NORMAN — Austin Reaves looked uneasy as he approached the swarm of reporters and TV cameras that waited for him Thursday. Even in the friendly confines of the practice facility inside Lloyd Noble Center, a facility in which Reaves now has spent more than a year without playing a single minute of live game action, he looked anything but comfortable.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been interviewed by this many people before,” the transfer from Wichita State said.
If things go right for the lanky, 6-foot-5 guard this year, he’ll have to get used to it.
By the time OU kicks off its men’s basketball season in November, it will have been 20 months since Reaves last competed in a college basketball game. In March 2018, he was a sophomore contributor for a Wichita State team that made the NCAA Tournament. Now he’s a Sooner.
Reaves’ decision to leave coach Gregg Marshall’s Shockers came a month after that 2017-18 season ended, and in the time since he has shed little light publicly on what drove him away from Wichita and, ultimately, to Norman. But in the year-plus since he arrived at OU, in which Reaves was forced to sit out the 2018-19 season per NCAA transfer rules, the crafty guard has become ingrained in coach Lon Kruger’s program.
He has gotten used to the culture and settled into a comfortable place alongside his teammates and the coaching staff. Reaves has gained a better perspective on who he is on the court and as a teammate. He said he feels more confident than he ever did at Wichita State.
Now Reaves is ready, finally, to return to the court and make an impact for the Sooners.
“It’s been fun to get a year to work on myself in the training room and on the court to get a little stronger,” Reaves said. “But I’m just waiting for the season to start now.”
The year Reaves spent sidelined at times felt like it would never end, he said.
The Newark, Arkansas, native struggled to cope with life on the bench, watching game after game unfold in front of him, knowing he had no chance to make an impact. Being around the team and in the locker room before a game, but not getting to suit up hurt, and while Reaves tried to remain engaged by instructing teammates with what he could see from the bench, it simply wasn’t the same.
“Sitting out was a struggle,” Reaves said.
Since, Reaves has made good use of his year off the court. He grew as a person and teammate, supporting his team from the bench and as a force on the Sooners’ scout team — the only competitive basketball outlet he had.
In the weight room, Reaves put on 20 pounds — to get himself around 200 — and got stronger. He already feels more confident taking contact driving into the lane and finishing around the basket.
Tipoff in November can’t come soon enough.
“He’s gotten so much better and he’s matured a lot.” sophomore guard Jamal Bieniemy said. “He’s learned how to be a leader and he’s gotten a lot more talkative and vocal with the team. He knows the right things to say and when to say it.”
As far as his role for the Sooners in 2019-20 — Reaves has two years of eligibility remaining — the 21-year-old said he has a lot to offer.
In two seasons at Wichita State, Reaves shot 45.1% from behind the 3-point line and he projects to be a dangerous weapon for OU beyond the arc. But with the muscle he has tacked on and the skills he has developed over the past year, he’s a more complete guard than he has ever been.
Reaves is ready to put that on display.
“I’ve become a better overall player since I got here,” Reaves said. “Since I’ve been here I’ve improved my decision-making and finishing in the paint. I’ll shoot the 3 when I’m open, but I’ve got some other stuff to bring to the table now.”
Reaves also recognizes his role as a leader for this year’s young Sooners. He made the NCAA Tournament twice with the Shockers, and he has been through “all the things” OU’s freshmen are certain to go through this year. He hopes to impart wisdom and serve as a guide to the team’s newcomers.
But for as eager as he is to flash his new skills and help bring along this year’s freshman class, Reaves just can’t take his mind off the regular season and the opportunity to get back onto the court — everything else is secondary.
By November, the return will be nearly two years in the making. Reaves’ journey featured highs, lows, lots of struggles and plenty of growth. Once he’s back on the court in a real, competitive, college basketball game, he feels, everything will be back to normal and he’ll be able to focus on everything else.
But until then, that return will stay on his mind, and all Reaves can do prepare and count down the days.
“I’ve thought about it a lot. I think about it everyday,” Reaves said. “And honestly, I just can’t wait.”