Tom Thibodeau coaches Knicks hard in preseason win against Pistons

tom thibodeau, knicks

The game was practically over as the New York Knicks were up by 11 with 23 seconds to go. But Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau was still in a competitive and combative mood. He argued with the referee on what he felt was a non-call after a defender charged at his rookie guard, Miles McBride, that led to a turnover.

It was a recurring scene on an October night that had the intensity of June.

“Everyone has to be themselves. I’m not saying my way is for everyone. I know my way is for me, and everything matters to me,” said Thibodeau, explaining his serious approach to a preseason game that holds no bearing in the standing.

In the opening half, the Knicks were uncharacteristic and erratic, where an injury-plagued and a young Detroit Pistons team led by as many as eight points. They were a step slow against the Pistons, which played like a well-oiled machine despite missing eight players, including top overall pick Cade Cunningham (right ankle) and their top sophomores Saddiq Bey (left ankle) and Killian Hayes (concussion).

The Knicks had to dig deep and needed a big second half from Julius Randle to rally past the Pistons, 108-100, Wednesday night in the Garden and stay unbeaten in preseason.

They improved to 3-0 and 6-1 overall under Thibodeau in meaningless games (dating back to last year’s preseason) that mean everything to him.

“For us, we’re an organization that’s building right now. We want to get established. Our fight is continuing every day. And I love the fight in our guys,” Thibodeau said.

When push came to shove, the Knicks turned to their bread and butter that fueled their stunning fourth seed finish in the East last season — Randle and their defense.

Randle started slow after skipping Saturday’s win in Washington to attend to his wife Kendra, who delivered their second child last Friday. But he found his rhythm in the second half, leading the Knicks’ comeback.

The 26-year old forward was unstoppable in the third quarter, unloading 16 of his team’s 30 points.

Randle drilled in three straight three-pointers during a torrid stretch that enabled them to grab the lead. A 10-0 run to end the quarter turned a 56-52 halftime deficit into an 82-77 Knicks lead.

Their defense roared back to life in the second half and forced the Pistons to 38.6 percent shooting.

Matched up against Jerami Grant, the Pistons’ go-to guy that he beat for the Most Improved Player award, Randle flashed his All-Star and All-NBA form, finishing with 29 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists in 34 minutes. Grant led the Pistons with 18 points and four rebounds in 31 minutes. 

“Every game is gearing towards the real thing, so that’s what it’s about,” said Randle, who didn’t mind the big minutes in the preseason, whereas around the league, the starters are either getting rested or playing token minutes.

“Actually, I’m happy we had a game like this where we weren’t shooting well and weren’t in a great rhythm and had to figure it out. So it’s a good test for us mentally to get ready for the season.”

The Pistons gave them everything they got. But no offense to Detroit, this game was supposed to be a walk in Madison Square Park. In their first two preseason games, New York won by an average margin of 19.5 points.

After throwing up 37 and 52 three-point attempts in their first two preseason wins, the Knicks were held down to 33 but still made 13 of them for still a respectable 39.4 percent clip.

Taj Gibson even hit one as he turned back the clock in a vintage performance.

Gibson exploded for 21 points in his third straight start and came one rebound shy of a double-double. When asked where he found the fountain of youth, the 36-year old Brooklyn native answered the question with a real New Yorker sense of humor.

“I guess it’s the New York’s Bodega’s bacon egg and cheese,” said a smiling Gibson referring to the menu staple of the small-owned, operated convenience stores in every corner of New York.

Gibson and his forever teammate Derrick Rose were the only bright spots in the Knicks’ sluggish first half.

Rose, who started for Kemba Walker (rest), scored 12 of his 14 points in the opening half. The former MVP added five assists and two steals in 30 minutes.

Veteran guard Alec Burks was the only New York reserve in double figures with 12 points.

In the second half, Thibodeau yanked rookie Jericho Sims in favor of undrafted Aamir Simms, who is vying for a two-way spot with the team.

Simms made a good account of himself, providing solid interior defense while contributing two points and four rebounds in 12 minutes. Sims, the 58th overall pick, was scoreless in six minutes.

Playing time for the two rookie big men and even Gibson would become scarce once Mitchell Robinson (broken foot) and Nerlens Noel (sore knee) return to the lineup, which could come as early as Friday’s preseason finale.

“At halftime, right before [Thibodeau] walked in, I was telling the young guys [whenever they miss a play] ‘do not look over to the sideline.’ Like if you look at him, it’s going to f–k up your game,” said Rose as the media room burst into laughter. “So do not look at him. Just raise your hand, everybody knows you messed up, you made a mistake, and just keep it going, and gotta give that same effort throughout the entire game.”

