Tyler Lewis has never had to wait for anything on the basketball court.
The precocious point guard got his first college scholarship offer in the eighth grade, which is the same year he moved into the starting lineup for Forsyth Country Day’s high school varsity team.
When Lewis transferred to Oak Hill, one of the best prep programs in the country, he promptly led venerable coach Steve Smith’s powerhouse to a perfect 44-0 season.
But when Lewis, who grew up in Statesville, got to N.C. State in 2012, he had to wait. And then wait some more. With a recent move into the starting lineup, Lewis’ time has come for the Wolfpack, who host No. 19 North Carolina on Wednesday night in one of the most important games for N.C. State’s NCAA tournament chances.
Biding his time on the bench wasn’t easy for the 5-10 sophomore whose passes make him a crowd favorite, but he appreciates his opportunity more because of it.
“Not everything is going to go your way,” Lewis said. “Once it does, you appreciate it a lot more.”
Since moving into the starting lineup two weeks ago, Lewis has made the most of his opportunity. N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried has not only noticed Lewis’ value in taking care of the ball – he had 11 assists and no turnovers in the Wolfpack’s 71-64 win at Virginia Tech last Saturday – but also how he handled himself when he wasn’t playing.
“He’s hung in there sometimes when it wasn’t going his way,” Gottfried said. “It’s hard for young guys nowadays, the emotional roller coaster of being up and down. I think he’s done a great job of just being really steady.”
Waiting his turn
Through the first 50 games of his college career, Lewis mostly watched. Last season, the McDonald’s All-American averaged 12.4 minutes per game behind junior point guard Lorenzo Brown. Last season, Lewis got a brief cameo in the Wolfpack’s starting lineup, and produced 14.5 points and 5.5 assists in two starts – vs. top 15 teams – when Brown suffered an ankle injury.
After five of the top six scorers departed from last season’s NCAA tournament team, Lewis was counting on an expanded role this season. He started the first four games of the season but lost his starting job to freshman Cat Barber, a McDonald’s All-American from Newport News, Va.
Barber’s scoring and aggressiveness, with and without the basketball, sparked the Wolfpack’s offense in nonconference play, notably in a Dec. 18 win at Tennessee.
But in the ACC, Lewis’ steady hand and pass-first mentality has given the Pack a lift, especially since moving to the starting lineup before a Feb. 8 win at Miami.
In the first nine ACC games, Lewis averaged 14.8 minutes per game and had 20 assists to seven turnovers.
In the past five ACC games, all starts, Lewis has averaged 26.8 minutes with 31 assists to only four turnovers.
“He’s distributing the basketball without turning it over at a high rate, which right now, is very important for our basketball team,” Gottfried said.
Feeding the scorer
But Lewis’ real value might be with the team’s best player, sophomore forward T.J. Warren, the ACC’s leading scorer (23.3 points per game). The two were friends before they came to N.C. State in the same recruiting class, and they’ve only gotten closer.
Lewis and Warren know where each other are on the basketball court, a bond even UNC coach Roy Williams can spot on film.
“(Lewis) gets the ball to T.J. Warren, which is something that they all should think about doing – the guy’s leading the league in not only scoring but in field goal percentage,” Williams said. “He’s a very intelligent basketball player, and I think on the offensive end he makes them so much better.”
In the eight ACC games before Lewis moved into the starting lineup, Warren averaged 20.0 points per game. With Lewis in the lineup, Warren’s scoring average in ACC play goes up to 27.0 points per game.
While N.C. State doesn’t want to rely too much on Warren, it’s hard to argue with the results when Warren heats up. The Pack is 9-0 this season when Warren scores more than 25 points.
Always staying positive
Lewis, who is averaging a modest 4.1 points and 3.5 assists for the season, doesn’t like to take credit for any of Warren’s scoring success.
“You don’t have to be that smart to find T.J.,” Lewis said.
But handling the changes at the college level – he’s still a target on defense for opposing guards – has been a difficult adjustment.
It wasn’t just trying to improve his defense or his jumper but having to bide his time on the bench when he knew he could do more.
“You just have to stay positive,” Lewis said.
When Lewis had a stretch of playing fewer than 10 minutes in five of seven games in December and early January, he reached out to his former coach at Forsyth Country Day, Craig Dawson, for moral support.
“I would always tell him the same thing: You have to wait, your time is going to come,” said Dawson, a former Wake Forest guard in the early 2000s and who is now coach at Woodbury Forest School in Virginia.
“The thing about Tyler is you can’t question his work ethic or his dedication to the game. He’s done a great job in being patient for his opportunity.”
The wait is over for Lewis. The Wolfpack hopes the change continues to pay dividends.
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