Alabama sophomore Kira Lewis is blazingly quick, which opens up the entirety of his abilities as a uniquely functional athlete with valuable guard skills.
The NBA Draft is predominantly headlined by shiny new toys: freshmen navigating the rigors of college ball for the first time. That applies this year as well, where guards like Anthony Edwards, Cole Anthony and Nico Mannion understandably dominate the backcourt conversation. Yet University of Alabama sophomore Kira Lewis wields a set of talents that leave him squarely in my top 10 and should earn him greater acclaim, even though he’s already well-adjusted to the collegiate circuit.
Amplifying the intrigue surrounding Lewis is the fact that he won’t turn 19 until next April. The sophomore moniker is somewhat deceiving. He’s three weeks younger than Mannion, approximately 11 months younger than Anthony and only 4.5 months older than Ball — the last of which is one of the youngest prospects in the class. This is a point guard exhausting a second year of NCAA eligibility while playing at the age of those who began college fewer than four months ago.
To some extent, his growth curve is worth assessing on a similar plane to them rather than among other sophomores. The fact he was notably productive as a 17-year-old freshman — when he averaged 13.5 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game on 54.8 percent true shooting — suggests he has the outline of a very good basketball player and prospect.
While speed kicks off Lewis’ game, it is not the endpoint; it is merely the foundation upon which he thrives. Plenty of guards throughout history have boasted end-to-end burners. Lewis weaponizes his quickness with distinct change-of-pace abilities. He’s developed a hesitation dribble that’s augmented by his 0-60 transitions, advanced driving technique and lower body flexibility. By crouching low to find the edge against defenders and maintaining north-south speed, Lewis is a potent downhill ball-handler. It’s rather challenging to contain him one-on-one or in pick-and-rolls because of these skills and physical traits. The burst is elite, but it’s turned supremely functional by his ancillary tools.
The flexibility lends itself to special change-of-direction moves for Lewis as well. He is a high-level acrobat in traffic, which allows him to get to the rim with ease most often. His body bends to a functional degree that most do not and provides smoothness and fluidity to his driving. The raw speed sparks forays into the paint or transition possessions; the contortion and change of direction guarantee they are not short-circuited by help defenders. His capacity for starkly shifting the compass and maintaining speed is rare.
These gifts inspire hope that his downhill scoring habits translate to the NBA — 41.4 percent of Lewis’ shots are coming at the rim in the half-court this season (34.9 percent last season). The issue, though, is he fails to consistently capitalize on these sequences. He’s ranked in the 22nd (2019-20) and 23rd percentile (2018-19) in half-court rim efficiency through two years, failing to eclipse 47 percent either time. This stems from Lewis’ tendency to take off from too far away from the basket while failing to generate significant power or vertical pop.
I still prefer these problems instead of someone like Nico Mannion, who can hardly get to the cup because of underwhelming burst (eight attempts at the rim in the half-court). Lewis will get stronger, which should help, and developmental coaches can help refine his take-off point to better maximize his quick-twitch weapons. His sheer ability to apply pressure on defenses is going to open up plays that Mannion cannot. This is not to say Mannion is a worse prospect — he’s better, in my opinion — but offense always operates easier when ball-handlers can compromise defenders and spur rotations. Lewis has displayed the arsenal to do so.
For instance, Russell Westbrook finished in the 19th percentile (52-of-130, 40 percent) in half-court rim scoring during his final year at UCLA, but 47.4 percent of his shots came there. Through 10 full NBA seasons, he’s only ranked above the 50th percentile four times in that same metric and has finished below the 40th percentile five times. Over that same span, his rim frequency has landed above 30 percent five times and below 25 percent just once.
To quantify the value of this, consider the following: In 2015-16, Westbrook attempted 24.3 percent of his shots in the half-court at the rim and ranked in the 38th percentile efficiency-wise. Despite the lackluster production, he generated a league-leading 456 assists at the rim and on corner 3s — generally, two of the best possible looks in basketball. His gravity as a driver enabled him to create high-value propositions for teammates. Now, I’m not comparing Lewis to Westbrook as prospects or even as athletes. Westbrook is much stronger, more explosive vertically and a better passer. But if I expected Lewis to reach Westbrook’s elite blend of rim frequency and playmaking — along with an increased potential as a shooter — he’d rank well above seventh on my board. It’s simply to articulate why Lewis’ downhill burst and dribble-drive creation are meaningful.
By no means, however, is Lewis a one-dimensional player in the half-court, incapable of utilizing his speed for the betterment of others. The accuracy and execution of his facilitating is inconsistent, but he’s established a baseline level of talent that can surely be fostered in the NBA. An 18-year-old who makes ambidextrous, live dribble skip passes and recognizes how to leverage his wheels into opportunities for teammates is someone with primary initiator upside.
Lewis is underwhelming as a pick-and-roll conductor — he’s not comfortable threading pocket passes on regular basis — and enters the lane without a plan of action too frequently, a pair of habits that help explain his career 156:121 assist-to-turnover ratio. But the flashes he displays are highly impressive and he certainly meets the requisite passing threshold for someone with his athletic tools, which means he doesn’t have to be a LaMelo Ball– or Nico Mannion-caliber distributor, given his inherent physical advantages. They are smarter and more skilled passers, though lack the burst of Lewis, helping to lessen the gap in value as overall creators (I still prefer Ball and Mannion as offensive prospects).
As a shooter, Lewis boasts sharp mechanics, with good posture/balance on his jumper and a succinct release. Off the bounce, he’s prone to leaving attempts short, due to a somewhat flat arc but it looks much better on catch-and-shoot looks. He’s a career 78.3 percent free-throw shooter and is at 35.2 percent beyond the arc. I don’t expect him to be a lethal pull-up guy, but the indicators are solid and the eye test checks out because he hops into jumpers, which streamlines the release speed in place of a slower, 1-2 gather step (most prevalent on the third clip below). Given his quickness and inclination to attack the paint, defenses will likely duck under screens most often and invite him to shoot. He should be good enough to benefit from such an approach.
In a class defined at the top by its riches of guards, Lewis has largely been overshadowed. He does not play for a blue blood program like Kentucky (Tyrese Maxey), North Carolina (Anthony) or Arizona (Mannion). He is not a freshman announcing his presence to the mainstream crowd. Lewis still has his warts — primarily, a lack of strength, finishing prowess and hit-or-miss decision-making. Even so, when I look at his functional athleticism, driving ability and foundation as a passer, I’m left analyzing someone who I believe to be a top-10 prospect.
*All stats accurate as of Jan. 3.*