“When I was younger, I used to look over to the sideline a lot, and you feel his emotions, which is kinda strange, bro. I thought, ‘wow’ then I just raise my hand,” said Rose cracking a smile, “and put my head down. But even then, he’s a winner. So you can express yourself — how you want to — as a man. You could be vocal with him, yell, but right after that, you got to get right back on track to understand that the goal is to win the game, and that’s something Thibs is great at.”

Rose, who has become immune to Thibodeau’s outbursts, said that it’s just part of his competitive nature. And after each game, it’s like nothing happened, like his long-time coach is suffering from amnesia.

Thibodeau was yelling at his players, challenging calls, coaching them hard in every possession while completely ignoring the scoreboard. Preseason games may not count, but Thibodeau views them as opportunities to get better, which is what truly matters.

Meaningless games in early October is Thibodeau’s final test run before unveiling his refurbished toy, reloaded with new offensive weapons, that he hopes would work and grind its way to perfection and finally outrace the competition.

“We can’t fool ourselves into thinking that we’re ready,” Thibodeau said. “Being honest with ourselves, looking at the film, understanding why we either won or why we’ve lost. And to focus on that improvement is critical each day.”

At the end of his post-game presser, Thibodeau cracked a joke: “I’m just a laidback dude.”

But during the final seconds of an impending victory in a meaningless game that matters to him, Thibodeau was in all his glory with his hands up in the air and his head shaking.

“Are you all surprised? Nothing’s going to change, bro,” Rose said. “If you’re a winner, you can respect that all the way through.”

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Dwane Casey reveals New York Knicks was Derrick Rose’s top choice

New York Knicks, Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose badly wanted to be a Knick again.

That’s what Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey revealed during his recent guest appearance on Sirius XM NBA Radio.

“The last couple of days before the trade went down, we had a great conversation,” Casey said. “He was upfront and honest. ‘Coach, I’ve only got so many miles left in my legs. I just want to make sure I go to a situation where I may have a chance to make the playoffs this year. I know where you guys are—you’re rebuilding, you’re retooling.”

Casey, though, was perplexed at first with his destination of choice—the New York Knicks. But he understood the player-coach bond between Rose and Tom Thibodeau.

“And I said to Derrick, ‘you may have a chance here just as you may have in New York,'” Casey recalled with a chuckle.

“But I understand his relationship with Thibs. Thibs started him out as a rookie. That’s special. You never gonna change that. So, I’m happy for Derrick. I was glad we were able to accommodate him and find him a place where he could go and a place he wanted to go to play with Thibs,” Casey quickly added.

Several playoff contenders with the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, and the Los Angeles Clippers reportedly targeted Rose. But the former NBA MVP ultimately chose familiarity and opportunity.

The Knicks have been a pleasant surprise in Thibodeau’s first year with the team. They currently sit at ninth place in the Eastern Conference with their 11-15 start.

Rose feels he can come in and help the Knicks reach the playoffs.

He wanted to be reunited with Thibodeau for the third time. But on top of that, he also desires to rewrite a bad chapter in his storied career.

His first stint with the Knicks in 2016 started on the wrong foot with off-court troubles stemming from rape allegations. Then it spiraled into his now-infamous AWOL. His short-lived stay in New York ended with his fourth knee surgery.

Rose went through hell but rose and fought his way back.

“I’m happy for him because he came here, again, a guy that we got from Minnesota. I gave him a couple of years to re-establish himself in the league as one of the top off-the-bench scorers and fit in like a glove and worked with me, accepting my coaching here with the guys. He’s been an MVP in the league. And his body went in a different way, but he continues to work and get his body in the right place,” Casey said.

With those knees keep on betraying him, Rose reinvented himself. He morphed into one of the productive NBA players off the bench.

In his first game back with the Knicks, Rose collected 14 points, one rebound, three assists, one steal, and a block in just 20 minutes off the bench. The Knicks lost a nail-biter, 98-96, to the Heat, but they hung with the reigning Eastern Conference champions, and they outscored them by six when Rose was on the floor.

“He’s gonna be a big plus for New York as they go forward and get to where they want to go like he did to us, and I’m happy for him,” Casey said.

Rose made an interesting choice. He shunned the odds-on favorites to make the playoffs and bet on himself and the Knicks.

Will the third time be the charm for Rose and Thibodeau? Will the Rose-Knicks love affair be sweeter the second time around?

