Recently I sat down with VCU’s JeQuan Lewis to talk about basketball. His dramatic improvement over VCU’s last 10 games has coincided with the Rams current 10 game winning streak and subsequent 7-0 start in conference play. VCU travels to Davidson on Friday night so that winning streak will certainly be tested in what has all of the makings of a fantastic A10 match-up.
JeQuan and I talked for a while about where he has come from and the various obstacles he has overcome just to get to this point in his life; his game and how he has improved his play this season; his various coaches and the significant impact they’ve had on him. An interview turned into a conversation and two guys who just happen to love basketball and happen to think it is the greatest game in the world enjoyed breaking things down for a while.
Let’s start from where it all began. Tell me about growing up in Dickson, Tennessee, a small town with a population of 15,000.
“There wasn’t much to do. When I was a kid we used to go skating at this place called Magic Woods. Most of us, we just played sports. Basketball, football, baseball; we were always busy playing ball of some sort. We’d be at the park playing, you know. Not a lot to do.”
Who was the guy you looked up to as far as athletes go who you wanted to be when you were a kid?
“At the time of me being a kid, one of my favorite players was Tracy McGrady. I used to have all of his shoes. He was the guy I wanted to be like.”
If I go on MaxPreps or 247 Sports, I can see some JeQuan Lewis football stats. It looked like you had some serious football people checking you out. Did you ever get to the point where you thought football might be the move?
“Football was my main sport. It was the first sport I started playing like on an actual team. I always played ball at the park but football was my first real team sport. It was one of my hardest decisions in my senior year to walk away from it.
I would guess it would be tough to walk away from when you were getting some serious looks from big time football schools.
“It was tough but basketball just kind of stole my heart. When I started playing AAU I started moving to basketball more because I was doing it year long. I’d even go to the REC center in the projects and play with my uncles. I was just ballin’ and basketball just kind of took over.”
Who you like in the Super Bowl?
Are you a Carolina fan since you are from down that way?
“Nah, just more of a Cam Newton fan. I like him ever since he was at Auburn. He’s unreal.”
Little side note here, you mad that Drake took “Hotline Bling” from you four years after you were rocking this? You want me to try and get you some royalties or something?
“Hahaha! That was my Senior year at the Homecoming Parade. We were all in the gym and separated by Freshman, Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors and you know with the Senior Class we were all stoked so I found this jumpsuit in my closet and tried to spice it up a little bit. One of the best photographers in Dickson County, Marty Allison, I see him over in the corner pointing at me; I had to strike a pose for him real quick.”
Yea, I saw this the other day and I knew I had to ask you about it.
“Haha. Yea, it’s a classic.”
Going from a town of 15,000 people to Richmond, VA is a heck of a change. How difficult was that transition for you?
“It was tough; it was really tough. I had never been away from my Mom, this far, along with my little brothers but it was something I knew I needed to do.”
Did you ever come close to packing it in and leaving?
“During the 1st summer was rough. My AAU coach, who is my mentor and like a father figure to me: Mark Miller, he was on me every single day saying, “Just open up to your teammates and get out of your room and do more.” If I wasn’t in the gym I was in my room with the door shut and I wasn’t associating with anybody. But once I got past the summer, I started building relationships with my teammates off the court and it kind of made things easier. I started meeting their friends and making friends of my own. And then once basketball season started, it was rocking.”
When you came to VCU you had guys like Briante Weber, Rob Brandenburg, Tre Graham, and Darius Theus leading the program. What did you get from them in terms of basketball advice and just life advice in general that you still use today?
“With basketball stuff; leadership and enthusiasm. I got enthusiasm from Bri. You know in high school I was very enthusiastic; I was into it but I always had the killer instinct and never changed my facial expression which was something my AAU coach kind of taught me. Once I was here, I saw Bri and I fed off of that. Getting the crowd going and then that gets us going; I kind of just opened up more with that. My personality is one where I like to have fun; I’m always joking around. Basically, I’m a big kid to be honest and I like to show it on the court just to loosen up some tension and nerves.”
Lets talk about the beginning of last season. You suffered a major concussion in the opener against Tennessee. As someone who has suffered multiple concussions, I know how brutal they can be. Do you even remember anything from that night? How long did it take you to feel “right” again? There are plenty of people who will tell you I’m still not “right” but that is a different conversation for a different time.
