This longitudinal study examines associations between baseline individual differences and developmental changes in reward [i.e. behavioral approach system (BAS)] sensitivity and relevant brain structures’ volumes to prospective substance use initiation during adolescence. A community sample of adolescents ages 15–18 with no prior substance use was assessed for substance use initiation (i.e. initiation of regular alcohol use and/or any use of other substances) during a 2-year follow-up period and for alcohol use frequency in the last year of the follow-up. Longitudinal ‘increases’ in BAS sensitivity were associated with substance use initiation and increased alcohol use frequency during the follow-up. Moreover, adolescents with smaller left nucleus accumbens at baseline were more likely to initiate substance use during the follow-up period. This study provides support for the link between developmental increases in reward sensitivity and substance use initiation in adolescence. The study also emphasizes the potential importance of individual differences in volumes of subcortical regions and their structural development for substance use initiation during adolescence.