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks: Pistons eyeing two young players in potential Derrick Rose trade

New York Knicks, Derrick Rose

The New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons are gaining traction with a potential trade involving veteran point guard Derrick Rose. Rose is currently on a two-year, $15 million deal that expires after the current season, which makes the idea of New York trading away a young player very interesting.

With Elfrid Payton playing well and Immanuel Quickley making an instant impact on offense, trading for Rose could be tumultuous for the young point guard’s development and disrupt Payton’s run of consistency.

However, you could also view Rose as a mentor for Quickley, who has the potential to be one of the next big players at the position in the NBA. This season, Rose is averaging 14.2 points over 22.8 minutes. He has yet to start a game, having played in 15 at 32 years old.

The New York Knicks have a long-lasting relationship with D-Rose because of Tom Thibodeau:

Rose and head coach Tom Thibodeau have a fantastic relationship, which is likely why the two are connected. Reports have indicated that the two teams are close to striking a deal, and Detroit is reportedly eyeing Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox as two players they would like to acquire. I highly doubt the Knicks let both of them go, so Detroit will have to pick one or the other.

Frank offers an elite defensive presents that but has failed to realize his offensive abilities. He’s averaging just 4.5 points per game this year over four contests, while Kevin Knox is averaging 6.1 points over 18.2 minutes. Neither player is making a significant impact, which is likely why President Leon Rose is OK sending them on their way.

With the Pistons looking to utilize more youth on the court, this deal makes sense for them. Adding younger players who they can develop and with untapped potential is a positive move, especially for a player like Rose, who’s on the last year of a deal and isn’t seen as a future benefactor.

Rose would join Thibodeau in New York, with 2015 being the last time they played together. Thibodeau is credited for the rise of Rose, but there’s also a belief that he overworked him, which led to injuries.

The obvious connection between the two must have some sort of meaning, and Detroit desperately needs more point guard help, with Killian Hayes dealing with a hip injury. Adding Frank Ntilikina would be a good move for them and give them some defensive proficiency at the position.

Toppin, Knicks impressive in Thibodeau’s coaching return

New York Knicks, Obi Toppin

Tom Thibodeau triumphantly returned to coaching while rookie Obi Toppin was electrifying in New York Knicks’ 90-84 preseason win against the Pistons Friday night at the Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit.

It didn’t look and feel like a preseason with Thibodeau coaching the Knicks hard in his first game back after nearly two years away from the game. Unveiling a suffocating defense, the new-look Knicks bucked a jittery start and led by as many as 18 points in the third quarter.

Electrifyin’ Toppin

Toppin came off the bench and energized the second unit with his athleticism and boundless energy.

The Brooklyn-born forward had to shrug off rookie jitters after missing his first two shots. He settled down right away and hustled his way to finish with 11 points highlighted by an emphatic dunk off a Kevin Knox feed.

He also grabbed seven rebounds in 20 minutes as Julius Randle’s backup.

“I thought he was very aggressive to start the game. [He] scored the ball, and then there was more attention. For his first game, I thought he did a lot of good things, and he saw when things work a certain way in the first half, sometimes it’s different in the second, and you have to read that as well,” Thibodeau said of Toppin’s first taste of NBA action. “But overall, very good. I loved his aggressiveness.”

RJ Barrett overcame a poor start to lead all scorers with 15 points and five boards. The Canadian wingman missed his first six shots and was 2-for-10 in the first half. But he hit his strides in the third quarter, teaming up with Alec Burks to lead the Knicks’ breakaway from a tight 48-47 halftime score.

The Pistons came charging back in the fourth quarter with their bench led by rookies Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. The home team closed the gap, 85-79, on Stewart layup before Randle’s jumper with 34.8 seconds left clinched the Knicks’ victory.

Randle had a solid all-around game, finishing with 11 points, eight rebounds, and six assists.

Centers of attention

The battle for the starting center spot will be interesting to watch as Nerlens Noel, and Mitchell Robinson alternately played a solid job anchoring the defense.

Noel had 10 points, eight rebounds, and two shot blocks as a starter, while Robinson came off the bench and turned in seven boards, four steals, two blocks, and two points in 22 minutes.

When asked what won Noel the starting job in this game, Thibodeau pointed to Noel’s elite rim protection and finishing at the basket.

“But I’m very pleased with Mitchell as well. So I think when you have two bigs that are like that, it’s a big bonus,” Thibodeau said. “And they’re very similar. I’m not sure who I’m gonna start, but I like both of those guys, and we’ll gonna need them to play well as a team.”