“I was more mad than anything because I wanted to play against Tennessee so badly. I was so excited; I had people back home watching and it was like, this is the time and then that happened. At the time, all I remember is going up for the rebound and then I just woke up in the back locker room. I was like yo, what are we doing, I thought we were playing tonight. I’m in my uniform ready to go. When I was in the back I can literally tell you everything that happened. I just got a rebound! I was getting mad because I wanted to go back out and play. They let me go back out on the court but of course they couldn’t let me play. I went to the bench and was just sitting there but I was sitting next to the Tennessee band and they started rocking and then it hit me late. I had to go back into the back because I had a bad headache. But the next day I felt completely fine. It’s a blessing because it is scary. When I went back and watched the film, I literally almost teared up. I was nervous. It kind of scared me because I felt like I was OK but the way everybody was talking was like I wasn’t.”
Last season you guys were rolling in the conference, 7-0, and then Briante Weber blows out his knee and is lost for the season. No one was impacted more directly by this than you. Explain what it was like for you to go from a guy coming off the bench to THE guy replacing one of the most beloved Rams in school history.
“It was hard. You know Bri was in my corner a lot cause I fed off of him. When I came off the bench, I knew I was coming in for him and I’d see how he was getting the game going. I’m seeing him and watching him do what he does and I’m trying to do the same thing just to get into the flow. Once he went out, it was like I have to start to flow myself and push the tempo myself. It was different but I had been prepared for it.”
Obviously the team had to make some significant adjustments after Bri got hurt and there were some tough losses and you guys go 5-5 to end the regular season. You get to the A10 tournament as the 5th seed and win 4 games in 4 days to get the Championship. How did you guys come together to make that happen? What was your mindset heading into the tournament?
“When Bri went out it was so emotional and physically draining for us as a team cause we were like, “What are we going to do?” because we were hurting for him. We all knew how much he loved ball. Each game we lost it felt like it was a buzzer-beater or like a last second shot and it was just hurting us. Before the A10 Tournament, we just all came together as a team with no coaches or nothing and we just started talking. We were like, we can literally win out. We can do this. Four in a row. Nobody believes in us anyway; our mentality has always been that we are the underdogs. Once we got into the tournament, our mentality was like it was just us against everybody else so it was kind of like vengeance .”
Yea, I get that. That has always kind of been VCU’s mindset, the chip on the shoulder and the “we will show you what we can do” mentality.
“I feel like we play better with a chip on our shoulder.”
Watching you and Mo Alie-Cox play together now; it seems like you guys have great chemistry, did he have any conversations with you prior to the season about what he sort of expected from you this year? Or did that chemistry just come from you guys playing together or just being close friends? I say that because of your rhythm lately running the pick and roll and getting great looks off of it.
“Mo is actually my roommate so we spend a lot of time together off the court. We play around more. We joke around more. But on the court, Mo is such a big guy that when I come off the ball screen it just opens up and I get so open it’s like I don’t even know what to do cause I’m so open. In practice it’s about repetition. Coach Wade likes to run the ball screen motion and growing up, that’s what I’ve learned to do; work off of the screen. That’s one of my strengths and so as I started being more aggressive, it becomes pick and choose. The point guard or whoever is guarding me is going to get knocked out of the play so now it is two on one and you are either going to stop me or roll to Mo but which one? It is literally pick your poison because either I’m going to score or Mo’s going to score”.
Here is an example of what JeQuan was referring to. We had been talking about the St. Joe’s game in particular as it applied to the pick and roll.
Another player with whom you seem to have chemistry is Melvin Johnson. Talk about your relationship and what you guys have done to become so effective playing together.
“Mel and I have built a better relationship this year. We know as we are going our team is going.”
How did you and Mel build a better relationship?
“It was something we realized we had to do. Me being a point guard, I have to have relationships with everybody but me and Mel never really had that “big brother/little brother” relationship because I was always with Bri. Now this year Bri is gone so I’m the guy at the point and Mel is the Senior Leader. We’ve been clicking and at practice he’s been like, “J-Lew, I need you to shoot the ball, I need you to shoot the ball.” I know I can score the ball. Coming out of high school I was a scorer, but I’m just trying to do both. Me scoring opens up everybody else and then once they start fanning out on everybody else, it opens things up for me to score.
What have you learned about Mel now that you didn’t know before?
“I feel like we are really just the same. We come from a similar background; both single parent families and we both have single Moms. We didn’t really have a lot growing up and we are both chasing the same dream. We both love winning. When you have a mentality like that, it just helps. Mel is a great vocal leader. He used to be a quiet guy but he has really stepped up this year and it has taken a load off of my shoulders to be honest. When he’s going, it gets me going, it gets all of us going and we are clicking right now.”
