Reaves’ back story. He’s from a tiny Arkansas town, Newark, that even Siri has difficulty finding. It’s 100 miles northeast of Little Rock and Reaves went to Cedar Ridge High, where he averaged a ridiculous amount of points and once scored 73 in a game.
He wasn’t recruited much — but then again neither was former Shocker and current New York Knicks guard Ron Baker. And Baker is the player to whom Reaves is most often compared to, fair or not.
The difference? Baker was a physical beast, one of the strongest players to come through WSU. Reaves is working on that aspect and will get back to us as soon as a brisk breeze doesn’t blow him over.
“(Reaves) is very talented,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “The game is really slow for him. I know he got four fouls today, but there was one time when he set his feet so well and took a charge. He doesn’t get sped up like some young players get sped up. If we can keep him healthy, he’s going to be one heck of a player.”
Health is the one qualifier Marshall uses for Reaves every time he talks about him. It’s those shoulders. And Sunday it was his leg, which gave him some problems after a first-half slip.
“I came down awkward on my hip,” Reaves said. “And I’m not real flexible anyways.”
OK, so Reaves is wispy and doesn’t flex all that well. But the kid can shoot and he has a higher-than-average basketball IQ already. Imagine how that could play as he gets stronger and adds some elasticity to his frame.
Perhaps there will be a day when he averages 18.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and leads his team in assists. That’s what his brother, Spencer, is doing at Central Missouri State, where he’s the Mules’ leading scorer and had 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists in a win over Rockhurst on Saturday.
“He told me about it before our game,” Austin said. “Those numbers aren’t something I usually get and he just rubs it in all the time. But it was good playing in front of him and my family today.”
After the game, Austin said he was humble as he greeted his big brother.
“I don’t really say much, I just let him talk,” he said. “He used to talk a lot more than he does now. When we were in high school he talked a lot.”
There’s so much Austin could say. But he knows what being a little brother is all about and is willing to play that role.
“My brother is one of the biggest reasons I’m the player I am right now,” Austin said. “He’s the one who would drag me out of bed and take me to the gym at 10 at night and push me every day in practice to be better. When I didn’t necessarily see my talent at a young age, he did. And he congratulated me today after the game.”
Reaves is a weapon and the Shockers aren’t lacking for those. He was one of five players in double figures Sunday and junior guard Conner Frankamp was close with nine points.
Reaves is a player who also understands what lacks in his game and is persistent in addressing those flaws.
“Defense has been the most difficult part about playing at this level,” he said. “I’m not used to playing people this quick and who are as tall and as long as me. That’s just something I’m going to have to keep improving on over the years and one day maybe I’ll be a really good defender.”
Playing for Marshall makes that a guarantee. The rest of Reaves’ game already is promising.
He said he doesn’t think about his shoulders while he’s on the floor and that he’s not in pain.
Good to know, because he appears so vulnerable. Reaves is a player who elicits gasps. Sunday, they were for all the right reasons.