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Mid-Season Risers: Maxwell Lewis
A full scouting report on Pepperdine's favorite son and 2023 lottery hopeful, and breakdown of why he's more raw than many might realize
We’re right around the halfway point in the college basketball season. It’s mid-January, conference play has begun, and the small sample size arguments for most players and teams are getting minimized. We have a decent feel for most prospects: what aspects of their game are strengths, which need to improve, and how close they are to matching the typical output/ upside seen out of draftable players.
Patience is always key. It’s easy to jump to conclusions after only a few games, to have implicit biases based on who is seen first and how a player performs right out of the gates. I always like to wait until a few games into the conference schedule to start really feeling comfortable placing players into different buckets — top-5, lottery, first round, not draftable, etc. Conference play tends to reveal much about how players are defended with a focus on their tendencies, the level of competition tends to be more even, and as a result, we get a clearer view of prospects in hypercompetitive environments.
Now, we’re starting to give more concrete takes on where prospects might belong based on the cumulation of film through the season. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be looking at several mid-season risers, the prospects who are very much in the public discussion over being a first-rounder despite little preseason buzz of getting them in that territory. Our goal is to figure out how legitimate that label is, as well as project out the strengths and improvement areas of their game.
We start with Maxwell Lewis, an incredibly toolsy wing out of Pepperdine. Lewis, a sophomore, has gone through a decent learning curve over the last 18 months since arriving at Pepperdine and playing for former Washington Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar. Good friend Maxwell Baumbach (a fellow Max) wrote a great piece detailing Lewis earlier in the Winter and discussed his improvement from high school to now.
To me, that is the crux of Lewis as a prospect. It’s incredibly exciting to see how much better he’s gotten and how that has propelled him into the first-round conversation in 2023. It’s also clearly evident when watching film just how raw and undeveloped he remains. Despite efficient offensive numbers and some eye-popping athletic tools, Lewis makes his fair share of mistakes, doesn’t have a ton of defensive experience, and doesn’t use his athleticism in the most consistent fashion.
Just because Lewis isn’t as far along as other 20-year-olds doesn’t mean he’s a worse prospect or even a scarier one. There’s a lot of cause to look at what he’s producing right now (19.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists on 52/41/83 splits) and get incredibly excited because he’s putting up those stats without really knowing what he’s doing yet, that he has legitimate star potential once he truly figures out how to play in an efficient manner.
Herein lies the challenge in projecting forward with Lewis: what role will he actually fill on an NBA court, and what does the pathway to getting there look like? The moment he steps into the NBA, the coaching staff that inherits him will have to make a decision on what they prioritize first in his development. He’s a good shooter that might be able to play right away as a result, better off getting in the game as a spot-up guy before earning his on-ball reps later. Or they could see the upside, decide Lewis needs a ton of high-usage reps to harness his scoring traits, and view him as a long-term project more likely to play 35 minutes a night in the G-League than take any pick-and-roll reps in the league. It’ll be a wildly impactful decision either way.
Lewis is shooting over 40% from 3 and 45.1% on catch-and-shoot looks. He’s long and wiry, and the perception likely exists that he is capable of being a good 3-and-D wing as a result. But preparing for that role is incredibly different than being the primary threat that he is at Pepperdine, and many of his habits as a defender would have to change in order for him to get NBA minutes in such a role. On the other hand, being a primary or secondary option on an NBA floor requires SO much polish, precision, efficiency, and skill. The bar becomes higher for Lewis to clear in order to get that designation. He’s so malleable because he’s early in his development, but viewing him as a “high floor” guy simply because he is a good spot-up shooter doesn’t shed enough light on how raw his overall game really is.
Before attaching the lottery label to Lewis, we need to see a little more in-season growth to figure out exactly what role we’d try to develop him for first at the next level. There are sprinkles of a Paul George-like scorer mixed in with this Trey Murphy-esque simplicity in catch-and-shoot situations. We just need to figure out which one he’s more likely to become.
Let’s talk about what we’ve seen thus far instead of just what we hope to see down the line.
Lewis is a very skilled shooter. There are minor footwork and form microskills to clean up to get the most out of him consistently. His body seems tight when he isn’t getting momentum north-south toward the rim. His release could be higher; at his length (a 6’10” wingspan), a high release would afford him a ton of leeway, especially off the bounce. His feet tend to be a little too close together off the catch for my liking, making it harder to achieve balance on his shot and to cover ground when attacking closeouts.
Those are small tweaks to his spot-up game that feel very fixable through repetition. The footwork areas we notice off the bounce are a tad more concerning. Everything from Lewis feels very square. His pull-ups are a tad slow because he needs to get both feet down into a hop. He prefers to back guys down and half-spin his way to twelve feet away as opposed to quick, separation-based moves. He’s then forced to rely on fakes and jumpers, and without seeing the rim or help defenders, his ability to create for others as a driver is a little handicapped.
