CHICAGO — This year’s NBA Draft class is unique with not only the talent projected at the top, but also the variety of teams and programs represented in the lottery and in the first round. Top players no longer need to be unique, blue-blooded prospects to grab the attention of NBA scouts, with more and more mid-size players getting noticed in recent draft cycles.
Last year’s No. 12 pick, Jalen Williams, played three years at Santa Clara in the WCC and was highly productive as a rookie for the Oklahoma City Thunder, receiving First-Team All-Star honors. NBA rookie.
“Talent is talent and that’s something you can’t hide,” Williams told reporters in March. “Go where you’re wanted and needed. A lot of times people look at who’s coming out of the big schools and lose track of who doesn’t.”
This year, many scouts and front-office executives were stopping by Malibu, Calif., to get an eye on Pepperdine’s Las Vegas guard Maxwell Lewis. The 6-foot-7 sophomore’s journey to the NBA is unlike any player in this draft class.
Lewis, a four-star high school freshman, only had five offers after his senior season before committing to Pepperdine. His first season faced challenges after being sidelined with a wrist injury to close out the season. Lewis entered his second season making a strong statement in his opener against Rice where he finished with 29 points (including five 3-pointers) and 5 assists. He then averaged 17.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists for the season, even with the Waves struggling to win games after finishing last in the WCC and going 9. -22.
“It’s tough going through a season like this,” Lewis told Yahoo Sports. “Every game I just tried to improve myself and help my teammates improve and keep working.”
Lewis declared for the NBA draft shortly after the season and returned to Las Vegas to train with coach Joe Abunassar at Impact Basketball for the pre-draft process. Abunassar has been coaching NBA players for 25 years and has helped develop the likes of Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, Kawhi Leonard, Kristaps Porziņģis, Kyle Lowry, and most recently Tyrese Haliburton and Josh Green.
The most noticeable difference in Lewis is his height. He’s put on 12 pounds of muscle since the end of the season, weighing around 210 pounds now, and is much more physical, especially on the defensive end, in 3-on-3 and 2-on-2 drills. Lewis shoots the ball extremely well and showed improvement in how he creates space and separation when shooting. Throughout the past month, Lewis has been going through rigorous shooting drills with Green and San Antonio Spurs goaltender Blake Wesley and holding his own.
“These guys are where I want to be, and it’s been great working with them,” Lewis said. “I just watch their footwork, the way they create separation and how they get away from the ball. Just being able to train with them is amazing and in competition every day I get better.”
Lewis is a projected first-round pick and only one of two players from the mid-major programs is expected to make the first round (the other player is Taylor Hendricks of Central Florida). Going into practices with teams and into his rookie year, Lewis has a little extra motivation from a smaller college program.
“I’m definitely going next year with something to prove,” Lewis said. “I’m not gonna lie, if I was a rookie or a blue blood player and I saw a guy from Pepperdine I would overlook him too. I know what guys think of me and I’ll have a chip on my shoulder to show that I belong.”
The idea that there is a huge leap to the NBA outside of Power 6 collegiate competition dissolves with the way players like Williams played right away.
“I just want to show other players who are mid-level prospects that you don’t have to go to a big school to be successful,” Lewis added. “The sky’s the limit as long as you put in the work. Everyone’s path is different.”
Lewis and several other NBA draft hopefuls are currently in Chicago for the NBA Draft Combine and team meetings. The next five weeks leading up to Lewis’ draft will be filled with NBA team practices and will continue to train at Impact alongside Green and Wesley as he prepares for the NBA draft on June 22.
“I don’t know what my emotions will be on draft night, it’s going to be crazy,” Lewis said. “I can’t wait and this is where the real work begins.”