Former UMBC star Jairus Lyles talks to the media after trying out Tuesday for the Washington Wizards. (Don Markus/Baltimore Sun video)
Jairus Lyles knows something about attracting a crowd. Even before Lyles led the UMBC men’s basketball team to its historic victory over top-seed Virginia in the 2018 NCAA tournament, Lyles got his share of attention from opposing defenses playing the Retrievers.
These days he faces a different type of scrutiny.
A little more than two months after UMBC found itself a household name — with Lyles as the headliner — by becoming the first No. 16 seed to win a game since the NCAA tournament expanded in 1985, the 6-foot-2, 175-pound guard is trying to show he can make the jump from college to the pros.
Lyles understands how he will always be defined by what he did in March — first hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to defeat Vermont in the America East championship game, then scoring 28 points on 9-for-11 shooting in the shocking 20-point Round of 64 demolition of the Cavaliers.
Yet this new chapter will have as much uncertainty as the one he just finished, including two previous stops before reaching UMBC.
“It was a humbling experience to be able to make history on that type of level against the No. 1 team in the nation,” Lyles said, surrounded by reporters Tuesday after trying out for the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena.
“As far as setting myself up, it was definitely good to get the opportunity to play on the big stage and step up and show what you’re capable of. But that’s just a starting point, so I’ve got to keep working hard every day to continue to reach my goals.”
UMBC coach Ryan Odom said Tuesday that what Lyles did in March, especially against Virginia, helped open some doors as well as eyes in the NBA.
“It certainly didn’t hurt,” Odom said. “I think you see it every year, you see certain players assert themselves on the biggest stage. There’s a lot of pressure when you’re on that stage and when you see a player shine like Jairus did, a lot of folks will take notice of that, especially the NBA folks. … He helped himself, without a doubt.”
Lyles, who signed with Tandem Sports management in Northern Virginia and has spent the past month working out with NBA-oriented trainers at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., has another tryout scheduled Thursday with the Toronto Raptors.
“Just coming from a mid-major [school], the process is going to be different if I came from a high major,” said Lyles, who started his college career at Virginia Commonwealth and also briefly attended Robert Morris. “I didn’t get invited to the [NBA scouting] combine or Portsmouth [Invitational]. I’ve just really been working out. I took a couple of days after the tournament and I got right back to the gym.”
Exactly what path Lyles takes isn’t clear, though it seems likely he will have to start by playing either in the G-League or overseas. Considering that he played off the ball most of the time at UMBC with 5-foot-7 K.J. Maura at point guard, Lyles will have to show that he can run a team.
“Given my height I'm going to have to play point guard,” Lyles said with a slight laugh. “As far as what I can bring to the table, being able to score, getting my teammates involved and just being a pest on defense and trying to bother everybody.”
Odom believes that Lyles can make the transition to the point, having sometimes been used as a facilitator with the Retrievers.
“I think he has that skill set, without a doubt,” Odom said. “It was best for us to have two point guards on the court at all times, and we did that with K.J. and Jairus. Jairus sacrificed that, because it’s hard to put K.J. at [shooting guard] because he’s 5-7. Jairus certainly learned to score. My dad [former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom] said the first time he watched him, ‘It comes easy to him.”
Odom said that the biggest improvement Lyles made in their two years together was in his decision-making, something he would need as a point guard.
“Not only score the basketball, but his ability to make his teammates better,” Odom said. “I think Jairus had a way of elevating his teammates and their play. That was extremely important for our team.”
Odom said there are similarities between Lyles and former Virginia Tech guard Malcolm Delaney (Towson Catholic). Familiar with Delaney from when he served as as assistant under Seth Greenberg with the Hokies, as well as the route Delaney took to reach the NBA, Odom could see the same kind of career arc evolving for Lyles.
Delaney honed his point guard skills for three years in Europe before getting signed in 2016 by the Atlanta Hawks.
“Malcolm was a special player,” Odom said. “He had the ability to stretch you from 3, he had a beautiful shot. Like Jairus, he came in as a scorer but developed himself into a point guard by the time he left and I think Jairus is very similar to that. … You see clips of Malcolm now and Jairus when he started and where he is right now and the decisions they make to help their teammates, it’s pretty similar.”
Lyles hopes the jump in the number of former DeMatha standouts now in the NBA and their production — most notably Victor Oladipo of the Indiana Pacers — will help him get on the radar of teams. Knowing that he has competed against most of them gives Lyles the confidence he can do the same.
“It helped a lot. I got to play with a lot of pros,” Lyles said. "Coming into DeMatha as a freshman, I was with Quinn Cook, Victor Oladipo, Jerian Grant, Jeremi Grant … playing against them on an everyday basis and now watching them in the league, how they operate, how they handle themselves on a day-to-day basis. It helped me a lot and I’ve learned a lot from them.”
The hysteria from UMBC’s victory in the NCAA has quieted some, but Lyles said he still gets “a lot more fan love around the campus and the city of Baltimore, just a lot of love just to see the impact we had on the city and the whole DMV, it’s just incredible.”
Lyles, who said he still has yet to watch a replay of the Virginia game, isn’t quite sure what legacy he has left in Catonsville.
“It’s hard to tell right now, given that it just happened, but later down the line, we can look down the line and say that was a great moment for UMBC and NCAA basketball history, period,” Lyles said. “I’ll probably appreciate it a lot more when I’m older. It’s kind of still sinking in what we did.”