Lewis trusts the process, building a case for BIG EAST Player of the Year

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Photo by Collin Nawrocki

Redshirt first-year forward Justin Lewis (10) takes on Villanova guard Caleb Daniels in then-No. 24 Marquette men’s basketball’s 83-73 win over then-No. 12 Villanova’s win Feb. 2.

When redshirt first-year forward Justin Lewis saw all but two of his teammates from the 2020-21 season leave the program after the head coaching change from Steve Wojciechowski to Shaka Smart, he could have easily done the same. 

Wojciechowski recruited Lewis, who is from the same city of Baltimore, Maryland. After just one turbulent year of playing under him, Lewis no longer had that connection he had built with his head coach. 

Despite that, he decided to stay at Marquette. Now, under Smart, Lewis is leading the nationally ranked Golden Eagles as one of the prime candidates for BIG EAST Player of the Year.

“He’s one of a kind,” Smart said after Lewis scored 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in Marquette’s blowout win Jan. 4 against Providence. “He’s such an energy-giver when he’s in a good place. His aura is really fun to be around and it really impacts me as a coach.”

Earning appreciation

In less than two seasons at Marquette, Lewis went from a highly-rated prospect not getting a ton of opportunities to an evolved version of himself in his new role as the star of the team. 

Lewis was rated as a four star prospect out of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. He came in alongside fellow redshirt first-year forward Oso Ighodaro.

Former Marquette associate head coach Dwayne Killings, who was part of the recruiting process with Lewis, said he thought Lewis was under-appreciated coming out of high school. 

“He had an elite ability to rebound the ball and I thought he could do pretty much everything on the floor,” Killings said. “He needed to be at a place that was going to let him grow into what he was trying to become.”

The staff knew how talented he was coming into Marquette, but Lewis did not have a starting role waiting for him when he arrived in Milwaukee.

“Coming in he thought his role would be larger. We had three really good interior guys that we rotated,”  former Marquette associate head coach Justin Gainey said. “We had to split time, but he never wavered and never stopped working. He worked for everything he had and now he’s reaping the benefits.” 

Lewis went on to average 7.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game while shooting 41.7% from the field in just 21 minutes per game coming off the bench last season. He played less minutes per game than forwards Dawson Garcia, Jamal Cain and Theo John, who all transferred to other Division l programs at the end of last year. 

“He was in a hurry to be great but then he understood that it’s a process,” Killings said. “He just focused on getting better and on game day he just unloaded a level of passion and competitiveness that I think is pretty special.”

Now in a starting role playing 32 minutes a game, he’s Marquette’s leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 16.6 points per game and 7.9 rebounds per game. Both of those marks are good enough for fourth in the BIG EAST conference in their respective stat categories as well. 

Transition to a new coaching staff

With Wojciechowski, Killings, Gainey and all but two others on the roster and coaching staff leaving, it was a learning curve and an acclimation process for Lewis after he decided to stay. 

After that win against Providence, Smart said that Lewis and current associate head coach Cody Hatt work more closely together than any two people in the program.

Lewis said that Hatt and the relationship they’ve built has meant a great deal to him.

“He’s there for me, not even just on a court, but emotionally outside of basketball,” Lewis said. “He’s been around great players so I try to pick up as much as I can from him, but it’s really become bigger than basketball.” 

Hatt, who’s worked under Smart for all of his six years at Texas, said that working with Lewis has been one of the most incredible parts of their transition to Marquette as a staff. 

“He’s really trusted us and he’s been an awesome guy to coach,” Hatt said. “Justin cares about other people. He’s got so much basketball ability but it’s been very rewarding to watch him mature and grow as a person.” 

While Lewis lost a Baltimore connection in Wojciechowski. He gained another with graduate student guard Darryl Morsell transferring from the University of Maryland.

“I saw him when he was young. He had the big hands, big legs but never had it all together,” Morsell said. “It’s great to see all that work he’s putting in paying off. He’s letting the game come to him and I’m proud of him.”

The Baltimore connection means a lot to Lewis. He said he knows Morsell and him are making their city proud. Those in the building know how important his hometown is to him. 

“Justin’s a prideful guy, he’s from a place where there’s a rich history of hoopers and guys who have ambitious goals to be successful,” Hatt said. “The more you know about his story and his relationship with his people back in Baltimore, you understand that the way to move him towards being better if you build a meaningful relationship with him, which fits what coach Smart is about.”

Finding success 

During Marquette’s latest stretch, where they’ve won eight of their last nine games with six of those coming against nationally ranked opponents, Lewis is averaging 18.7 points per game along with 7.8 rebounds per game.

