Welcome to The Crossover’s NBA Draft newsletter, bringing you exclusive content, intel and analysis as the 2020 draft draws near.
By now, you should be familiar with the big-name guards in this year’s draft: LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton and Killian Hayes have already made headlines. But the sleeper point guard you may not know as well is Kira Lewis Jr., who comes off a breakout sophomore year at Alabama, is still just 19 years old and has made a strong case to hear his name called in the late lottery. I caught up with Lewis earlier this week to learn more about his unusual trajectory to the draft.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jeremy Woo: So you’ve had a pretty unusual couple of years. You graduated early from high school, you started in college at age 17. (Lewis was too young to be eligible for the draft after his freshman year). What was that challenge like?
Kira Lewis Jr.: It was different. But as time went on I kinda got used to it. Just being young, you always have people looking at you thinking you might not be ready or mature enough, especially in college. It was tough, because just coming in and adjusting to the game, you haven’t been in the positions other guys have been in yet, and [other guys] might still think you don’t really know what’s going on. But I just came in and tried to gain their respect.
JW: With the coaching change coming into last season [Alabama brought in Nate Oats from Buffalo to replace Avery Johnson], I know you considered transferring and would have had your pick of schools. Staying put obviously paid off and helped you get to the draft quickly. How did you know it was the right call?
KL: The new system fit me really well. I liked the goals Coach Oats had for me. We played so fast, and that’s what I like—getting up and down, playing freely. He really tried to get the best versions of us, he got guys in the gym. He made sure everyone was O.K. off the court. So it was the best fit for me and I felt like it made it an easy decision to come back.
JW: That system was definitely exciting to watch. (Per KenPom data, Alabama skyrocketed from 117th in tempo nationally under Johnson in 2018–19 to the fourth-fastest tempo last season under Oats). You guys pushed the ball, shot tons of threes, and I think for you, it brought out your speed and ability to really change the game in transition. Do you see that experience translating?
KL: I think it’ll help me just continuing to play fast, get out and score, help create easy buckets and opportunities for my teammates. Having that experience is going to help a lot. I felt like the biggest thing for me to work on is getting stronger and just absorbing knowledge from guys who have already been in the league. Finding ways to get better, learning terminology. Basically a continuation of what I’ve been doing [during quarantine].
JW: What was that feeling like, when your season just abruptly ended at the SEC Tournament?
KL: We were about to go out there for warmups, go through our pregame stuff, and right before we were about to walk out coach comes in saying everything got canceled. We had put all our stuff on, and then had to immediately take it off and go. It was kind of crazy. We were looking forward to playing. We were literally right about to play. [Laughs].
JW: You’re part of a pretty talented point guard class this year. What do you feel like is your selling point?
KL: I think what differentiates me … I feel like I can do a little bit of everything, whether it's shoot the ball get into the lane make the right pass, turn up the speed, I feel like I can do a little bit of all of it.
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Prospect close-up: Kira Lewis Jr.
A breakout year vaulted Lewis into the lottery conversation, with upside tied to his blazing speed, playmaking chops and ability to shoot from outside. He has yet to turn 20, which puts him in an age bracket with college freshmen and points to a promising future. Lewis is slight of build and still learning how to run a team, but he can put a lot of pressure on defenses in transition, and the threat of his shot will help him be effective in the halfcourt. He may get picked on a bit defensively, and there will be a learning curve as the game speeds up around him. But with continued growth and patience, there’s a pretty good chance he sticks as a long-term rotation player, and potentially a starter on some teams.
We’ve entered full-blown rumor season this week, with teams now actively discussing trades and not only the draft, but free agency coming up in a hurry. Unsurprisingly, that’s resulted in what’s been described to me by league sources as a more frantic work cycle than usual. Expect a ton of trades and important decisions to take place in quick fashion over the next 10 days. Of course, I’ll have a fully updated mock draft next week, but here’s the latest I’m hearing.
– Sitting at No. 3, the Hornets have become one of the critical pivot points in the draft, keeping in mind the very real possibility LaMelo Ball will be on the board for them. The presence of Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier should not be a determining factor for Charlotte. The decision could hinge largely on the decision-making dynamic between owner Michael Jordan and general manager Mitch Kupchak. The whole thing is further complicated by trade possibilities, and it appears more likely Charlotte moves back, rather than up, in the draft (with potential suitors likely targeting Ball at No. 3).
For what it’s worth, the idea that the Hornets could simply stay put at No. 3, pass on Ball and select Onyeka Okongwu instead has become a more popular thought around the league in recent days. I wouldn’t rule out Ball at No. 3, but this is a situation to watch closely. I’m told Ball is scheduled to meet with several lottery teams in the coming days.
– According to league sources, it’s now widely known that Atlanta’s No. 6 pick is available, with the Hawks surfacing as a potential trade partner for a range of teams. As I wrote in this space last week, Atlanta is itching to make a playoff run and has a wealth of cap space that can facilitate a range of trade possibilities. There appears to be a healthy market for that pick, and I would not expect the Hawks to use it for themselves.
– Patrick Williams has been a hot name in league circles in the past couple of weeks, and there’s a broad assumption that the Pistons will select him if available at No. 7. The other name I’ve heard frequently for Detroit is Tyrese Haliburton. Noting that the Hawks have made No. 6 available, that’s a spot in the draft where both players could conceivably be had.
– According to league sources, the Mavericks have expressed interest in moving up into the lottery. Dallas currently holds the 18th pick, which as I’ve previously reported, has been available in trades for some time. The Mavs are not an asset-rich team and there’s some skepticism as to how high they can actually get, but they could conceivably offer No. 18 and No. 31 to try and move up.
– One clear theme right now is that few teams are attached to their picks in the back half of the first round. Broadly speaking, a majority of first-round selections beginning with Minnesota at No. 17 are widely thought to be available. Brace yourselves for an unpredictable week.