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Maxwell Lewis's Big Move
Pepperdine sophomore Maxwell Lewis took a major leap in his second season with the Waves. Will his burgeoning skillset lead to him becoming one of the steals of the 2023 draft class?
Pepperdine University isn’t a place many people probably correlate with being a basketball powerhouse, and rightfully so. Their men’s program hasn’t been to an NCAA tournament since 2002, has one Elite Eight appearance since 1944, and is coming off an underwhelming year that saw them finish last place in the West Coast Conference. The Waves also have only had two players go on to become first-round selections in the NBA Draft: Doug Christie in 1992 and Brandon Armstrong in 2001. This isn’t a place that is known to produce NBA-ready talent consistently. However, sophomore forward Maxwell Lewis appears to be the exception to this.
Our very own Maxwell Baumbach did a fantastic profile on Lewis back in November that you should check out if you haven’t already. He analyzed the Las Vegas product’s ascension to becoming a legit NBA prospect and also got to talk directly with Max himself, as well as his coach Lorenzo Romar. It was an insightful precursor to the kind of season Lewis would go on to have, one that has left many evaluators, including myself, enamored with his pro potential.
Lewis was dominant in the WCC this year, finishing Top 10 in the conference in total points (529), points per game (17.1), field goal percentage (46.8%), effective field goal percentage (52.5%), free throw attempts (136), total points produced (511), and total blocks (25). In a more expanded role for the Waves, Lewis took the leap numerous people expected him to in his second season. He displayed why he’s one of the more versatile scorers in this class while also showcasing his burgeoning ability as a shot-creator and playmaker.
I usually like to start my breakdowns a little bit differently than the norm, so before we get to all the positive things Lewis does on the floor, I want to touch on some areas I believe he can improve on first. This is the proverbial ripping off the band-aid, if you will, in the evaluation process for me. When analyzing his game, I felt the first dimension of the Pepperdine star’s skillset that could use some fine-tuning, is his defensive awareness.
Lewis finished with a 108.8 defensive rating this past season, and per BartTorvik, also had a -0.3 defensive box-plus minus. While I believe his current defensive limitations are somewhat exaggerated, which we’ll get to later, there’s no denying that Max has some room to grow as a defender.
As you’ll see in the video compilation below, there are too many possessions where Lewis just doesn’t engage with his man, whether it’s on or off the ball. He too often gets lost in rotations or off switches and can get caught watching the ball, usually leading to his man scoring off of an offensive rebound or getting a wide-open catch-and-shoot three on the weak side. Focusing on staying stuck to his man, and leaning more toward disrupting opposing players with his length, could be very beneficial for Lewis going forward when defending NBA wings and guards at the next level.
The two other things that stuck out like a sore thumb while I was watching tape on Lewis are his decision-making and shot selection. He led the WCC in turnovers (102) this year and posted 5.7 turnovers per 100 possessions, numbers that are obviously concerning. I think a big part of this was caused by Max being asked to take on a newer and more prominent offensive role for the Waves this season. But you do also have to acknowledge the sloppiness he played with at times.
You’ll see him force the issue offensively a bit too often, where everything is rushed for Lewis in a way. He can get ahead of himself with telegraphing passes that lead to unforced turnovers, quickly chuck up a tough, contested pull-up three from 30 feet within 10 seconds of the shot clock starting, or get way too loosey-goosey with his handle. As the game slows down for him, I do expect a lot of these issues to tighten up. However, continuing to cut out these types of shots from his shot diet and making better decisions with the basketball should only enhance Max’s already dynamic offensive abilities.
Now that we’ve dissected some of Lewis’s weaknesses, let’s shift the focus to the things he does well on the hardwood, starting with his dazzling shotmaking ability. The variety to his scoring arsenal is spicy, to say the least. Per Synergy Sports, Lewis was in the 61st percentile in points per shot rank on off-the-dribble jumpers, the 72nd percentile on shots at the rim, and the 91st percentile on catch-and-shoot jumpers. Those numbers emphasize the array of ways he can break down an opposing defender and just how tough of a guard he can be.
