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.Â 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.Â
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.Â
Around that time, the Knick’s current general manager Scott Perry was a Pistonsâ€™ 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.
“Iâ€™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 Iâ€™m sure they are going around interviewing all kinds of people leading into the Draft. I donâ€™t want people to take too much out of it. Itâ€™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 thereâ€™s a certainÂ level of comfort and trust between Oats and the Knicksâ€™ top brass that may pull Lewis to New York.
“Theyâ€™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.
“Heâ€™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 Lewisâ€™ 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. Heâ€™s a guy that gets up at six in the morning and works out.Â 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; heâ€™s already organizing. Heâ€™s the guy that leads by example. Heâ€™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). Theyâ€™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 wouldnâ€™t be long before Lewisâ€™ 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 sheâ€™s not going to cry when they put the hat on him, but I know a hundred percent it wonâ€™t be dry in that room when his name gets called,” Pettway said.
“Itâ€™s always good to see good things happen to good people. Iâ€™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, heâ€™s even a better kid. And when you meet his mom and dad youâ€™ll know why heâ€™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 heâ€™s going to be a good player. Thatâ€™s my first time seeing him in person,” Pettway said. “Heâ€™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 latterâ€™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. Thatâ€™s the first big shot heâ€™s made here, and I looked at him, and I was like â€˜yo, this kid is different!â€™”
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 Tideâ€™s high-octane offense humming. He’s the Michael Schumacher of Oatâ€™s Ferrari.
Lewisâ€™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 thatâ€™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 heâ€™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 whatâ€™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, heâ€™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, LewisÂ 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.
“Heâ€™s working out every single day. Heâ€™s eating right. Heâ€™s done a great improvement with his body in terms of getting strength. Heâ€™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 didnâ€™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 Deâ€™Aaron is really good at finishing while Kira is a guy whoâ€™s crafty who knows how to finish. Deâ€™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 heâ€™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, heâ€™s going to have the opportunity and will be a problem every single night that heâ€™s on the floor. I think heâ€™s going to fit wherever the situation he goes. If thereâ€™s a veteran guard whom they want him to learn from in a couple of years, he could fit in, and if heâ€™s thrown into a situation where he has to be the lead guard from day one, heâ€™s really capable of doing it,” Pettway said.
“Super respectful kid. Heâ€™s a joy to coach. You can push him hard, and he won’t complain. Heâ€™s never disrespected us. He just goes about him being coached the right way and applies it. Heâ€™s a dream to coach.â€
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.
“Heâ€™s got zero red flags as a kid. Heâ€™s a great person off the floor. He works hard. Heâ€™s always at the gym. Thatâ€™s the type of stuff they want to know. They can see how good he is on film. And they want to know what itâ€™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. Itâ€™s a lot of interesting questions,” Oats said.Â
But as the NBA Draft approaches, the Alabama coach said heâ€™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 donâ€™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.Â 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 heâ€™s going to make it work wherever he goes. Guys will like to play with him because heâ€™s unselfish. He loves the game. He wants to succeed so badly. Heâ€™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 seasonâ€™s over.”
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