The Knicks’ signature Thibodeau defense held the Pistons to just 32.5 percent from the field. They had 12 steals and six blocks, forcing 22 turnovers and translated that to 19 points. They were also active on the glass, outrebounding the Pistons, 54-41. But the Knicks also got sloppy, and there were times Thibodeau wasn’t happy and even took his mask off to show his displeasure.

Thibodeau coached with a regular-season game intensity yelling and going after the referees after a bad call.

Payton’s job to lose

Elfrid Payton did a solid all-around job at the point, producing 10 points, six rebounds, and seven assists.

Dennis Smith Jr. looked more comfortable with his jumper, hitting a three-pointer in a seven-point effort off the bench.

With Austin Rivers sidelined by a groin injury, Frank Ntilikina spelled Barrett and finished with seven points and five boards.

Thibodeau used 11 players, with the Knicks’ other first-round pick Immanuel Quickley receiving a DNP.

Thibodeau and his staff will continue evaluating the roster when the Knicks play the Pistons again on Sunday at 7 p.m. E.T.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Fantastic Four: Tom Thibodeau lists most conditioned Knicks

Run, Knicks, run!

That’s how Tom Thibodeau plans to roll out his young and athletic New York Knicks beginning in the preseason.

The Knicks will face the Detroit Pistons on the road Friday at 7 p.m. E.T.

“I would assume that’s the plan. Every day we do a lot of transition drills, guys getting up and down. Everybody work super hard to get into shape to play that way. That’s the plan, so let’s see if we can execute tomorrow,” Dennis Smith Jr. said on zoom call Thursday after the Knicks wrapped up their short training camp.

The Knicks were tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic for 23rd place in pace at 100.9 last season. The Milwaukee Bucks led the league at 107.2.

Thibodeau never cracked the top-15 during his two seasons with a young Minnesota team. But to his defense, he surrounded Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins with veterans and played to their strengths, especially when Jimmy Butler came aboard.

This Knicks team is far different than what he had in Minnesota. So he’s playing the hand that has been dealt to him.

Tough cookies, fit rookies

To be able to sustain an up-tempo game, they need to be in their best shape. Thibodeau was pleased, especially with four players who showed up for the training camp fit and ready to go.

“Our two young guys, obviously they have a lot to learn, but in terms of commitment and conditioning, they’re really, really impressive,” said Thibodeau referring to his rookies Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley.

Both rookies benefited from the extended period of preparation for the Draft and the short turnaround time.

Toppin and Quickley will have their first taste of NBA action Friday night as they will mix it up against fellow rookies Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, and Isaiah Stewart of Detroit.

For them, this amounts to their summer league.

“I didn’t think the speed of the game would be too much faster, but it’s actually been a lot faster,” Quickley said. “I feel like Kentucky, they do a great job of preparing, but until you get out there and experience a full practice and going up and down really fast, there’s really nothing like it. I think the speed of the game has been the biggest jump, and I feel like I’m making a great jump. Every single day I feel like I’m getting better.”

Quickley could be in for a rude awakening on Friday when he and Toppin will experience the intensity, albeit watered down, of a real NBA game.

It will be a good gauge for both Thibodeau and Pistons coach Dwayne Casey on how their rookies and newcomers will fit into what they’re trying to do.

“The college game is very different from the NBA game. So there’s an adjustment period that you go through,” Thibodeau said.

There will be rookie jitters for sure. But Toppin and Quickley have sounded confident throughout the camp. The Knicks fans are anxious to watch them walk the talk.

Big bets on vets

It will be exactly nine months since the Knicks last played an NBA game. Among the holdovers and veterans, two Knicks have impressed Thibodeau with their conditioning.

“I would say the vets who stood out the most were actually two – I would say, Julius, who’s in great shape, and Kevin Knox is in really good shape as well,” Thibodeau said.

Both forwards have chips on their shoulders. Randle will be in his second season with the team, hoping to become a better leader. Knox, meanwhile, is aching to bounce back after a lackluster sophomore season.

Despite being the most conditioned Knicks, they will not necessarily garner the most minutes. Thibodeau will use the preseason games to experiment on different combinations for his regular-season rotations.

“We’ve been mixing and matching, and we’re still evaluating. I’m gonna meet with the coaches,” Thibodeau said.

“Obviously, there will be a larger rotation in this first game. But we’ll use it for preseason games and probably some games into the regular season as well before we settle in for our final rotation.”

While the Knicks rotation will be unpredictable, one thing is sure.

Run, Knicks, run!

