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Looking forward to the NBA Draft: Kira Lewis Jr.

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The youngest sophomore in college basketball could be a boost to the Sixers

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

With the obvious exception of Ben Simmons, the Sixers often feel like a very slow team. Not only do they rank a very blah 19th in terms of pace, but the roster is filled with players that lack explosion and burst. It’s why the guards and wings on the team can’t seem to get the rim despite their most ardent efforts, and conversely, why opposing guards can easily scoot by the Sixers and beat them to the basket.

Enter Kira Lewis Jr., a 6-foot-3, 170-pound sophomore point guard from Alabama that is somehow still only 18 years old, younger than yours truly. Lewis is quite possibly the fastest player in this draft, and his explosive nature combined with some decent playmaking and shooting ability could be a great boost for the 76ers.

And when I say Lewis is fast, I don’t just mean typical NBA point guard fast. We’re talking a prime-John Wall kind of fast. In the following reel, notice how Lewis can be at a standstill and a step behind his opponents when the fast break starts, then all of a sudden kick things in to overdrive and overtake them before they even know what happened.

One of the most impressive things about Lewis is that he maintains this speed all game long, despite averaging an absurd 37.6 out of 40 minutes played per game. Alabama finished a measly 16-15 on the year, but there wasn’t a ton of great talent surrounding Lewis, requiring him to carry a heavy load every single game.

He did so very well, with averages of 18.5 points, 5.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game, as well as acceptable shooting splits of 56 percent True Shooting and 36.6 percent from 3. A lot of his scoring came simply by using his freakish speed to turn the corner on slow-footed defenders and finish at the rim before they could recover.

However, Lewis isn’t just some quick-twitch point guard that only has his athleticism to depend on for creating offense (cough, Dennis Smith Jr., cough cough). His handle is tight, and he possesses a repertoire of moves large enough for him to go to if his straight-line speed isn’t enough.

This craft and skill can also be seen in Lewis’s passing from time to time. He uses that killer speed to knife into the lane, collapse the defense and either dump it off to a cutter for a layup, or kick out to a shooter spotted up behind the arc.

As you can see in those plays above, what makes Lewis good is his ability to combine the multiple aspects of the game he’s good at it in order to produce. In the play below, he sprints out in front of everyone in transition, then slows down and uses a clever wrong-foot step to get the defender out of the way before he dumps it off to his teammate.

That said, Lewis can often struggle when he gets to the rim. His vertical burst is nowhere near that of his lateral agility, which makes attacking against length and capable shot-blockers a major problem for him.

Lewis shot only 49.4 percent on two-pointers, despite the fact that he rarely took mid-range jump shots. While it’s good that he maintains a ketogenic shot profile of layups and 3s, he needs to convert more near the basket in order to take his scoring ability to the next level.

In addition, while we’ve already seen that Lewis is not devoid of playmaking chops, he unfortunately has a propensity to be physically overwhelmed and overly ambitious. It’s why he averaged a wretched 3.5 turnovers per game in his last year at Alabama.

That second highlight perfectly encapsulates the good and the bad of Lewis as an offensive weapon. The move he puts on the Auburn player is excellent, and his upper-tier speed is on display with how quickly he gets from the top of the key to the paint. However, when confronted with a large and intimidating defender, he’s too afraid to attempt a finish over him, and instead throws an off-target pass that gets deflected.

On the bright side, whereas the last two prospects I looked at (Cassius Winston and Saddiq Bey) still have a lot to shore up on the defensive end of the floor, Lewis is a stalwart that averaged 1.8 steals per game and was an absolute pain for opposing SEC players. An opponent would simply try to make a routine pass, only for Lewis to rev up his engine and snatch the ball out of thin air.

But yet again, in a common thread to his problems with finishing and avoiding turnovers, Lewis’s lack of size and strength holds him back on defense. His wiry 170-pound body simply can’t hold up against more developed athletes. Ball screens consistently took him out of plays, giving the opposition a good look before he could recover.

Yet, despite the very apparent weaknesses that his slender frame presents, I still believe in him as a plus-defender at the next level. Even in situations where he is physically overtaxed, he still busts his butt like it’s game seven of the finals. Guys with NBA-caliber talent who feel inclined to give it their all in an ordinary regular season game are exponentially less likely to fail than those who aren’t. Just look at this next play and tell me Lewis doesn’t have great competitive instincts.

Lewis gets swallowed up at the rim and lands flat on his back. The typical move after that for NBA players is to lie there for a couple more seconds, acting like they either got a) egregiously fouled, or b) injured something only to get up a few seconds later. Lewis doesn’t have time for that nonsense. He springs up immediately, gets back into the front court to block the 3-point shot, and even goes tumbling into the stands while trying to track down the ball and save it for his teammates. I love that play so much. Lewis could play for my team any day.

But of course, when we talk about about our beloved Sixers, we have to discuss a prospect’s ability to shoot from 3. As you saw above, Lewis shot a decent clip from 3 (36.6 percent), and a really promising 80.2 percent from the foul line. The only problem is that he doesn’t shoot them with great frequency. He attempted 4.9 3-point shots per game, which seems fine, but is lower than what you would expect considering he played such a vast amount of minutes.

I’d expect his attempt rate to go up if needed though. He prefers to shoot them off-the-dribble (big plus in terms of what the Sixers need), and his mechanics look smooth for the most part.

So what should the Sixers do? Should they take Lewis if he’s available at 22nd overall, or should they opt in favor of a bigger wing whose more at home shooting spot-up 3s and spacing the floor?

Personally, I’d be fine if the Sixers took Lewis. I’m not scared off by his lack of size or his at-times shaky decision-making. Keep in mind that in the 2018-19 season, this guy played in the SEC as a 17 year-old, started in all his games and didn’t put up terrible overall stats. Then he came back this past year and was much improved. He’s the rare prospect who comes in with a lot of experience playing in college, while also projecting to have massive upside.

If the Sixers don’t make any major roster changes going into next season (which is admittedly a major “if”), they should move Al Horford to the bench and roll with a starting lineup of Ben Simmons, Shake Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid. Given it’s unlikely that either Glenn Robinson or Alec Burks re-signs with the team, the bench will need a playmaker and ball-handler with Shake taking more starting-lineup minutes. That’s where Lewis could slot in, running the team in spot minutes and providing a burst of energy when needed.

He could even provide some much-needed pick-and-roll ability, as he displayed good timing on those kinds of action this past year.

Lewis might not have the highest upside, but in this draft class, where any kind of success at the next level is far from guaranteed, taking a high-floor prospect like Lewis is a good idea. I have trouble seeing how he fails in any type of embarrassing way, and I like that in my potential late-first round draft picks.