This article is a facsimile of an earlier version published on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
When you're a sophomore, people automatically label you as being older than most freshmen. Alabama Crimson Tide point guard Kira Lewis Jr. didn't turn 19 until April 9th, after the conclusion of his sophomore season.
Lewis is that young, as young as most freshmen in this draft class, and boasts two seasons of college success to his name.
Lewis left high school a year early so he could begin his pursuit of a basketball career and signed on under former NBA point guard and head coach Avery Johnson at Alabama. The 17-year-old Lewis started in the SEC and showed flashes of potential, but as his team struggled, he was barely a high-level prospect on NBA radars.
A coaching change and shift in style of play—catered around Lewis' blazing speed—brought out the best in the sophomore. Alabama didn't win many more games in Lewis' second season, but they whizzed their way to the second-fastest offense in the nation. Now Lewis hopes that scouts will see not just his blazing speed but a solid polish, nuance and well-rounded offensive game.
Lewis checks all the boxes for me: he's a great transition player, a three-level scorer in the half-court (potentially) and an adequate defender. labels can be damaging, and I've often compared Lewis' trajectory with Cole Anthony in the public perception. Anthony, a transcendent scorer out of high school, seems to get the benefit of the doubt on draft boards despite a difficult season at North Carolina.
Why? Some of that is due to the perception he's younger as a freshman, but Anthony is a whole year older than Lewis. That thirteen-month age difference isn't meant to drag down Cole, but to prop up Kira. To do what he's done in the SEC, at such a young age, over the course of two seasons and under two coaches, is pretty special.
Lewis's game relies on his speed, both in the full-court and when he gets a burst in the half-court.
He also checks three very important boxes in my book: he's got a long wingspan, shoots well enough from 3-point range that teams cannot go under ball screens, and he is able to finish effectively with both hands.
That speed in the open floor is reminiscent of Sacramento Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox: He's so lethal at blowing past a retreating defense that it's hard to account for that threat's value. He's a one-man fast break that can go coast-to-coast in an instant.
Lewis can shift from fast-to-slow or slow-to-fast in a hurry. His deceleration means he doesn't force or rush the shot at the end of the play, which is the most important part. From a skill standpoint, the ability to play at an all-out sprint and still make accurate passes is highly coveted. Lewis has demonstrated he can do that in transition; He's not just a black hole driving to the hoop.
Lewis was a really strong finisher, due mainly to how he can get naked at the rim by blowing past the defense. He's a skilled pick-and-roll playmaker, too.
What I really love is how Lewis understands the threat his speed provides. Fast players force defenses to react earlier. It's hard for a defender to play the cat-and-mouse game when everything he does needs to be earlier, (and therefore more committed one way or another). Lewis makes reads early enough to take advantage of those teams.
It's impressive that young players make kicks just as the defense commits and not after they do. It's even more impressive when someone who plays at Lewis' speed can do it.
To me, his passing instincts are superb due to the context they're placed in. He has some impressive one-hand bullets with either, and he's crafty with his bounce. He's not the type of speedster who needs to play fast every possession. He slows down and can lull the defense to sleep, which in turn strengthens the value of his top gear.
A 41 percent catch-and-shoot threat, Lewis can play in an off-ball role at times and doesn't need to be supremely ball dominant. The stroke is pure, and his range is solid.
Again, relate his shooting back to the speed: Most defenders will play a little farther back when guarding him, as they're worried about the blazing quickness and blow-bys to the rim. As they cheat, Lewis has a quick enough stroke to rise up. His release off the bounce is a tad low, but it isn't a functional worry since he figures to operate with a cushion from fearful defenders.
In order to be a high-caliber point guard who is the focal point of an offense, you must be able to score late-clock.
We're at a point where every NBA defense is constructed the same analytically: They take away the arcs and dare teams to beat them with tough twos. Well, when those are the shots you need your best creators to get late-clock, you must be able to score them.
That's the Catch-22 with an analytic emphasis on skill development: You can tell guys to avoid the mid-range, but at the end of the day, elite players must be good at them since those are shots they'll have to take.
Lewis is a little underwhelming in the mid-range. He's not a tremendous vertical athlete and doesn't finish at the rim most often. His numbers didn't struggle from two-point land at Alabama, but there are some areas Lewis must add to his game if he's going to truly be a high-caliber NBA scorer.
Lewis is as gifted as they come laterally. He sacrifices his verticality to get there, though. He gets a ton of shots blocked at the rim and doesn't deal with contact well.
He doesn't do himself any favors by being a low finisher to begin with: He loves scoop shots and other circus attempts that originate below shoulder level. Even in the clips of his struggles to finish, Lewis makes some ridiculous moves and high-level plays to get himself to the rim. I'm willing to bet on that skill giving him enough space to be okay.
The mid-range stuff is a little more of a worry.
Lewis is not really a tough shot maker; Very few of his makes make you turn your head and say "damn, that guy made him earn it and he did." Instead, Lewis relies on his quickness to get to the rim or draw help so he can kick.
When he has to score one-on-one, he's not great. Step-backs spray all over the place. Lewis was 4-for-20 on floaters. On middle isolations, he was 1-for-6 on dribble jumpers and only 2-for-12 on all jumpers out of isolation. If the type of lead guard you want is the guy who will go out and create a shot for himself late-clock, Lewis hasn't proven he can be that guy.
Defensively, Lewis isn't atypical for point guards. He's extremely slender, and while that figures to change, he likely won't bulk up to the point where he's a sturdy defender on switches. In fact, trying to do so might negate some of the speed that makes him special. That's the natural trade-off you get with lightning bolt guards.
Lewis made solid defensive impacts at Alabama, but he can stand to improve recovery angles after he gets screened. Lewis isn't great at getting back in the play on the most direct path possible.
Overall Analysis and Draft Projections
It's hard to imagine a scenario where Lewis sniffs the top-half of the lottery just off perception alone. There are many names with so much more buzz. And with a potential cap on his one-on-one scoring and upside as a late-clock option, keeping him out of that range is likely justified. Anyone with a top-five pick that spends it on a scorer will need to find a transcendent one with more upside.
That likely limits Kira to being picked once guys like Anthony, Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball are off the board. I'd love to see him thrive as an auxiliary point guard to a great scorer, like Devin Booker in Phoenix or Jayson Tatum in Boston. His long-term ceiling is so high, and at just 19 years old, he's barely scratching the surface of who he can be.