In 'uphill battle' to secure NBA roster spot, UMBC hero Jairus Lyles is still an underdog

Even though Jairus Lyles has shed UMBC’s crisp yellow for Utah blue, the spirit of an underdog still lingers with the star of the 16th-seeded Retrievers’ upset over No. 1 Virginia in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — in his play, his life and his attitude.

“It’s still an uphill battle,” he said last week. “I still have a lot of work to do.”

In the first of three Utah Jazz Summer League games July 2, Lyles scored six points in nearly 18 minutes off the bench. In the second quarter, the 22-year-old took a pass from guard Kendrick Ray and launched a 3-pointer to help secure the Jazz’s lead over the San Antonio Spurs at halftime.

On Tuesday, a loss for Utah, Lyles watched from the sidelines.

“I dressed up, but I didn’t play. … There’s a lot of people down here. We’ve got 17 guys,” he said. “I’m not really getting too caught up in who’s playing what game.”

Then in his second game in Utah, Lyles scored eight points, this time in about 13 minutes. Dancing around the Atlanta Hawks defense, Lyles hit a floater over Maryland native Jaylen Adams (Mount Saint Joseph).

As much as the fragile possibility of an NBA contract could pluck his nerves, Lyles knows he can’t revel in it. His main attention belongs to ball screening, the pick-and-roll and the orchestra of professional coaches buzzing in his ear.

“Watching film is extremely important because you can get to see where or how you messed up,” said Lyles, who scored 11 points with four rebounds and four assists in a 90-85 win against the New York Knicks in this week’s Las Vegas Summer League. “The main thing is taking everything they say in and being open to criticism.”

Before last month’s NBA draft, Lyles showcased his talents for the Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets, Toronto Raptors, Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers, hoping that one of those teams would have a bulletin board flyer for a smaller guard with scoring ability and good ball-handling.

In his pre-draft NBA Scouting Live report, Lyles was listed as a “relatively unknown commodity.”

While that might sound strange to a UMBC fan, Lyles agrees.

“I know playing on that [NCAA tournament] stage in front of all those scouts, it definitely opened people’s eyes who hadn’t seen before,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say it did anything more than that, opening people’s eyes. I still went undrafted.”

Lyles remained an optimist, even when his name wasn't called.

“Who knows [why]? There’s a lot of guys in the draft. You don’t get caught up in why they’re picking your teammates and not you,” he said. “It’s just God’s plan and you just roll with the punches.”

Even before the draft, Lyles’ name was already on deck — in Utah.

The Jazz reached out to Lyles’ agent the day of the draft on June 21, letting him know if another team didn’t call his name on that stage, they wanted him in Utah the following week.

Lyles seeks a way to stand out. Like many young athletes, Lyles balanced football and basketball. Once he entered DeMatha, however, brushing paths with the Indiana PacersVictor Oladipo and the Golden State Warriors’ Quinn Cook in his freshman year, his NBA dreams began to bud.

Lyles, a three-star recruit, initially signed with Shaka Smart and Virginia Commonwealth before transferring to Robert Morris, for only one semester. Nothing was rolling out as it should, and he was back to his home state as a sophomore, where his career plans took shape.

“I think I really knew the first time I played at UMBC,” he said.

Retrievers coach Ryan Odom concurs.

“On the court, he’s special. He’s the guy who has tremendous speed, doesn’t matter what level he’s playing at, that speed exists,” Odom said. “His ability to score the ball always comes easy to him.”

It’s uncommon to say any one player is responsible for a team’s success. But in the time before Lyles put on the Retrievers jersey, UMBC cobbled together 34 wins in six seasons. In half that time with Lyles, the Retrievers won 53, with their first two winning seasons in a decade.

But as UMBC’s centerpiece, Lyles was a little more ball-dominant, a trait he’ll have to lose to fit in as an undrafted rookie.

“I think there’s always a transition with that and I think he certainly understands that. The biggest thing for Jairus, as I look at it, is that he’s an all around player,” Odom said. “He’s not just a guy who can score. He’s a guy who plays defense, he’s a guy who dishes the ball and passes … so I think there’s certainly a place for him at the next level.”

It’s still a little early for Retrievers to pledge their allegiance to the Jazz. Now, Lyles is in Vegas. It’s there, over the 12-day NBA Summer League, that his fate could be decided.

“It hasn’t been that long, and it’s a process, and I know that, so I’m going to get better every day,” Lyles said. “Being patient is a good thing.”

Not all of it will be in his hands. No matter what he produces during his time on the court, it will still be up to the Jazz as to who to play and where, even if that means Lyles will end up grinding through the G League.

He’ll hold discussions with the Jazz on his future after the end of Summer League.

“It’s a baby step in terms of your goals and dreams of playing in the NBA. Just because you’re playing in the Summer League doesn’t mean you’ll actually be on the team next year. … So you’ve just gotta go ahead, work hard every single day,” Lyles said. “All you can do is play team basketball. I know everybody’s out here trying to get a contract, but the biggest thing is just showing you can do what the coaches ask.”

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