For his efforts, Lewis was named both BIG EAST and national Naismith Men’s Player of the Week Jan. 24.

More notably, he’s shooting nearly 50% from beyond the 3-point line during this nine-game stretch, hitting a total of 22 of the 46 attempts he’s taken from deep.  

“It’s a huge factor,” first-year guard Kam Jones said about Lewis’ 3-point shooting following the win against Xavier Jan. 23. “He’s gained a lot more confidence in his shot as the season has progressed and we all believe it’s going in every time he shoots.” 

Lewis shot just 22% from beyond the arc last season. Now, he’s pulling from deep more often as he’s playing a much bigger role but as the season has gone on, he’s shown the ability to be a reliable shooter from deep. 

“I always knew he would be a good shooter,” redshirt  junior guard Greg Elliott said. “The work you put in is going to show when the time comes, and we all know the work he puts in is top tier.”

The belief in Lewis’ shot was there in those around him despite not taking or making many last season.

“He didn’t shoot a great percentage last year, but you knew he could shoot it,” Gainey said. “You knew it was going to be a part of his game and that really separates him because not only can he bang and do the physical stuff he can take you outside and stretch the floor.”

Last season when it came to shooting, Lewis said he didn’t have the confidence he needed in his 3-point shot to showcase it in games like he is in the recent stretch. 

“I always knew I could shoot, it was a confidence thing more so,” Lewis said. “I worked on it a lot this summer and coach (Smart) just emphasized being ready on the catch. I continue to just get a lot of reps in and get the muscle memory down.”

Consistent 3-point shooting is the new addition to Lewis’ game, but in this recent stretch he has continued to stuff the stat sheet on both ends of the court.

Outside of the points and rebounds that stand out in these last nine games, Lewis has recorded 13 steals, 20 assists and has made 24 of the 30 free throws he’s attempted, good enough for 80%. He shot just 58% from the line last season.

“Throughout our recent success he’s found multiple ways to have winning impact on the game,” Hatt said. “Whether it’s his playmaking or versatility defensively, he is impacting winning in a challenging BIG EAST as a 19 year-old kid.” 

NBA Potential 

Every time Lewis steps on the floor for Marquette this season he knows NBA scouts are watching him with a keen eye. Killings, who has experience working in the NBA as a special assistant with the then Charlotte Bobcats, said the ability Lewis is now showing to shoot the ball consistently is certainly helping his case for reaching the next level.

“He’s a mismatch nightmare,” Killings said. “Shooting the ball efficiently takes his game to a whole other level, and he’s showing the ability to do it right now. That’s gonna translate well to the NBA game.”

Before the season Lewis told the Marquette Wire his goal is to play in the NBA and that he tries to model his game after the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, players he said can do everything on the court.

While his shooting may be turning more heads in the NBA space, when asked what the strongest aspect of Lewis’ game is the answers always came back to one word: versatility.

“He has a unique feel and unique belief in himself intangibly,” Hatt said. “There’s been moments where the opposing coaches are sitting there on the bench shaking their heads because Justin has made plays that are just hard to account for.”

One of those coaches who was likely doing some head shaking is Villanova head coach Jay Wright.

Wright sang the praises of Lewis after scoring 19 points with nine rebounds, including going 4-for-5 from deep, in Marquette’s latest win over the Wildcats Feb. 2.

“I really admire how much he’s improved, this year it’s all come together,” Wright said. “Mid-range game, drive game, free throws, catch and shoot threes. I love him, he’s a great player.”

In Marquette’s two wins this season over Villanova, Lewis averaged 20.0 points and 8.0 rebounds. Additionally, he made a total of nine 3-pointers including the game-winner Jan. 19 in Marquette’s first ever win at Finneran Pavillion.

Killings compared Lewis to a former Marquette player who won a BIG EAST Player of the Year award of his own and is currently having success in the NBA in Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder. 

“He can defend multiple positions and could end up being a ‘Three and D’ type player in some respects,” Killings said. “But his strengths are really his versatility, competitiveness and his rebounding. He’s blossoming into a player that can impact the game in a lot of ways.”

Hatt said that as Lewis strives for his long-term goal of getting to the NBA, he and the rest of the coaching staff have worked with Lewis to keep him present in the moment with this team and this season. 

“Justin prides himself on being a winner and he understands anything you’ve done doesn’t guarantee anything you’re going to do,” Hatt said. “He works. The shots he’s made in games in front of a lot of people are the same shots he’s made in an empty gym on his own.” 

This article was written by Matt Yeazel. He can be reached at matthew.yeazel@marquette.edu or on Twitter @MJYeazel.