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Kevin Pelton, SUPERSONICS.COM | October 4, 2006
Two years ago, Seattle SuperSonics forward Rashard Lewis took a crucial step in his development as an NBA player, ascending to All-Star status for the first time. A year ago, he saw how precarious that position is, failing to garner All-Star recognition despite a similar season in terms of his own production. Now, Lewis enters what is, for him, a critical season.

"I feel like this is most definitely an important year," Lewis said after Wednesday's morning practice, the Sonics third of the 2006-07 season. "I'm kind of anxious to get it started. My main focus is trying to get back to the All-Star level. I know that it's going to be tough for me, because there's a lot of guys at my position in the Western Conference that are All-Star guys. I think we'll have to be winning in order for me to get back to the All-Star Game, because I'm not one of those guys that are going to be voted in."

"My main focus is trying to get back to the All-Star level. I know that it's going to be tough for me."
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty
Lewis' All-Star candidacy in 2004-05 was buoyed by the Sonics surprising season, which culminated in 52 wins, the Northwest Division title and a playoff series win over the Sacramento Kings. When the Sonics record tumbled last season, so too did Lewis' recognition around the league. Few on the roster took the year any harder than Lewis, in part because of his role as a leader.

"Being a captain of the team, a lot of that pressure falls back on me and Ray (Allen)," Lewis said. "I didn't make the All-Star team even tough I felt I had chance to because we weren't winning as a team. We didn't make the playoffs, so a lot of that pressure does fall back on me and Ray. Ray had an outstanding season, but at the same time we couldn't show anything for it because we didn't make the playoffs. We went home early. I think me and Ray have a little chip on our shoulder that we're trying to get off."

Added to the motivation of trying to avoid a repeat of what happened to the Sonics in 2005-06 is the pressure placed on Lewis by Coach Bob Hill. Over the second half of the season, Hill maintained that despite Lewis' gaudy average of 20-plus points per game the last two seasons, the Sonics forward is playing to only 65% of his potential as a player.

Over the off-season, Hill challenged Lewis to an improve as a ballhandler, giving him the ability to create more offense for himself and become a co-go-to player along with Allen for the Sonics. Lewis worked on it throughout the off-season in his native Houston, focusing on playing more with the basketball in the Nike Houston Pro City pro-am summer league (which his Team Black won for the second straight year, with Lewis named MVP both seasons). While Lewis' handle remains a work in progress, the results so far are promising.

Listen to Bob Hill's meeting with the local media after practice. Also, Sonics broadcasters David Locke and Francis Williams discussed what they saw at practice.
"I think it's improved," said Hill Wednesday. "Here's the thing, though, and I told him this after our exit interview. He can dribble. He has the skills to dribble. He's got to develop the confidence to do it in pressure. That's what he's got to do. He's been better in practice. I ran a middle pick-and-roll for him today. I'm going to go to him more; I'm going to give him the ball more. He's the first option in the early offense all the time."

If Lewis' ballhandling allows him to handle the ball on a pick-and-roll, that presents a strategic problem for opposing teams. If they go under the screen, as happened today in practice when Hill called the play, that gives Lewis an open jumper. If he's able to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket if the opposing player tries to fight through the pick, Lewis becomes extremely difficult to guard - especially, as Hill pointed out, since small forwards aren't accustomed to having to defend the player with the ball in a pick-and-roll.

"I told him I wanted to run pick-and-rolls," Lewis said. "This is the time of year to do it, because you learn from your mistakes and you can't do anything but get better."

"My focus can't be on an extension. My focus has got to be on Opening Night when we play Portland, making sure I'm ready to play this year to get myself back to All-Star level."
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty
Looming for Lewis at the end of this month is what could potentially be a critical decision about his future. Lewis is eligible for a two-year extension of the seven-year contract he signed with the Sonics during the summer of 2002, which would put him under contract through 2011 and age 31. Any negotiations on the extension have been tabled until the Sonics ownership change is complete later this month. Before then, Lewis doesn't even want to think about the possibility of an extension.

"My focus can't be on an extension," he said. "My focus has got to be on Opening Night when we play Portland, making sure I'm ready to play this year to get myself back to All-Star level. Extension right now is out the window. I'm not even thinking about it.

"If they come to me with an extension, then I'll sit down with my agent and we'll examine it and see if that's the best thing for us to do. If not, I still have three years on my contract and there's no guarantee that I'll opt out of my contract, because I do make the bulk of my money the last two years of my deal."

As Lewis alluded, if he and the team don't come to terms on an extension, he will face another decision next summer. Lewis' contract contains an early termination option provision that allows him to opt out of the final two seasons of his deal and become an unrestricted free agent.

No matter what happens in terms of an extension, Lewis made it clear he wants to remain with the Sonics - for good.

"Regardless of if I sign an extension or not, I can still be here the rest of my career," Lewis said. "I don't know what the Sonics would be thinking if I didn't sign an extension. I don't know if they'll be thinking they could lose me as a player, because I would love to finish my career here in Seattle."

Lewis talking about finishing his career in Seattle seems a little premature. After all, after turning 27 in August, he's in the prime of his career. For now, the goal is for Lewis to use his experience to continue to grow as a player.

"I can feel the game starting to slow down a little bit more for me," he said. "I'm being a lot smarter about the game - knowing when to take over and when not to, when we need a basket and when we need a stop. I've just learned a lot more going through the experience of playing in the NBA for eight years."