LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kira Lewis Jr. is one of the fastest-rising basketball recruits in the Class of 2019, and the newly minted 5-star point guard has a photo of Kentucky coach John Calipari in his bedroom.
“That was a meaningful interaction for him,” Natasha Lewis told SEC Country on Monday. Her son was around 12 years old when he attended a basketball camp at UK and posed with the Hall of Famer. “Kira loves Kentucky. Kira has always followed Kentucky — among other colleges. I try not to give too much, because when I start saying stuff it gets all these other schools worried, but Kira loves Kentucky.”
Lewis was barely a top-100 recruit when the spring AAU season began, but he has enjoyed a major rankings adjustment and uptick in interest from blueblood programs after lighting up the Nike EYBL circuit for three consecutive weekends. Through 12 games, the 6-foot-3, 165-pound guard from Hazel Green, Ala., averaged 21.3 points, 3.2 assists and 2.5 steals against the best competition in the country.
Now he has rocketed all the way up to No. 24 overall in the 247Sports rankings and coaches from Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky suddenly have him on speed dial. Actually, Lewis’ mother said she had heard from UK assistant Kenny Payne before her son’s recruitment blew up this spring — much to the chagrin of in-state suitors Auburn and Alabama — but she has heard from him a lot more lately.
“After the first weekend of EYBL, Coach Payne started calling me and my family on a regular basis,” Lewis said. “He likes the way I play, the way I can score, pass, defend, just play the game of basketball. They’re trying to get me on campus as soon as possible.”
He tentatively has set an unofficial visit to Lexington for June 10, but that is pending the results of his recent invitation to try out for USA Basketball’s under-18 national team. If he makes the cut, Lewis’ mother said, the family will have to reschedule the Kentucky visit to another date in June.
Either way, they’re definitely making the trip. The Wildcats have not yet extended a scholarship offer, but Calipari likes to do that in person.
“I hope that’s why I’m going to Kentucky, so they can offer me on that visit,” Lewis said. “I’ve been a Cal fan for a long time. I’ve been watching Kentucky since I was little. I like the way they play, the fact that he puts guys in the league. That’s my ultimate goal.”
Lewis currently plays for another coach who has seen a parade of future NBA players come through his program. Norman Parker estimates some 25-plus pros have played for his AAU club, known today as the Georgia Stars, including former No. 1 overall pick Kwame Brown, 2017 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, former Duke stars William Avery and Wendell Carter and Kentucky alumni Jodie Meeks and Alex Poythress.
But Lewis reminds Parker of another of his former pupils: Lou Williams, the 2005 Naismith Prep Player of the Year, who turned pro straight out of high school and became the 2015 NBA Sixth Man of the Year.
“His first step is so quick, I haven’t seen anybody stay in front of him — and he can play above the rim. He reminds me so much of Lou that he’s the only guy I’ve even tried to compare him to,” Parker said. “A lot of people are quick and fast, but you put the ball in their hand and they slow down. He doesn’t. He’s got unbelievable quickness and speed with the ball in his hands. It’s crazy.”
So startling is Lewis’ speed that Payne told him recently it reminds him of former Kentucky star De’Aaron Fox.
This makes Parker look like a prophet. He predicted months ago that, come spring, this recruitment would take off faster than Lewis on a blow-by to the bucket. These days, Natasha Lewis has trouble recounting the various coaches’ pitches to her family; there have just been too many to keep straight.
“I told her when he decided to play with us, ‘Get ready, because when he does what I think he’ll do, when he shows other people what I see, he’s going to explode,’ ” Parker said. “That’s exactly what I told her and that’s kind of what has happened.”
Even with that warning, his mother said, “I guess I just wasn’t ready for it.”
Not that she’s complaining. This is a dream come true for her son and the family, and they hope the phone keeps ringing. Most of the SEC has offered. Parker, who has been hearing from the Tar Heels lately, figures Duke will throw its hat into the ring soon.
“Kira is enjoying it,” Natasha Lewis said. “You have to understand he’s a very nonchalant child, but he is excited about what’s happening because he’s glad people are beginning to notice more his God-given talent that he has worked so hard to maintain and increase.”
Lewis said he’s paid close attention to the stacked 2019 class Calipari and Kentucky are assembling, which at the moment includes two other 5-star point guards: top-10 recruits Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey. But Hagans is widely expected to reclassify and play for the Wildcats this fall and Maxey is more of a combo guard.
“It’s a loaded class,” Lewis said, “but none of those guys are selfish.”
The Wildcats also have a commitment from top-40 small forward D.J. Jeffries — with whom Lewis sometimes talks — and they’re among the leaders to land No. 1 overall prospect James Wiseman and No. 2 overall Vernon Carey (both big men). They’re in the mix for several other 5-star recruits, too.
None of that would scare off Lewis, who can play on the ball or off.
“That’s the best way to use him, in my opinion: off the ball with a little bit of point guard,” Parker said. “I know Cal likes guards that can do both, because he’s going to put the best athletes on the floor, so he wants you to be able to play multiple positions. And the thing about Kira that’s different that I really like: He’s got a great attitude. If he’s upset, you don’t see it. He controls his emotions and just plays.”
Lewis is similarly stone-faced about his recruitment. He wouldn’t call Kentucky a favorite (or even one of the favorites) to land him if that scholarship offer does come. But that photo of John Calipari in his bedroom might be a tell.
His mother, who didn’t want to get Lewis’ other suitors too riled up, was posed a similar question: Will the Wildcats be a serious contender to sign her son if they offer?
“I think that would be fair to say,” she answered, giggling. Kira Jr. added: “I would be very, very interested.”