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These rookies could make an impact for the Lakers this season

lakers mac mcclung chaundree brown austin reaves joel ayayi

The Los Angeles Lakers did not make a selection in the 2021 NBA Draft. Instead, they traded their lone pick — No. 22 overall — to the Washington Wizards in the package for Russell Westbrook (Washington flipped the pick to the Indiana Pacers).

Yet, the Lakers didn’t come away from the draft empty-handed. Los Angeles signed two undrafted free agents — Oklahoma’s Austin Reaves and Gonzaga’s Joel Ayayi — shortly after the proceedings. Both prospects reportedly turned down the chance to go in the second round in favor of two-way deals with the league’s most famous franchise.

You can understand Reaves’ and Ayayi’s (and their representatives’) logic. The Lakers are the Lakers, and the organization’s developmental track record over the past half-decade has been stellar.

Reaves and Ayayi were mildly impressive in Summer League. Reaves, a 6’5 wing who put up 18.3 points per game for Oklahoma in 2020-21, was the Lakers’ best all-around player in Las Vegas (and Sacramento). He displayed a smooth all-around feel on offense and produced the highlight of the week:

Ayayi, also 6’5, showed tremendous growth over four seasons for the Bulldogs. He began as a raw prospect and ended up as a scrappy 3-and-D who excels at the little things. Wherever his ceiling ends up at the next level, Ayayi’s impact will probably be more consistently evident in film study and via eye test than in the box score.

By nature of their two-way deals (which were formally announced on Aug. 3), Reaves and Ayayi will be invited to participate in Lakers’ training camp (beginning Sept. 28), then can shuffle back-and-forth between the G League’s South Bay Lakers and the pro team throughout the season. They will not count on the 15-man active roster.

Talen Horton-Tucker, still somehow just 20 years old, has already secured an NBA championship ring and a bag since embarking on a similar path. Their Summer League teammate, Devontae Cacok, earned sparse minutes for the Lakers during his two years as a two-way — though he did net a ring and, recently, a deal with the Brooklyn Nets. (Horton-Tucker’s insertion into important playoff situations during Round 2 in the bubble was a rarity.)

Reaves and Ayayi are eligible to play up to 50 games for the (NBA) Lakers in 2021-22, per the stipulations of two-way contracts. However, considering the experience, depth, and star power up and down the active roster, it’s hard to imagine either one of them making a true impact in the title chase.

But, lest we forget: the Lakers are old, injuries occur, and it’s plausible that Miles Simon’s new gig as head coach for South Bay while remaining on Vogel’s bench will help streamline players’ ability to transition between squads.

Reaves and Ayayi are not the only relevant rookies associated with the 2021-22 Lakers. Two other undrafted free agents and Summer League participants, Mac McClung and Chaundee Brown (both of whom, like Reaves, worked out for the Lakers pre-draft), have signed training camp deals with Los Angeles (we believe McClung’s contract is an Exhibit-10).

Exhibit 10s are essentially training camp invites with the option to be converted into two-way deals later on. (Los Angeles also inked former Houston Rockets forward Cam Oliver to an E10.)

McClung and Brown visibly went all-out at Summer League. McClung — the former viral dunking sensation — is an undersized two-guard with undeveloped point guard abilities. He plays with an undeniable verve and innate offensive confidence.

Brown became a vital super-sub in Michigan’s run to the Final Four thanks to his hounding wing defense and hustle (I doubt he’s lost many 50/50 balls in his basketball life), including energized offensive rebounding for his position. Both players bring reckless abandon to the hardwood.

Brown, with his defensive aptitude and size (6’5), might be more immediately useful on an NBA court, though McClung arguably has a higher ceiling.

Brown and McClung are likely destined for South Bay. The Lakers have two open spots on the active roster, at least one of which will go to a midseason buyout candidate. Considering the team’s “Win-Now” nature, filling a spot with a developmental project (who isn’t a high draft pick) doesn’t make a ton of sense, regardless of the impression one might make in the preseason.

After all, there are only two two-way contracts up for grabs.

However things pan out in 2021-22, for these four neophytes, the next few weeks will provide an invaluable chance to run, learn, and train alongside an All-Star cast of hoopers, and an essential opportunity to impress the Lakers brass — and the rest of the NBA.