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Quick like a Fox: Knicks’ prospect Kira Lewis stock on the rise in New York

New York Knicks

Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats tried to downplay his FaceTime call with the New York Knicks top brass and his speedy point guard Kira Lewis, Jr. last week. But there’s a link between him and the Knicks that’s too hard to ignore, making Lewis an intriguing possibility to land in New York on Nov. 18.

The Knicks, under Leon Rose, have been operating like a fraternity. The new regime is looking to score big by leveraging on relationships at its core. Tapping on Rose and his senior advisor William Wesley’s vast network, the moribund franchise has succeeded in luring great minds from inside and outside the league to come and help rehabilitate the Knicks.

It appears they’re operating the same way in their pre-Draft process.

In a draft that is so unpredictable, intel is king.

Without the NCAA March Madness and the benefit of a regular Draft Combine, those forged relationships and strong networks have come in handy for the Knicks.

The connections are coming from everywhere. It’s not just confined within the Creative Artists Agency where Rose was its former head of basketball or Kentucky, where John Calipari shares a strong bond with Wesley.

The ties that bind

The FaceTime call last week transported Oats back to his early days in his coaching career. 

When Oats got his first head coaching job at Romulus High School in Michigan in the early 2000s, he used to drive to Detroit and observed the Pistons’ practice. 

Around that time, the Knick’s current general manager Scott Perry was a Pistons’ team executive. At the same time, Williams was already a ‘players’ whisperer’ and was involved with The Family, an AAU basketball team based in Detroit supported by former Pistons’ guard Rip Hamilton. Wesley became a regular fixture at Pistons practices and games, especially when another close friend, Larry Brown, took the head coaching job in 2004 that resulted in one of the NBA’s unlikely championship runs.

“I’ve known those guys for a little bit,” Oats told Empire Sports Media during his zoom call press conference on Thursday. “They made a connection with Kira when they were interviewing him. They FacedTime me.”

“I coached Kira for a year. Kira is a great kid. They got great staff there in New York. [I have] No idea where’s that going, and I’m sure they are going around interviewing all kinds of people leading into the Draft. I don’t want people to take too much out of it. It’s just a common connection. I coached Kira, and I knew those guys during my time in Detroit.”

Oats tried his best to sell the FaceTime call short, saying it was merely a sort of introduction to make his point guard a little more comfortable during the meeting. But there’s a certain level of comfort and trust between Oats and the Knicks’ top brass that may pull Lewis to New York.

“They’re good guys, and I guess they just want Kira to feel a little bit more welcomed. We chopped it up and joked around a bit. We talked about Kira’s game for a minute then I got off. I know the Knicks are getting a lot of media attention there in New York, and they have a high draft pick,” Oats said. “They gotta make sure they get the right pick.”

Alabama’s sweet spot?

The Knicks are at an inflection point since Rose, a former player agent, took over from James Dolan’s right-hand man Steve Mills.

They are looking for a lead guard, and Oats’ connection with the past (Perry) and the new (Wesley) regime in New York could play a vital role in the franchise’s search.

“I think Scott Perry is going to be really good for them. Thibs (Tom Thibodeau) is going to get their defense squared up, and I think Kira’s defense got a lot better last year,” Oats said. “We talked about that.”

“I think he is a very talented kid. I think the way the NBA is played now — it’s so spread out and wide open — you can’t put your hands on guys defensively. With the speed and skill level Kira has, he can get in the paint whenever he wants and makes plays. He was great in our system. We played a lot like what the NBA is doing that is so wide open, and I think he’ll make a great NBA player.”

Lewis, a 6-foot-3 guard with a 6-foot-5 wingspan, has been a blur in the SEC ever since he stepped into Division I as the youngest player at 17 years old in the 2018-19 season. He skipped his senior year of high school and went straight to college.

“He’s really a smart kid. He was such a good student in high school that he only needs a couple of core classes to go and reclassify,” Alabama assistant coach Antoine Pettway told Empire Sports Media in a separate exclusive interview.

“So he had like either go up in high school and score 40 points a game or go to college. He always wanted to challenge himself and try to get to the next level.”

As the youngest freshman under former Alabama coach Avery Johnson, Lewis took over the starting role vacated by Collin Sexton, the eighth pick of the 2018 NBA Draft. The Knicks, barring any trade, are scheduled to select at the same spot where Sexton was picked by the Cleveland Cavaliers two years ago.

Will that eighth slot become Alabama’s sweet spot?

Leader by example

Pettway, who recruited Lewis to Alabama, observed that the 17-year old freshman was shy initially. But it didn’t take long before Lewis began to put his stamp on the team.

