An ‘ up­hill bat­tle’

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Katherine Fominykh

Even though Jairus Lyles has shed UMBC’s crisp yel­low for Utah blue, the spirit of an underdog still lingers with the star of the 16th-seeded Retriev­ers’ up­set over No. 1 Vir­ginia in the NCAA men’s bas­ket­ball tour­na­ment — in his play, his life and his at­ti­tude.

“It’s still an up­hill bat­tle,” he said last week. “I still have a lot of work to do.”

He took his first big step Thurs­day, sign­ing with the Utah Jazz af­ter com­pet­ing for team in the NBA’s Sum­mer League in Utah and Las Vegas. Terms of the deal were not dis­closed.

In the first of three Utah Sum­mer League games July 2, Lyles scored six points in nearly 18 min­utes off the bench. In the sec­ond quar­ter, the 22-year-old took a pass from guard Ken­drick Ray and launched a 3-pointer to help se­cure the Jazz’s lead over the San An­to­nio Spurs at half­time.

On Tues­day, a loss for Utah, Lyles watched from the side­lines.

“I dressed up, but I didn’t play. … There’s a lot of peo­ple down here. We’ve got 17 guys,” he said. “I’m not re­ally get­ting too caught up in who’s play­ing what game.”

Then in his sec­ond game in Utah, Lyles scored eight points, this time in about 13 min­utes. Danc­ing around the At­lanta Hawks de­fense, Lyles hit a floater over Mary­land na­tive Jaylen Adams (Mount Saint Joseph).

As much as the frag­ile pos­si­bil­ity of a steady NBA ca­reer could pluck his nerves, Lyles knows he can’t revel in it. His main at­ten­tion be­longs to ball screen­ing, the pick-and-roll and the orches­tra of pro­fes­sional coaches buzzing in his ear.

“Watch­ing film is ex­tremely im­por­tant be­cause you can get to see where or how you messed up,” said Lyles, who scored 11 points with four re­bounds and four as­sists in a 90-85 win against the New York Knicks in this week’s Las Vegas Sum­mer League. “The main thing is tak­ing every­thing they say in and be­ing open to crit­i­cism.”

Be­fore last month’s NBA draft, Lyles show­cased his tal­ents for the Wash­ing­ton Wizards, Char­lotte Hor­nets, Toronto Rap­tors, Mem­phis Griz­zlies and Port­land Trail

Blaz­ers, hop­ing that one of those teams would have a bul­letin board flyer for a smaller guard with scor­ing abil­ity and good ball-han­dling.

In his pre-draft NBA Scout­ing Live re­port, Lyles was listed as a “rel­a­tively un­known com­mod­ity.”

While that might sound strange to a UMBC fan, Lyles agrees.

“I know play­ing on that [NCAA tour­na­ment] stage in front of all those scouts, it def­i­nitely opened peo­ple’s eyes who hadn’t seen be­fore,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say it did any­thing more than that, open­ing peo­ple’s eyes. I still went un­drafted.”

Lyles re­mained an op­ti­mist, even when his name wasn’t called.

“Who knows [why]? There’s a lot of guys in the draft. You don’t get caught up in why they’re pick­ing your team­mates and not you,” he said. “It’s just God’s plan and you just roll with the punches.”

Even be­fore the draft, Lyles’ name was al­ready on deck — in Utah.

The Jazz reached out to Lyles’ agent the day of the draft on June 21, let­ting him know if an­other team didn’t call his name on that stage, they wanted him in Utah the fol­low­ing week.

Lyles seeks a way to stand out. Like many young ath­letes, Lyles bal­anced foot­ball and bas­ket­ball. Once he en­tered DeMatha, how­ever, brush­ing paths with the In­di­ana Pac­ers’ Vic­tor Oladipo and the Golden State War­riors’ Quinn Cook in his fresh­man year, his NBA dreams be­gan to bud.

Lyles, a three-star re­cruit, ini­tially signed with Shaka Smart and Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth be­fore trans­fer­ring to Robert Morris, for only one se­mes­ter. Noth­ing was rolling out as it should, and he was back to his home state as a sopho­more, where his ca­reer plans took shape.

“I think I re­ally knew the first time I played at UMBC,” he said. Retriev­ers coach Ryan Odom con­curs. “On the court, he’s spe­cial. He’s the guy who has tremen­dous speed, doesn’t mat­ter what level he’s play­ing at, that speed ex­ists,” UMBC grad­u­ate Jairus Lyles is play­ing in the 12-day Las Vegas Sum­mer League for the Jazz. He signed a deal with Utah on Thurs­day. Odom said. “His abil­ity to score the ball al­ways comes easy to him.”

It’s un­com­mon to say any one player is re­spon­si­ble for a team’s suc­cess. But in the time be­fore Lyles put on the Retriev­ers jer­sey, UMBC cob­bled to­gether 34 wins in six sea­sons. In half that time with Lyles, the Retriev­ers won 53, with their first two win­ning sea­sons in a decade.

But as UMBC’s cen­ter­piece, Lyles was a lit­tle more ball-dom­i­nant, a trait he’ll have to lose to fit in as an un­drafted rookie.

“I think there’s al­ways a tran­si­tion with that and I think he cer­tainly un­der­stands that. The big­gest thing for Jairus, as I look at it, is that he’s an all around player,” Odom said. “He’s not just a guy who can score. He’s a guy who plays de­fense, he’s a guy who dishes the ball and passes … so I think there’s cer­tainly a place for him at the next level.”

Now, Lyles is in Vegas. It’s there, over the 12-day Sum­mer League, that his long-term fu­ture could be de­cided.

“It hasn’t been that long, and it’s a process, and I know that, so I’m go­ing to get bet­ter ev­ery day,” Lyles said. “Be­ing pa­tient is a good thing.”

Not all of it will be in his hands. No­mat­ter what he pro­duces dur­ing his time on the court, it will still be up to the Jazz as to who to play and where, even if that means Lyles will end up grind­ing through the G League.

“It’s a baby step in terms of your goals and dreams of play­ing in the NBA. Just be­cause you’re play­ing in the Sum­mer League doesn’t mean you’ll ac­tu­ally be on the team next year. … So you’ve just gotta go ahead, work hard ev­ery sin­gle day,” Lyles said. “All you can do is play team bas­ket­ball. I know ev­ery­body’s out here try­ing to get a con­tract, but the big­gest thing is just show­ing you can do what the coaches ask.”

RICK BOWMER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Guard Jairus Lyles, who led UMBC on an im­prob­a­ble NCAA tour­na­ment run, is play­ing for the Jazz in the NBA Sum­mer League.

RICK BOWMER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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