How NBA Draft Prospect Kira Lewis Jr. Developed the 'Elite' Speed Scouts Love

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor INovember 12, 2020

Once considered a fringe first-round pick, sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr. looks like a late-lottery selection in next Wednesday's NBA draft.
Once considered a fringe first-round pick, sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr. looks like a late-lottery selection in next Wednesday's NBA draft.L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

From the balcony of his high-rise apartment, Kira Lewis Jr. can see South Beach's AmericanAirlines Arena shimmering above the bay. The view offers a constant reminder that the NBA awaits on the horizon. "Whatever building I look at, there's something with Miami Heat on it," Lewis says.

Under typical circumstances, the Alabama product would already have walked across the stage in Brooklyn and shaken Adam Silver's hand. His elite speed might have already produced highlights in summer league. He would have already moved to a new city, met his new teammates and coaches and made his NBA debut.

Quarantine protocols have mostly kept Lewis indoors, but he's been hooping and training every day. A skills workout typically begins his morning at 10:30 a.m., then he returns to his high-rise apartment to watch film. A weight training session starts at 3 p.m., and Lewis returns to the court at night. In between, he gorges.

"They want me eating like six times a day," Lewis laughs. 

Butch Dill/Associated Press

He's wolfing down meats, fruits and vegetables, guzzling protein shake after protein shake. During his second season with the Crimson Tide, Lewis would fluctuate around the low 160s. Now, he says he's bulked up to about 177 pounds. On good days, the scale reads above 180. "I feel a lot bigger. I feel a lot more explosive on the court," he says. 

Once considered a fringe first-round pick, the sophomore guard looks like a late-lottery selection in Wednesday's virtual event. Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman projects Lewis to go 10th to Phoenix. Along with the Suns, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Sacramento seem to have expressed the most interest. 

Lewis says he's lost track of the clubs he's interviewed with but notes that tally hovers somewhere around 25.

"His speed and quickness are so elite. Those are things in the NBA, with the additional pace and space, that are really gonna shine," says one team executive. "When you redraft in five years, he could easily go in the top five." 

Before Lewis emerged as a bona fide lottery pick, before he started as a 17-year-old for Alabama, as the youngest active Division I player in the country, the zippy guard would dust his mother in backyard dashes. 

He began giving Mom a run for her money even as a five-year-old. "He had a knack for challenging me," Natasha Lewis says. They sprinted on the nearby rec-ball field and eventually made their way onto the local football surfaces. Before long, his mother hardly stood a chance.

Neither did peewee defenders, when coaches split her son out wide during games. "He understood that speed kills," says his father, Kira Lewis Sr. "He ran like he did not want to be touched." When the youngster watched Natasha's favorite Pittsburgh Steelers, he dreamed of scampering past foes like "Fast Willie" Parker and Antwaan Randle El.

By the time he reached high school, Lewis returned punts for the freshman team at Hazel Green, just 15 miles north of Huntsville. He was supposed to follow the blockers in front of him, but Lewis once sprinted a kick back to the end zone by darting entirely down the opposite sideline instead. 

Seniors on the varsity still doubted his quick feet. During the football team's spirited lifting sessions, it was easy to call out the skinny kid. They flexed and puffed their chests and challenged him to 25-yard sprints outside the weight room. The cockiest ones threw $5 or $10 down for a victory fund at the snack machines. 

Those upperclassmen quickly amended their errs. "Once I started winning," Lewis says, "we just started racing for the fun of it."

That burst, that elusiveness, has only accelerated with age. 

Even as a young sophomore at Alabama—the ball-handler just turned 19 in April—the 6'3" Lewis boasted the pick-and-roll playmaking of a seasoned vet. His 6'6" wingspan allowed him to compete defensively against bigger opponents, and scouts have been encouraged by Lewis' 36.2 percent three-point shooting. 

Lewis committed to Avery Johnson's staff thanks to a fateful phone call. His parents long pushed for Lewis to forgo his senior year of high school, reclassify and reach the college ranks a full calendar early. "He just thrived on challenges," says Lewis Sr. "Whatever dribble challenge, shooting challenge, he always thrived on challenges. And once he reached that challenge, he always wanted more."

Junior still gravitated toward staying at Hazel Green, holding on to his final few months of childhood, wanting to ready his slender body before battling bigger foes. He rang Crimson Tide assistant coach Antoine Petteway during one drive to Memphis for an AAU tournament. He planned to decline Alabama's aggressive recruiting efforts. He wanted to chase a state championship with his friends. 