“Our team respects his work ethic, his talent. Coming in, he should have been a senior in high school and came in as a starting point guard on a pretty good team. It took him a little while before he warmed up to everyone, but I thought he made a lot of great strides his second year being more vocal, leading guys,” Pettway said.

As Lewis’ game expanded, so was his role in the team. He wasn’t only the Crimson Tide’s floor general. His leadership extended beyond the hardcourt.

“I always tell this story. He’s a guy that gets up at six in the morning and works out. And during the first couple of days, he hit it on his own. Then after a couple of weeks, he’s bringing the whole team with him; he’s already organizing. He’s the guy that leads by example. He’s very personable,” Pettway said.

Lewis comes from a small and simple family in Huntsville, Alabama. Their family owns a small barbershop. His basketball exploits are always a headliner in the barbershop talk. Recently, another member of the Lewis family has joined the conversation.

“His sister just got a degree from UAB (University of Alabama Birmingham). They’re really a tight-knit family. When you meet the rest of the family, you can see Kira has a really good upbringing,” Pettway said.

It wouldn’t be long before Lewis’ NBA exploits would soon dominate the barbershop talk when his name is one of the first to be called by league commissioner Adam Silver later this month.

“It will mean the world to them. His parents were there in every step of the way. His mom, Natasha, said she’s not going to cry when they put the hat on him, but I know a hundred percent it won’t be dry in that room when his name gets called,” Pettway said.

“It’s always good to see good things happen to good people. I’ve dealt with some good people from top to bottom and Kira is a product of that, you know Kira is a class A kid. As good as he is as a player, he’s even a better kid. And when you meet his mom and dad you’ll know why he’s a good kid.”

Love at burst sight

Pettway first scouted Lewis when he was a ninth-grader going up against Alabama’s older and better players. In a game that featured Lewis against Michigan State’s Joshua Langford, who was two years older, Pettway went to see what the hype was all about.

Pettway fell in love right away.

“He really held his own against Langford. He played really, really well. And you can just tell, his speed even at that age, oh man just the way he moves and gets into the lane and finish, how fast he was, you can really, really tell he’s going to be a good player. That’s my first time seeing him in person,” Pettway said. “He’s close to 15 (years old) at that time. I watched him that whole summer.”

Pettway recognizes a great point guard when he sees one.

Before becoming an assistant coach and the top recruiter in Alabama, he was the Crimson Tide star point guard during the school’s quarterfinal run in the 2004 NCAA tournament.

Pettway secured Lewis’ commitment after the latter’s stint in the 2018 Nike Skills Academy, an exclusive camp reserved for the top 25 high school players in the country.

Lewis didn’t disappoint because even when he was the youngest freshman, he played with so much poise. Pettway won’t forget the exact moment when he realized Lewis is special and has a shot at becoming their next NBA Lottery pick after Sexton.

The reckoning came in a tight game against the visiting Arizona Wildcats in December of 2018.

“It was a close game. We were up by two; Arizona just made a run,” Pettway recalled.

“He (Kira) drove hard right, and pulled back his dribble. He hit a big-time three-point shot with less than a minute to go to ice the game. That’s the first big shot he’s made here, and I looked at him, and I was like ‘yo, this kid is different!’”

Lewis didn’t look back since then.

He led Alabama in assists (2.9 apg), 20-point games (5), and minutes (31.6 mpg) and earned a spot in the All-SEC Freshman Team. The next summer, he suited up for the Team USA that won the gold medal at the 2019 FIBA Men’s Basketball U-19 World Cup.

Lewis was just getting started. He took off when Oats took over from Johnson.

Oats, the former Buffalo Bulls head coach, brought with him his coaching philosophy, which is based on “max effort, continuous growth, and selfless love.”

Lewis embraced Oats’ tenets, and he flourished in the new Crimson Tide’s up-tempo style.

Career game vs. The Ant

Lewis’ arrival to the national spotlight came at the expense of the potential No.1 pick Anthony Edwards.

He picked the right time to set a career record in scoring when he dropped 37 points against Edwards and Georgia in a 105-102 overtime victory. His arsenal was on full display. He completed his virtuoso performance with seven assists, five boards, two steals, and one block, which turned the heads of many NBA scouts.

Edwards had a double-double (14 points, 12 rebounds), but he was limited to 5-of-17 shooting and 0-of-6 from beyond the arc.

Lewis is the engine that kept the Crimson Tide’s high-octane offense humming. He’s the Michael Schumacher of Oat’s Ferrari.

Lewis’s blinding speed has an impact on both ends of the floor. He was a blur on offense and a disruptor on defense.

