Workout after workout in city after city, Justin Lewis has welcomed the grind as he gets closer to realizing his dream.
In preparation of the 2022 NBA draft, set to take place Thursday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, the former Poly and Marquette basketball star attended the NBA scouting combine last month in Chicago and has since worked out for more than a dozen franchises.
For the 20-year-old Lewis, who declared for the draft after his sensational sophomore season at Marquette, this demanding time has been a labor of love.
“My approach has just been to attack each workout as they come and just get better and have fun when I do them,” he said. “My love for the game helps me attack each and every day. It’s a tough process and my joy for the game helps me get better and I just keep trying to reach different goals in my life.”
One of his biggest goals going back to his childhood days is playing in the NBA, and he’s on the verge of making it happen. As a sophomore at Marquette, the 6-foot-7, 240-pound forward averaged a team-high 16.8 points and 7.9 rebounds and was named Big East Most Improved Player and an All-Big East first-team selection.
He said the work he put in going into the season and the significant strides he made during it pushed him to turn pro. National experts have him going anywhere from the late first round to the middle of the second in mock drafts.
Thursday night can’t come soon enough for the Baltimore native.
“Now, the dream is almost a reality,” Lewis said. “I don’t even know how to explain it — just an exciting feeling to finally see the work I’ve put in and the things I’ve done over all the years are starting to come in handy. It’s just exciting and it makes me want more because I feel the sky’s the limit right now.”
Marquette coach Shaka Smart, who guided the Golden Eagles to a 19-13 mark in his first season, said Lewis’ growth as a player and person in the past year puts him on a great trajectory to make the leap to the NBA.
“What I told him and tell all the guys that go through the process is next Thursday is just the first step,” Smart said during a news conference last Wednesday at Marquette. “It’s a huge step, but it’s a situation where now it’s, ‘OK, I found out where I’m going, who I’m playing for and now it’s time to continue that trajectory.’
“I’m excited for him. When you get to that level, obviously, the competition goes up, the expectations go up. He’s going to have a learning curve like anyone else, but he’s a great guy who has really grown. He’s very motivated, he’s been working his butt off, so I’m excited to follow what’s next for him.”
In his high school years — first as a freshman at Calvert Hall, then his last three at Poly — Lewis showed his potential with a combination of size, skill and game sense. Former Poly coach Sam Brand saw something else in Lewis that went beyond the court.
“I could tell he really wanted to be good,” Brand said. “I think a lot of guys that are tall play basketball and stick with basketball because they’re just tall and people want them to play. But Justin loved the game. He loved preparing, he was always here early.
“One of the separators that I saw early is I could tell he just enjoyed being in the gym. He liked to compete, he liked to practice and get shots up. He has the love for it and if you have the physical capability and the love, that’s what any coach dreams of.”
During Lewis’ time at Poly, the Engineers were the team to beat in the Baltimore City league. He helped lead them to two state titles (2017-18, 2018-19) and a third was likely before COVID-19 shut down his senior season before the state semifinal round. Lewis was named The Baltimore Sun’s 2019-20 All-Metro co-Player of the Year after averaging 19.3 points and 13.4 rebounds per game.
Point guard Rahim Ali, who assisted on many of the 1,374 career points Lewis scored at Poly, got a first-hand look at the passion his close friend has for the game of basketball.
“He’s blessed to be one of the ones to make it, and that’s great because he’s a special person and everything that was meant for him is coming to him. It’s wonderful,” Ali said. “He loves the game. You can tell when somebody is faking it and being real about it, and he really loves it.”
Lewis credits the tough grind and pride that’s attached to Baltimore basketball as a key factor in his drive to succeed. The traits go everywhere he goes.
“It has shaped me into the player I am,” he said. “Seeing the toughness of all the guys before me and learning from them and just playing in the city league, you got to be tough. So I would say it helped me both mentally and physically.”
In emerging as the Golden Eagles’ primary scoring option last season, Lewis displayed versatility — including an improved jump shot and handle to go with his established post play — that makes him an intriguing NBA prospect. His length and ability to switch on defense is another asset.
Lewis goes into Thursday night’s draft with self-confidence that’s a product of the work he has put in, but also with an understanding that there’s so much more to learn.
“I’m getting criticized for certain things in my game right now but I know I’ll work on those things to get better,” he said. “So it’s exciting more than it is getting down on myself because I know I’ll attack during the offseason and get better at those things.”
2022 NBA DRAFT
Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
TV: ESPN, Chs. 2, 7