All these points wouldn’t be as large of an issue if Lewis put more pressure on the basket as a driver. His Synergy numbers look pretty solid at first glance: shooting 67.8% at the rim, with 90 attempts there in 19 games. But so many of them are off deliberate mismatch posts, backdoor cuts, or transition leakouts. Only 13 of those 90 attempts (14.5% of them) come out of ball screens or isolations. In essence, he’s taken 72 dribble jumpers and only gotten 13 rim attempts out of self-creation sets, a ratio that doesn’t lead to high confidence in him getting to the basket at the next level.
Equally as concerning are what the possessions look like when Lewis gets to the rim. So many of them feature four or five dribbles, especially in place, to break his man down. He’s a ball-stopper and kills flow at times; he doesn’t get a ton of PNRs or ISO reps, so the slow, multi-dribble possessions stand out more. Zero of his dunks this season have come off self-created actions in the half-court — they’re all transition, lobs, or cuts. The start-stop burst has to improve from Lewis, and his conversion as a rim attacker off the bounce gives us a little pause. As a primary scorer, we think he’d be very dribble-jumper-heavy.
The polish and natural touch in those areas is notable, though. He has a good step-back to his left. His ability to jab-and-shoot when he has space is a consistent part of his game, one he utilizes a lot. But the passing really is not evident yet. His assist-to-turnover ratio is negative, he can over-dribble or turn it over by using moves that are too complex, he struggles to feel helpers collapsing on him, and his pick-and-roll passes are often predetermined or rudimentary. There’s a lot that can be cleaned up, as many of those criticisms are fixable ones. It’s worth noting that they do exist, though.
The jump in playmaking from executing good reads within a system and breaking down an entire defense in spread ball screens or isolations is a drastic one. Lewis has made major strides this year as a passer within the Pepperdine system, one that doesn’t require him to come off ball screens with regularity. The NBA is very much about half-court execution in late-clock situations, and Lewis has much to learn before creating for others out of that role.
On defense, Lewis has those raw tools with his length, athleticism, and quick hands. There are some really intriguing on-ball possessions where he stays low, forces guys to take pull-ups, and completely smothers his man. He loves to gamble for steals, can poke balls loose on-ball, and can recover when beat.
The issue is that he gets beat a lot. His off-ball positioning is really poor. He doesn’t set himself up well to accept the ball when his man receives it, and then has to rely on his length or athleticism to recover. He stands up or looks the wrong way on-ball, leading to straight-line drives and effectiveness in the pick-and-roll against him.
The on-ball stuff doesn’t give us a ton of pause. Playing lower, getting stronger, and continuing to submerge his desire to go for every steal will solve almost all his issues there. He is still really far away as a helper. He got backdoored a ton as a freshman, and developed a reputation in-league as a result. We can still see evidence where opposing coaches in the WCC try to target him in that regard. More complex rotations, scrambles, positioning on switches, and that damn propensity to shoot passing lanes often get him into trouble.
Lewis must get better quickly in those areas if he wants to make an impact in the NBA as a rookie. Defensive positioning is largely teachable, and with his raw tools, the point of attack intrigue should outweigh what he doesn’t know yet as a helper.
When many people watch our video scouting report, they’ll likely see a blistering amount of offensive potential, length, athleticism, and really good 3-point shooting ability. He seems like a can’t-miss type of piece in that regard, with so many of those boxes checked when he’s at his best.
Undoubtedly, the potential and upside of Lewis means he’s deserving of being in the conversation within the first round. Let’s just pump the brakes on how high that upside deserves to go. Imagining him as a pro prospect requires trying to figure out how he’s going to harness many of the traits we’ve seen within an NBA system. The first, and most basic, question to ask is whether he’ll be a guy who play on-ball or off-ball most often.
Because he’s so underdeveloped as a pick-and-roll playmaker and struggles to put pressure on the rim, we’re a little bit closer toward seeing him as an off-ball scorer with occasional self-creation attempts and operating within a team offense context (a system like Miami, Sacramento, or Utah, with a ton of free-flowing motion and great spacing, would suit him well). That should do a little to lower his draft positioning, as many of the high-leash attempts he flashes at Pepperdine are less likely to occur.
Lewis is super, super raw. Tantalizing but far away. We’d want to see several aspects of his game improve between now and the end of the season, or at least before the beginning of next year:
Play more athletically on offense. Get to the rim off the bounce, play in straight lines decisively off the catch
Clean up the handle and ability to make plays for others off the bounce
Speed up decision-making off the catch to avoid getting into the trap of backing down every time he goes to the rim
Improve habits as a help defender and keep developing basketball IQ
Small tweaks to the shooting form, though these are more long-term changes that take time
Weight room gains and continued work on playing to initiate contact and get to spots