I’m going to give you a split of your season so far. 1st 10 games vs. the last 10 games:
1st 10 games: 43 ast, 34 turnovers, 9.1 ppg, Highest Offensive Efficiency Rating: 130
2nd 10 games: 56 ast, 26 turnovers, 12.5 ppg, Highest Offensive Efficiency Rating: 182
What has been the difference here? Film? Practice? Diet? Sleep? Hotline Bling? Why is everything clicking for you right now?
“It ‘s just been being optimistic about everything. I talk to my AAU coach a lot and he keeps me humble; he keeps me going and he gives me advice every single day. I watch film every single day with coach Wes (Wes Long). In the beginning of the year I was trying to do something outside of what I really know how to do. I was trying to be more of a passer and create shots for everybody else and kind of forced things just to see how things would happen. Early on in the season, teams wouldn’t even guard me because when I was going in they knew I was going to pass it. I was still trying to find those plays and get guys their points; trying to be “that point guard.” It was me trying to figure out how the season was going to go. How I was going to play; what can I do here that I can do differently there? So I sit down and talk to coach and I’m like, “I’m not this person. I gotta just play my game and just hoop.” I have to have an aggressive mentality and a scorer’s mentality which has opened up my assists. I feel if I push the tempo and drive hard and look to score early on, it is just going to open it up for my teammates.”
Below: Lewis uses his great quickness to draw the defense and find and teammate Jordan Burgess open for a 3-point shot.
Sunday during the game against St. Bonaventure I wrote that there isn’t another player in the country faster than you with the ball in his hands. When you first came to VCU, it seemed like you only played at one speed and it got you in trouble sometimes. Now it seems like you can control the game tempo instead of getting lost in it. How did you improve that aspect of your game?
“I know I’m fast but when I get the ball in my hands it’s like I hit another level and I just go. If you don’t stop me, I’m going as far as you let me. As far as controlling my speed and being better with it; a lot of that comes from watching film. Seeing how teams got back in transition and the spots they ran to and the spots that I can get. Every team has a weak spot. A lot if it was just me working on my ball handling in tight spaces. When I get down into the paint and everybody is collapsing on me, I can dribble it out and find my other teammates on the perimeter. I tell them, “Yo, when I get the ball, just run with me.” Cause I need two in the corner and one trailing. It is tough to defend when you have Melvin Johnson sprinting to one corner and Korey Billbury sprinting to another corner and Mo Alie-Cox setting a block screen at the top just in case I want to drag it and you got Mike Gilmore who is a knock down big ready. It is kind of hard to guard in transition and when we do that I feel that we are a better team.”
Below: JeQuan Lewis shows great control running the break and takes what the defense gives him.
Let’s talk about Korey Billbury real quick. He was a late addition to your team this season and has been a huge part of your success. What can you tell me about Korey as a player and person and what he’s meant to this team?
“When he got I here I didn’t even really know what position he played. Coach had him everywhere. During the summer he worked out with the point guards but then when the season started he moved to the 2 and the 3. Korey is very similar to Jordan Burgess. He is just a bully. He is strong and physical and he wants contact. We call it “bullyball” with him and Jordan cause when they get the ball it is “bullyball.” They love the contact and just play physical and we let them. Korey is shooting the ball really well and early on he was like, “Nah, I don’t shoot 3’s. I get into the paint. I’m a slasher.” and I was like, “No bro, at VCU we shoot 3’s and a lot of them and you gonna like it too!” He’s put a lot of time in the gym getting up extra shots and they’ve been going in for him.”
Here is a quote I want to read to you from Coach Smart from the beginning of last season:
“JeQuan could take a monstrous leap if he decides he wants to control his response and coachability on a daily and every-play basis, or he could take a minimal step forward if he approaches it how he did as a freshman. He’s taken leaps and bounds personally, but carrying that over to the game, particularly during tense or adverse moments, that’s his challenge.”
Looking at yourself today and the way you have been playing as of late, what finally clicked for you to be able to take those steps and meet that challenge? You’ve been in some tight spots against St. Joe’s, Richmond, and Bona recently. What has been the difference for you?
