Justin Lewis was likely going to make a jump from his freshman to sophomore year, no matter what. Players change and develop season to season, especially after their first year of basketball.
But then Marquette fired Steve Wojciechowski and brought in Shaka Smart. The new coaching staff could see Lewis’ talent from his first trip up and down the floor. There was big size and skill. So coaching him would mean putting it all together and using his versatility to fit in their system, while most importantly building a relationship that would help him buy in. With maturity, they could get him to recognize his role and see how that could translate to the team.
“When you are able to kind of cross paths or align with a kid who is becoming the player that he was able to become at the same time that you arrive at a place and there’s a certain kind of connection — like our underdog mentality, our competitiveness — we really activated it in him,” assistant coach Cody Hatt said. “We knew that he was gonna have a big role for us.”
Lewis elected to stay in Milwaukee, becoming a go-to guy for the Golden Eagles. Hatt said Lewis’ success paralleled and was a huge part of Marquette’s own resurgence last season. The Golden Eagles went 19-13 and returned to the NCAA Tournament, and Lewis was named the Big East’s Most Improved Player.
“I think that you saw him kind of really evolve into a guy that went from a first-year player, who certainly had some flashes where he impacted winning and showed his promises as a player, into a guy who down the stretch of the season was as feared a player for opposing coaches to try to game plan for or stop,” Hatt said. “Who in big moments was someone we trusted to take big shots or found himself at the center of a lot of the success we were having.”
Now, Lewis will have the chance to show this at the professional level after being signed to a two-way deal by the Chicago Bulls after going undrafted.
As a freshman, Lewis averaged 7.8 points and 5.4 rebounds in 21 minutes per game, playing behind D.J. Carton and Dawson Garcia. Lewis measured in at 6-foot-7 and 235 pounds with a 7-2 wingspan at the combine. He’s got long arms and big hands. He also had the fourth-highest standing vertical leap at 32.5 inches.
Marquette coaches put him out on the floor more, harnessing his ability to play away from the basket. With the coaching change, Lewis was one of the first players Hatt spent significant time off the floor with, which helped forge their relationship. Lewis connected with Smart over the course of the season. It wasn’t always smooth, but Hatt was there as a mentor and says Lewis really matured over the season. As the year progressed, Lewis’ and Smart’s desire to win for each other was powerful, Hatt said.
Last season, Lewis averaged 16.8 points and 7.9 boards a game while shooting 35 percent on 3-pointers. He also scrambled to save the ball and hit a game-winning 3 against Villanova. It was the first win for an opposing team at Finneran Pavilion since 2018. Two weeks later, Marquette beat Villanova once more.
Lewis’ body composition and how it helps him play will be a huge asset at the next level. He’s a switchable forward, who can guard down or go up against bigger players because of his frame. He took five-times more 3s as a sophomore than freshman. There’s a lot of upside, as The Athletic’s John Hollinger wrote.
“He’s a hooper,” Hatt said. “He could shoot it, he could put it down, he could rebound, he could defend. So I think that his versatility and his ability to kind of grow in various facets of the game will make him exciting for the organization that’s fortunate to welcome him.”
(Photo: Chris Jones / USA TODAY Sports)