Standing at 6’7” and sporting a 6’11” wingspan, Lewis has the perfect frame to fit the modern-day swingman archetype. He’s got the length to get his shot off over just about any wing or guard and can score it from every level on the floor without needing much space to convert buckets. I mentioned previously that his handle could use a bit more refinement, but the flashes Lewis has shown in that regard are very promising. Unlike some ball-handlers who use their superior quickness or twitchiness to beat their man off the dribble, Max relies more on the subtlety of his footwork, ball or shot fakes, and his smooth explosiveness to get by defenders. He’s good at keeping his dribble low and glides in a way when he’s slashing toward the rim while the ball floats in his hands, especially on his crossover, which can be lethal at times.
As you’ll see in the video highlights below, Lewis has a scoring bag that is as deep as anyone in the class. I particularly like the craft he’s shown as a mid-range scorer and the way he can attack out of post-ups, a seemingly lost art within some of this current generation’s players. According to Synergy Sports, Max finished in the 83rd percentile in points per possession rank on post-ups, and in the 88th percentile in points per shot rank on hook shots this season.
He can bully smaller defenders to the rim, routinely showing the ability to finish through contact, or he can beat his man with finesse and go to his jumper. Fadeaways, fallaways, pull-ups, step-backs: Lewis can hit them all with ease. As we’ve seen with the NBA Playoffs currently, and every year for that matter, tough shotmaking is held at a premium in this league. Max’s mixture of shooting range, composure operating in the in-between game, and physical tools should be coveted by every franchise. As he told Maxwell Baumbach back in November, his more mature approach to scoring is, I would imagine, music to the ears of NBA decision-makers everywhere.
“First, it’s knowing the plays. I know everything like the back of my hand. I know how to execute and get to the free-throw line…I’m getting to my spots better. If I’ve got my feet set, I know it’s going in. [Now I’m] knowing what to shoot and what not to shoot, and how much time is on the clock.”
A great accessory to what Lewis does as a shotmaker is the feel he’s got as a cutter and the efficiency he’s displayed as a catch-and-shoot threat from the perimeter. We already know the analytics that supports his productivity as a shooter off the ball, but just to drive that point home: according to Synergy Sports, Lewis shot a ridiculously impressive 44.1% on catch-and-shoot threes in his sophomore campaign.
He also was in the 79th percentile in points per possession rank on cuts, adding more data to support what he can do offensively without needing to dominate the ball. His footwork and athleticism shine in this regard too.
I think this aspect of Max’s repertoire can help him contribute to a rotation sooner than some pundits might expect. His ability to attack coming off curl screens, back cuts, or in the give-and-go game should allow him to play within the flow of an NBA offense relatively easily as a complementary piece, and additionally give him time to get accustomed to playing against pro-level defense without forcing Lewis to be a go-to-scoring option right out of the gate.
While Max’s scoring skills should be highly praised, the growth he showcased with his passing acumen and overall playmaking ability this year in Malibu deserves just as much acclaim. I came away really intrigued with what I saw from him as a passer and believe it’s possibly the most undersold part of his offensive weaponry. The 2.8 assists per game average this season probably doesn’t jump off the page as a major indicator of him being a plus playmaker; however, that also is a bit misleading too.
Like with his shotmaking versatility, the layers to what Lewis can do as a playmaker are enticing. He’s a proficient creator in pick-and-roll situations and doesn’t get enough credit for the poise he plays with as a ball handler. You’ll see this in the video below, where some of the tight windows that he can thread the needle through, mainly to Carson Basham on pick-and-roll actions, are just a thing of beauty to watch—specifically some of the one-handed darts he throws off the bounce. Max’s vision and decisiveness as a live dribble passer could be his most underrated assets.
Per Synergy, Lewis was in the 53rd percentile in points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Not the most stellar metric by any means, but it’s also a sign of the potential he’s got as a creator. Furthermore, Max has added value as a connector, given the way he can swing the ball as a roll man or with his passing coming off of cuts.
His multifaceted playmaking capabilities don’t get enough of the shine that they deserve and are just another reason to buy into the idea of Lewis being one of the biggest diamonds in the rough, if you will, in this draft. I don’t think he by any means should be a ball-centric offensive engine at the next level, but the upside he brings as a potential secondary or tertiary creator is beyond evident to me.
I brought up earlier that I felt there are some misconceptions about what Lewis can do defensively. He’s got flaws that need to be ironed out, no question, but I also believe there’s a lot to be encouraged about in terms of his potential as a defender. His attributes leap off the screen; between his near 7’0” wingspan, fluid athleticism, and instincts, Max has all the tools to develop into a good defensive NBA player one day. He’s got the elite length on the ball to suffocate smaller wings and can use it off the ball to get into passing lanes, forcing constant deflections. Plus, he uses it effectively to recover if he gets beat off the dribble or to close out to shooters.
One of my favorite examples of this is in the opening video clip below, where Lewis is defending UCLA guard Jaylen Clark coming off a high pick-and-roll. He initially gets stuck on a solid screen from big man Adem Bona, putting himself behind Clark and onto his hip. Jaylen proceeds to go up for what he believes is going to be an easy finger roll, but Max is able to recover because of his fusion of elite length and athleticism, engulfing the shot on a highlight-reel-worthy block. I think the combination of an NBA strength-and-conditioning program to help him fill out his wiry frame a bit more and Lewis’s willingness to improve on his mistakes gives me hope for his defensive development as a pro.
I know a lot of people in this space don’t necessarily care for pro comparisons, which I understand. I find them to be an important piece of the puzzle, though, especially when trying to figure out what these collegiate or high school prospects can blossom into someday as pros. Lewis was a tricky one for me in particular; I’ve seen many people throw out the Devin Vassell and Paul George comps, both being very fair in their own right, but I didn’t want to be redundant by choosing either one of them for my own.
The two names I ended up on for pro comps for Max were Bogdan Bogdanović and Gordon Hayward. Lewis is a bit of a hybrid of these two, in my eyes. He’s got a nearly identical build to Bogdanović, and much of the creativity the Serbian wing has shown off the dribble as a shotmaker and passer is reminiscent of what Lewis can do. I also think the role that Bogdanović has played in both Atlanta and Sacramento as a secondary offensive option, primarily coming off the bench, is one that Max can fill and thrive in.
When it pertains to the Hayward comp, to me, this is the more high-end outcome of the two for Lewis. I could see the Pepperdine star having a very similar developmental trajectory that Hayward did in the league over his first seven seasons in Utah. Coming out of Butler, Gordon was a relatively raw prospect in the same way Max is, but he also displayed pretty clear two-way potential as a wing and the possibility to grow into an All-Star caliber player one day.
Their catch-and-shoot ability, live dribble passing, rebounding range, smooth athleticism, off-ball scoring, and defensive upside are all on par with one another. While Lewis might be a more naturally talented shotmaker and Hayward a more polished defender, if Max were to round out his skills completely, the version of Gordon in Utah is what I envision him becoming.
The NBA today values size and skill, and Lewis has plenty of both. 6’7” wings who can hit every shot in the book off the bounce, make quick reads as a playmaker, have plus athleticism, and make splash plays defensively, don’t just grow on trees. They also usually don’t have the humility and approach to the game at 20 years old that Max has shown. Circling back one last time to when he and his coach, Lorenzo Romar, talked with our own Maxwell Baumbach last winter, there was something Romar said that spoke volumes about the kind of character Lewis has.
“I’ve been very pleased with how coachable he is. There’s a certain willingness about him for someone with so much talent that I really appreciate and love. If you say he needs to do it, he’s going to do it. You just don’t find that. He doesn’t act like he has all the answers. He’s just trying to learn. It’s refreshing.”
Between his talent on the floor and the way he carries himself off of it, it’s overwhelmingly apparent to me that any NBA franchise would be lucky to have a prospect like Max Lewis on their roster as a locker-room influence and foundational piece to build around. Betting against high character, versatile prospects is not something I’d be willing to do, and Lewis is an embodiment of the kind of player evaluators should be in love with in the NBA Draft.