His sophomore year saw him record eight 20-point games and three 30-point explosions, two double-doubles (point and assists) and could have been more if not for the Covid-19 shutdown.

Lewis finished his last season in Alabama as the Crimson Tide leader in scoring (18.5 ppg with 46/36/80 shooting splits), assists (5.2 apg), steals (1.8 spg), minutes (37.6 mpg), and field goals made (206) and attempted (449). As if that’s not enough, he also led the whole SEC in minutes while ranking third in assists and steals and fourth in scoring.

His game’s only knock is his high turnover rate (3.5) and his finishing at the rim. But the inefficiency could be attributed to his high usage rate and heavy minutes playing at an ultra-fast speed. There’s a belief that once he goes up in the NBA and the game begins to slow down for him, chances are he could become more efficient.

He has the potential to become an elite scorer with that kind of blinding speed in the era of pace and space in the NBA.

“The speed, from baseline to baseline, I think he’s the fastest guy in this Draft. I think his scoring ability, his decision making, just his reads coming out of the ball screen, his skill set, being able to pass or get into the lane are already a given, but what’s going to surprise a lot of teams is how well he shoots the ball,” Pettway said.

“If you see him work out and watched him closely, he can really, really shoot the ball, especially on catch and shoot situations, and with all the space that they have in the NBA, he’s going to be a blur. He constantly gets into the lane and looks for scoring opportunity. And another underrated part of his game is his ability to take floaters. He has a really, really nice touch on his floater.”

Per Synergy, Lewis scored 1 PPP on all jump shots (73rd percentile), 1.238 PPP when shooting off the catch (89th percentile), and 0.926 PPP on shots off the dribble (79th percentile) during his sophomore year in Alabama.

Even Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm, who has his own point guard Tyrese HaliburtonTyrese Haliburton in the draft, was impressed with Lewis.

“He’s pretty good, a phenomenal kid. He has really elite quickness that can get the ball from A to B. He can get to the free-throw line, and he can shoot it,” Prohm told Empire Sports Media.

Quick like a Fox

Lewis already knew what he could do. But he’s not resting on his laurels.

He’s smart enough to realize that speed alone doesn’t cut it to the next level. A strong game to match his blazing speed is what he would need. Described as a gym rat by his coaches, Lewis tripled his efforts in preparation for the NBA.

“He’s working out every single day. He’s eating right. He’s done a great improvement with his body in terms of getting strength. He’s constantly in the gym working out two to three times a day,” Pettway said. When he’s away from the gym, he’s watching a lot of films.

Lewis has put on 15 pounds to his once scrawny 165-lb frame.

Derek Murray, Babcock Hoops director of scouting, recently saw a vastly improved and stronger Lewis scouting trip in Miami.

“Right off the bat, Lewis showed off his dazzling speed. It didn’t matter if he was in an isolation or in the pick-and-roll; he was easily getting around his man for easy lay-ins. He always got downhill quickly, staying on par with his success at Alabama. One of the most noticeable things during the runs, however, was how Lewis absorbed contact in the lane,” Murray said.

With a stronger body, Lewis exudes more confidence on the court attacking the rim.

His burst of speed reminded Pettway of another speedy playmaker — former Kentucky Wildcat and current Sacramento Kings’ lead guard De’Aaron Fox.

 

“That kind of speed is hard to deal with,” Pettway said. “Based on their finishing, I think De’Aaron is really good at finishing while Kira is a guy who’s crafty who knows how to finish. De’Aaron is probably bigger, longer right now, but Kira shoots better at this stage.”

Fox shot 25 percent from deep as a one-and-done under John Calipari. In contrast, Lewis shot an average of 36 percent during his two-year stay in Alabama.

Fox eventually improved his outside shot in the NBA, becoming a 33-percent three-point shooter in three seasons with the Kings.

Lewis’ shooting mechanics are more precise that more than makes up for his lack of size.

Murray also saw his potential as a small-ball two-guard in the NBA.

“We also saw Kira play next to Terry Rozier and operate a fair amount off the ball, something that he did not do very often while at Alabama. It was interesting to see him without the ball in his hands as both a cutter and a floor spacer. His ability to shoot off movement may unlock a whole other level to his offensive ceiling due to his speed; a defender tasked with chasing him off screens for extended periods of time would be in for a miserable evening. While he’s not regarded as a combo guard or off-ball shooter right now, we got a glimpse into that becoming a possibility,” Murray said.

Ready for prime time

Pettway believes Lewis is the type of player who can immediately impact any NBA team, whether he’s starting or coming off the bench.