Lewis' call pinged Petteway while the assistant was stuck in a meeting. He skipped out on the proceedings anyway and combed over the Tide's pitch throughout the entirety of Lewis' four-hour trip to Tennessee. Dynamic point guard Collin Sexton had just left for the 2018 NBA draft. Alabama needed ball-handling help, and if Lewis grinded in practice, if he added some weight, he'd have the opportunity to play. "That's when I realized: There's no more high school," Lewis says. 

He didn't just play. Lewis went on to start all 34 of Alabama's games, even at 17. He popped onto opponents' scouting reports and was named SEC Freshman of the Week by early December. Yet on campus, Lewis quietly hung around his teammates and played video games in their dorm rooms. Off the court, fellow students viewed the teenage prodigy as more progeny. "Everywhere I went," Lewis says, "it was, 'I'm a baby.'"

The Tide covered for his youth and fragility on the court. Johnson always assigned him to defend rivals' weakest perimeter players. At 5'10" and a 16-year NBA veteran himself, Johnson taught Lewis how to sneak over screens like a bite-sized floor general. "Really try to get as close to your man as possible," he urged. "Stay on his hip and kind of skinny over. You don't want to take the amount of hits that a bigger guard can." 

During the summer of 2019, Lewis tested those tricks in Crete, Greece, joining Team USA for the U19 FIBA Basketball World Cup. But he admittedly floundered against Senegal's long, physical athletes. And European foes were quick to get into his body. Some players stomped on his feet to gain a step's advantage. "Once you came off the screen, they were bumping you," Lewis says. 

With each game, he found sturdier footing on the foreign hardwood. Team USA demolished opponents in the early group stage. Only in the semifinals, while the Americans still comfortably handled Lithuania, no starter could find their outside stroke in the early goings. "We feared them," says Bruce Weber, Kansas State's head coach who piloted that U19 squad. "We were struggling."

Until Lewis came off the bench late in the second quarter. He drained a triple just 10 seconds later. He drilled another with 1:58 remaining in the period, helping keep the Lithuanians at bay for a 44-32 edge at intermission. "We got some momentum and made the big push in the second half," Weber says. "Those plays were his biggest shots in the competition." Team USA never looked back, cruising to a 102-67 victory and then claiming gold with a 93-79 win over Mali the following day. 

The sophomore parlayed his FIBA lessons into NCAA success. He returned to the States with an elevated confidence, pounding his dribble with greater strength. 

Back on campus, Lewis joined forces with a new head coach and a brand-new system. The Tide fired Johnson after the team failed to reach the NCAA tournament, replacing him with Nate Oats, a play-caller whose uptempo scheme had turned Buffalo into a March Madness darling. "We wanted to play fast," Oats says, "and, shoot, I think we had the fastest point guard in the country." 

Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

Oats' staff stripped the training wheels off Lewis' revving engine. During film sessions, Alabama's coaches had to push the sophomore to break off more plays and burst toward the rim in transition, rather than set up the half-court offense for his teammates. "I think once he figured out how much freedom he really had, everything really took off for him," Oats says. 

Lewis boosted his averages across the board, scoring 18.5 points, dishing 5.2 assists and corralling 4.8 rebounds per game. Oats further challenged the point guard to defend teams' premier perimeter threats. There was nowhere he could hide. "Look at our North Carolina film," Oats says. Lewis hounded Cole Anthony all night, limiting the fellow first-round point guard prospect to 13 points on 4-of-13 shooting with six turnovers

Come January, the Tide hosted Weber's Wildcats during the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Lewis galloped to the rim with ease and rained pull-up threes, tallying 26 points. Defensively, he was a menace on the glass, grabbing seven boards. He swatted three shots and ripped two steals, one of which led to a vicious, breakout runaway jam

"He looks stronger, he's looking more confident, he looked more explosive when we played," Weber says. "And when you add all that up, with his speed and quickness, those guys make it in the NBA because they're deceptive and quick."

Lewis' agent now believes he could hear his name called as early as No. 6 to Atlanta. "There's a high probability of him going solid in the lottery," Aaron Turner says. While other guards in his class boast one flashy skill—LaMelo Ball's playmaking, Killian Hayes' scoring, Tyrell Terry's shooting—Lewis views himself as the most complete package. "I really can do a little bit of everything," he says. 

Perhaps he'll stay East and land with the New York Knicks at No. 8, or maybe he'll flock West to join Devin Booker's rising Phoenix Suns. 

He'll watch the draft back in Hazel Green with his parents and two sisters instead of stuffing around a green-room table. Whenever his name is called, he won't dap the commissioner inside the Barclays Center. His rookie season will present a truncated 72-game schedule, only one month after his selection. 

But Kira Lewis Jr. has always lived for a challenge.


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