Time For Lewis To Go On The Offensive

Wendell Lewis as at ease waiting for the questions to begin. Then again, Wendell Lewis always looks at ease, whether off or on the court. And this is something everyone knows needs to change for the upcoming season…including the man himself. "I know I can't really be laid-back," Lewis agreed.

No, he can't. Not if Mississippi State is to get the Rick Ray regime off to any sort of a successful start. After three seasons accepting a backup role, this is Lewis' time to step to the forefront of Bulldog gameplans. The lone experienced post player on this roster, as well as the only scholarship senior, Lewis is literally the center-piece of what Ray has to work with in year-one.

A lot to ask of a laid-back guy, for sure. Yet Lewis isn't fazed by the off-season fuss.

"I feel comfortable with it, it's no problem. To me, I just try not to let the pressure get to me, I go in with a great mindset and just work and stay focused all the time."

Understand, work and focus have never been an issue with Lewis. Since signing-on in 2009 the Selma, Ala., native has done what was demanded of him all around the basketball calendar. Practicing, lifting weights, conditioning, game-prepping…not to mention staying on his academic track. All well and good.

But once on the court and clock running, all these qualities which make Lewis such a splendid example of what Mississippi State expects of student-athletes almost seem to get in the way. Of Lewis tapping into his undoubted abilities, that is. He is almost too much the team player, in other words, passing—literally—on chances to show his own skills so others can get the points and the attention.

Former Coach Rick Stansbury often commented on this selflessness as well as Lewis' relaxed attitude about making plays for himself. Ray has heard it as well and is trying to motivate his senior center already.

"He told me he was going to set me up where I'm able to make moves to the basket, go one on one," Lewis said. "I told him I'm a passer because I'm not a selfish player. But he says like sometimes you have to be selfish."

The coach has some numbers to back up the notion. Lewis may have only contributed 3.8 points as a junior but when he shot he made almost 63% of attempts. On the defensive end, now, Lewis showed a more aggressive streak. He averaged 4.0 rebounds for the whole season, 3.1 in SEC play; and his 30 blocks were most on the entire team despite playing only 21 minutes per game.

So the potential is there for bigger and better things…if only Lewis will take it on himself to be more assertive with the ball. Selfish, even. This laid-back or low-key or whatever one calls his court attitude certainly is at odds with the usual image of college players who seek any open shot and often see some which aren't. Being a good team player is one thing; being plain passive is another entirely.

"I know!" Lewis admitted. The interesting thing though is he does not mind being pushed by his coach, or demands he become focal point of the offense. "It excites me. It really doesn't bother me," he insisted…before adding "If I'm double-teamed I'm going to pass it." Which would have likely had Ray sighing a bit and getting back to adjusting this attitude more.

The new coach is assuredly adjusting the overall approach. Ray made clear on the day of his hiring that Bulldog teams are going fast-forward at each end of the floor but especially so on offense. Not run-and-gun exactly, but a tempo intended to allow State players to use their own individual strengths, whatever those happen to be.

"The style of play is basically going to be up-and-down, running," Lewis said. "So it's going to be fun." Yes, including for him. The 6-8 senior likes an end-to-end game, prefers it to standing static around the goal. So such talk sounds good to this center.

"For him it's like more movement. It's not just standing still. Everything we do is constantly moving, setting screens, rolling to the basket. I like the style of play." Even if it means taking some selfish steps with the ball, right? At least Lewis is working extensively this summer on honing scoring skills.

"I'm working on my shooting. 15 and 17 footers, hook shots, running to the basket. Basically on my game and my touch around the basket." For an example, Lewis will take 25 hook shots with his left hand, then as many with the right. Then it is time to take face-up jumpers, using the glass or not, working a circuit all around the block and then back again. Lewis reports encouraging results.

"It's not too early to tell. I feel my touch has got better around the rim. Now I work on getting my left hand stronger to have even hands."

All that is the individual work. And as the only post-player on campus this month Lewis has had that end of the court to himself most days. For that matter just four scholarship Dogs have been around in June. Power forwards Kristers Ziedaks and signee Colin Borchert have been able to work together, and veteran guard Shaun Smith does what he can solo.

The rest of the roster is due in July's semester fortunately. And incoming freshman center Gavin Ware of Starkville has come across town to join Lewis for the occasional impromptu game with anyone else who can be scrounged up from campus. "When we play pickup games we try to play on the same team to kind of get chemistry going, to see how each other play," Lewis said.

Something easy to notice is Lewis is not packing the same pounds as last summer. He claims 245 now instead of the usual listed 260. How he managed to drop weight given his daily diet of bacon every morning—"I can eat a whole pack every day", Lewis said—and a drawer-stash full of candy for afternoon snacking is a wonder.

"I kind of tried to drop weight and to tone up in May, because I knew when I got back we were going to be lifting heavy. I wasn't trying to get big because now we're just lifting to get big, to put muscle on, so that when we start running we don't lose as much."

Speaking of running, that is not just how Ray wants his guys to play the game. "It's way different," said Lewis of the transition in off-season style. "You're constantly moving every minute." But while in-motion the Bulldogs must also be listening. Closely. Ray has made it clear who is in charge of this program.

"I mean, he's fun to be around, a great coach. But you've got pay attention all the time!" Lewis explained. "Because if you don't pay attention it's like punishing yourself. He'll tell you once, or twice. But the third time you mess up he'll make you run ten seconds down and back.

"And if you don't get it, it doesn't count. So pay attention and do it right the first time or you'll be running all day."

Lewis has enough to keep him running already this summer. He's on the graduation track in educational psychology with the goal of teaching and coaching. Curiously, "I try to get all female teachers, I can't deal with men teacher." OK, but Wendell, you plan to be a male teacher, right? "I know!" he laughed at the irony.

The larger irony of course is how to turn someone of such a team mindset into, well, a selfish soul with the basketball? It's understandable that Lewis accepted secondary status with the likes of Jarvis Varnado, Arnett Moultrie, and Renardo Sidney around and settled for setting picks, playing defense, and chasing rebounds during his minutes. But all those are gone and now it is time for Lewis to accept responsibility.

"I feel this year coach is going to depend on me to score more, be more active, in practice be a leader to younger guys. And also to the guys that have been here," Lewis said. "I mean, I have an offensive game. I don't show it, since I've been here I mostly set picks and pass it and roll to the basket and play D. I haven't been using my offensive game. So I feel this year I'm going to use my offensive game, be more active and score."

Nothing selfish about that.

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