Kira Lewis Jr. celebrates a play for Alabama

Pelicans, Kira Lewis Jr. believe team-player fit is ideal in variety of ways

by Jim Eichenhofer

Led by a talented group of players in their early 20s – including arguably the most exciting alley oop dunker in the league – the New Orleans Pelicans have become an NBA League Pass favorite for many basketball fans. By the sounds of it, Kira Lewis Jr.’s television set was also frequently tuned in to games featuring the Pelicans last winter.

“I watched them all the time,” Lewis said Wednesday, after being picked 13th overall by New Orleans in the draft. “The young exciting players they have – Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball. Very exciting team, and I feel like with me adding a piece of that, we can compete even more… I am extremely excited (to go there), just knowing that they play their youth.”

The Pelicans certainly added more youth by choosing the 19-year-old University of Alabama point guard, who is one of the youngest players in the 2020 draft class, despite playing two college seasons for the Crimson Tide. Born April 6, 2001, in Meridianville, Ala., Lewis is about a year older than New Orleans franchise history, which officially began with the 2002-03 NBA season. Lewis will only have roughly two weeks to get ready for training camp ahead of the team’s 19th campaign, but he already seems well-versed on Pelicans personnel.

“I look forward to playing with Zion, him getting out in transition, looking for lobs, the athlete he is, how explosive he is,” Lewis said. “I feel like with me being a point guard, (Ball) being a point guard, throwing lobs to (Zion), he’s going to feed off of it. We’re going to feed off the excitement it’s going to bring to the team. I feel like it’s a match made in heaven with me and Zion playing together, just me with my speed and fast breaking, and him with his athleticism.”

Described by multiple basketball analysts as “the fastest player in the 2020 draft class,” Lewis would seem ideally suited for New Orleans’ preferred style of play, which encourages pushing the ball and generating easy baskets at the rim. The Pelicans have ranked top-four in the NBA in pace each of the past three seasons, averaging exactly 103.89 possessions per 48 minutes in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. That was one element – but not the primary factor – behind why New Orleans was interested in choosing Lewis.

“We thought he was the fastest guy in the draft,” Pelicans GM Trajan Langdon said, “but that wasn’t really the reason why (we drafted him). It obviously was a huge characteristic and plays a big part in the game of basketball – being able to push pace, being able to get by (defenders) at will and get into the paint – it obviously puts a lot of pressure on the defense.

“But (Lewis’) character, the competitive nature, how much he’s gotten better – not only last year to this year, but within this year (were important)... His ability to pick up stuff, learn, implement it and really make an impact on winning was intriguing to us. The character of the kid. So it wasn’t just the elite speed. The ability to make other people better, the ability to shoot the ball… all that together, we think is going to have a big impact for the success of this club.”

Lewis’ arrival to the Crescent City is also an excellent geographic fit for the graduate of Hazel Green (Ala.) High, about a 6 1/2-hour drive from the Smoothie King Center.

“(My parents were) very excited, driving distance,” Lewis said of the 450-mile trip. “My cousin went to school (at Louisiana Tech in Ruston), so it was kind of nothing for us to go watch (her) play. Being kind of close to home is an advantage, so (family) can see me play, my sisters, my niece. It’s going to be great. They're going to be there to support whenever they can come and watch.”

It may take some time for the rest of the Lewis family to familiarize themselves with the 2020-21 Pelicans and their roster, but that’s a process Kira already began as a college sophomore, even if he didn’t realize it at the time, as he watched them on TV.

“He did talk about some of the guys on our roster,” Langdon said of a pre-draft conversation the New Orleans front office had with Lewis. “Obviously he’s a kid who is not far from here, so I could understand the intrigue in watching us play – and we’re on TV a whole lot, so he is knowledgeable about our team. But I think he and his agent were very optimistic and excited if he would have the opportunity to come here and be part of our organization. So it’s a really, really good match for both sides.”

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