“I think with the spacing in the NBA, he’s going to have the opportunity and will be a problem every single night that he’s on the floor. I think he’s going to fit wherever the situation he goes. If there’s a veteran guard whom they want him to learn from in a couple of years, he could fit in, and if he’s thrown into a situation where he has to be the lead guard from day one, he’s really capable of doing it,” Pettway said.

“Super respectful kid. He’s a joy to coach. You can push him hard, and he won’t complain. He’s never disrespected us. He just goes about him being coached the right way and applies it. He’s a dream to coach.”

Lewis said he has talked to “just about everybody” in the NBA, which Oats also had done the same, adding that teams have been very inquisitive.

“He’s got zero red flags as a kid. He’s a great person off the floor. He works hard. He’s always at the gym. That’s the type of stuff they want to know. They can see how good he is on film. And they want to know what it’s like being him off the court. They give you some really detailed questionnaires, like interesting questions that I told one of those guys to send me those questionnaires for me to ask the recruits when we recruit kids to come here. It’s a lot of interesting questions,” Oats said. 

But as the NBA Draft approaches, the Alabama coach said he’s still getting a decent amount of calls. And based on those conversations, he already has a pulse where his point guard might fall.

“Lately, those teams who are a little bit interested are those teams from the middle to the end of the lottery to mid-first round. And everybody on that range has reached out doing their homework. And there are a few others who are maybe looking to make trades. The team with the No.1 pick has reached out to us. I don’t think he (Kira) is going No.1 in the draft. Who knows? But I think those teams that are doing homework with the possibility of maybe there are trades going to come up, have reached out,” Oats said.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have indicated that they are open to trading the No.1 pick. Either Lewis is a trade-down candidate, or he’s on their radar for their No.17 pick. But it’s unlikely that he’ll still be on the board when the Wolves get their second crack.

In this unpredictable draft, analysts’ projections of Lewis’ draft position have been varied.

Jonathan Wasserman of Bleacher Report has him at No. 10 going to the Phoenix Suns. Both Kevin O’ Connor of The Ringer and Sam Vecennie of the Athletic peg him at No. 14 with the Boston Celtics while ESPN’s Jonathan Givony slots him at 20th pick with the Miami Heat. Babcock Hoops has him going to the Pistons at No. 7.

O’Connor noted that the Celtics are offering their three picks (14, 26, and 30) to move up in the Draft. It’s unclear if that’s enough to entice the teams in the upper echelon of the lottery. The Wolves and the Golden State Warriors are looking for an established player that fits their core’s timeline.

So far, Lewis has worked out with the Knicks, Orlando Magic (No.15), Pistons, and the Chicago Bulls (No. 4).

It’s going to be a shock if the Bulls pick him at No. 4. So he’s most likely on the Bulls’ radar as a trade-down candidate.

On the other hand, the Magic are intrigued in pairing Lewis with former top overall pick Markelle Fultz at their backcourt. But with Lewis’ stock rising after his impressive workouts, the Magic may need to trade up if they want the Alabama guard. Because the Kings, who are picking at No. 12, also have their eyes on him as Fox’s backup guard. It’s going to be wild to have both speedy playmakers in Sacramento’s backcourt.

The Suns are interested as well with their starting point guard Ricky Rubio entering his 30s.

Meanwhile, the Knicks and the Pistons are both in the hunt for a lead guard. And if the FaceTime call is any indication, you can tell Lewis’s stock is rising in New York.

Pettway loves the idea of Lewis going to the Knicks as a potential lead guard.

“I love it! They have some good pieces — Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. I think he will mesh with those guys. Kira is the kind of guy who comes along well with everybody. That speed that he has, he will fit anywhere, but I love it with the young core that Knicks have with just a few years in the league whom he can relate to; I love that fit,” Pettway said.

“I just think he’s going to make it work wherever he goes. Guys will like to play with him because he’s unselfish. He loves the game. He wants to succeed so badly. He’s so competitive and confident and he’s going to do whatever it takes and allows his team to win the game,” he added.

Thibodeau has never had a dynamic scoring point guard since he had a prime Derrick Rose in Chicago. None of the current Knicks’ point guards so far has panned out yet.

Lewis could provide that burst of speed and outside shooting that will put pressure on the defense.

Lewis is ready for prime time.

Oats can’t wait to see his point guard star in the Broadway if ever he lands on the lap of his old friends in New York.

“It will be interesting to see what happens. I’d love for him to go to New York. I think he would be great there. Shoot, I’d like to come to New York and watch a few games. So give me a good reason to go to New York and watch some games when our season’s over.”

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo