RICHMOND, Va. – As JeQuan Lewis finished an interview in a hallway in the guts of the Verizon Wireless Arena, he encountered an upbeat Shaka Smart, on the way to his postgame press conference. The VCU coach greeted Lewis warmly with a fist pound, a silent congratulations for a job well done. Lewis, however, offered an earnest and unsolicited assurance to Smart.
“I’ll play better ‘D’, Coach,” he said.
Lewis made no mention of his 14 second-half points – or the career-high 16, total – that helped the Rams overcome an underwhelming offensive performance in a 72-57 victory over Wofford. Tuesday’s effort was just the most recent batch of evidence that sought to prove the value of Lewis’ offensive skill set to the Rams. While he’s still learning the nuances of the Division I game, Lewis’ offense is clearly college prepped.
Although junior Treveon Graham led VCU with 18 points Tuesday, it was Lewis who had the hot hand down the stretch as the Rams kept Wofford at bay. Graham scored 15 of his points in the first half, and when his shots stopped falling in the second – he was 0-of-4 from the field – VCU turned to Lewis.
Lewis scored 10 of his points in the game’s final 4:49. Each time the Terriers appeared to ramp up a challenge, Lewis answered for the Rams. With 3:27 left, Wofford’s Jaylen Allen knocked down his second consecutive 3-pointer to pull the Terriers within 64-56. But on the ensuing possession, Lewis drove baseline from the left corner for a layup in traffic. Wofford wouldn’t seriously challenge VCU again.
“A big possession, probably the killer, was when he got all the way to the basket there around the five-minute mark, the four-minute mark and just carved us up and got all the way to the rim,” said Wofford Coach Mike Young.
The Dickson County, Tenn. native’s offensive shot in the arm came at a critical time for the Rams. VCU struggled to find a rhythm in its halfcourt sets for much of the game and shot 38 percent (21-of-56) in the contest, including 25 percent (5-of-20) from three. Lewis knocked down 4-of-5 field goals in the second half, while the rest of the team shot 5-of-23 (22 percent).
VCU’s offense favors quick, aggressive point guards. It allows them freedom to push the ball up the floor and make plays, and Tuesday, Lewis took advantage.
“I don’t think we ran a play for him in the second half,” Smart said. “He was just pushing the ball. As a point guard in our offense, you basically have a play called for you on a rebound, and you get the ball because now you have it in your hands and you can create for you or your teammates… JeQuan really put the defense on its heels.”
Lewis used his quickness, as he has many times this season, to scoot past defenders and into the paint. In transition, he showed fearlessness while driving the ball hard to the rim. During one sequence, Lewis showed his flashy ball handling skills when he crossed over Allen, who slipped to the floor in a confused mess, on the way to a layup.
“I was just trying to push offensively because that’s what we do, and if they don’t stop me I’ll just keep going until somebody stops me,” Lewis said.
These types of performances are becoming commonplace. In his last five games, Lewis has reached double figures four times and is averaging 12.4 points per game. Over that period, Lewis is shooting 56 percent (20-of-36) from the field, including 53 percent (10-of-19) from 3-point range. In that five-game stretch, you could argue that Lewis has been VCU’s second-best offensive player, after Graham, and he’s done it all off the bench. In those five games, Lewis is averaging 27.6 points per 40 minutes.
Clearly, Lewis’ offensive skills weren’t the reason he averaged just over 13 minutes per game in VCU’s first seven contests. Smart has pointed to Lewis’ defense as the main reason his minutes were limited in the early going. In addition, turnovers have been a concern for the first-year point guard. Lewis entered the game averaging a team-high 4.9 turnovers per 40 minutes.
Smart says Lewis’ early struggles in those areas weren’t for a lack of effort.
“The thing that he’s been able to do since right before the Belmont game is he’s been able to, quite frankly, be more coachable and kind of hang in there when things weren’t always going his way,” Smart said. “Those games earlier in the year really bothered him and paralyzed him. He’s doing a much better job of moving on from them and if it was something on the defensive end, learning from it and taking ownership. He’s just got to keep getting better on D. The better he gets on D, the more he’s going to play.”
Lewis said Tuesday that he’s still adjusting to the way the Rams press, from the physical demands it places on a player, to the responsibility to direct the ball handler, through intense pressure, into VCU traps.
“Just pressuring the ball in the backcourt, just trying to force my way and not letting go wherever they want, just try to force him to where he needs to be,” Lewis says. “It’s a lot of getting into shape because we’re full court the whole game, so it’s hard to get your legs up under you sometimes, but I’m just trying to keep my guy in front, so sometimes I just give him more space than is needed because I don’t want to get beat, but the coaches, they want me to pressure more, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
On Tuesday, Lewis did not commit a turnover and came up with a season-high four steals in 19 minutes. If those numbers become the norm, rather than the exception, Lewis could find himself on the court quite a bit in the near future.