“My AAU Coach, Mark Miller, we talk on a daily basis and he gave me the word optimistic and we broke it down and I was soaking it in. I was like, “I can be that guy.” If we are down 10 with 2 minutes left, if you are optimistic about then you are going to think that you can still win that game. If you have the mindset that everything is going to be OK, then there is no reason to get tight about it. We got down 9 against St. Bonnies here at home and everybody is getting a little tight; the pressure in the huddle is getting a little tight and I was like, “We just got to loosen up. Be optimistic. We’re good. I’m in a good spot. Ya’ll are in a good spot. We’re good. We’re at home. We just got to go on a run.” Basketball is a game full of runs. Being optimistic, you realize that not everything is going to go your way but you are able to to move on. It is how you react instead of soaking in the negative and beating yourself down about it. The speed I play and how aggressive I am, I’m going to have a turnover or two a game which I understand. But being optimistic, I can’t be sulking about that. Early on I used to get so frustrated by that and I’d be like, “Dang, why did I turn that ball over!” and then I’d come down and make another turnover and then I’d make another turnover and now I’m out of it mentally. But being optimistic; I’m good. I’m playing how I want to play and how I need to play and I’m doing whatever it takes to win.”
Coach Wade recruited you out of high school. Obviously you guys know each other pretty well. Coach Wade and Smart are similar in a lot of ways but what’s been the biggest difference this season with him leading you guys?
“The thing about Coach Wade is like you said, he recruited me. He was on me my senior year, talked to me like twice a week. And when I first got to VCU he got the job at UTC and I was like, “I don’t want to be here anymore. He’s my guy.” but he still kept in contact with me. Our relationship is bittersweet because I feel like he’s been there and been coaching me since my freshman year. We’ve always had a close relationship. Kind of like Coach Smart because he always wants a close relationship with his players. Coach Smart is the type that will dog you out and yell at you at practice but you know he still loves you. Coach Wade is the same exact way. He is gonna dog you, yell, and still love you but he is not going to allow it. Let’s say somebody does something stupid in practice and they want to get kicked out; Coach Smart wouldn’t mind us getting kicked out and then being brought back. Coach Wade is like, “No, let him go. He’s done for the day.” Coach Wade is trying to prove a point and make us grow as men. He’s holding us accountable to everything; he’s holding us accountable for each other and he just wants us to be men. He’s getting us prepared for the real world outside of basketball. That’s big time with Coach Wade. I’m starting to realize that now. Early on I didn’t like the new rules he had but now I see it and it is paying off. You need it.”
Let’s talk about your game. Where do you see areas where you can improve?
“I want to get my hands on the ball more on defense. I feel like I’m playing good defense by staying in front without fouling but I feel like me getting deflections like we did in the past; when we were really rolling with “HAVOC,” it will kind of slow the game down for the younger guys. Kind of like what Doug Brooks does in that he is flying around, getting steals, and getting deflections. I feel like when we all get on that same page, the we are good. I feel like if I do it then people are gonna start saying, “Dang, if JeQuan can do it then we all can do it.”
On your team, who is the guy that people are going to be talking about this time next year but they don’t know about him yet?
“Samir Doughty is unbelievable on offense. The stuff he does around the basket; it is similar to Johnny (Williams) in the way he finishes around the basket. He is a good player. Gerron Scissum is one of the hardest workers I’ve seen. He’s in the gym every single day working on ball handling and shooting. When he was recruited he was recruited as a big man but now he is a guard. He’s been putting in the work. He’s getting better. Within the next two years I feel like Gerron is going to have a breakout season
What do you love most about basketball?
“I just feel like when that ball is in my hands, nothing else matters. I can have the worst day of my life and go into the gym and just shoot my pain away. Even when I had a bad day at school I’d come home and even if I didn’t have a basketball goal, I’d start dribbling on gravel. Just something about hearing the ball bounce just puts me in my own world. I feel like I can’t go a day without it.”
JeQuan Lewis is an easy guy to root for. He loves his school, teammates, and the game that has provided him with some tremendous opportunities. While talking with JeQuan, I was struck by his self-reflection and evaluation. He also realizes his shortcomings as a player and a person and is putting in the work to improve as a player and a young man. I don’t think he would have been able to have been so honest with himself at this time last season. The gratitude and reverence with which he refers to his mentors comes across as completely genuine.
A rough beginning to this season was the result of Lewis trying to do too much and not trusting himself or his game. The middle portion of this season has seen him skyrocket to a possible first-team Atlantic 10 Conference candidate. Lewis has been crucial to VCU getting tough road wins at Saint Joseph’s and Richmond. His steady play and timely scoring on Sunday led the Rams to a victory over Saint Bonaventure that doesn’t happen if Lewis is anything short of sensational. How the final 11 games work out for Lewis will be extremely interesting to follow because as Coach Wade has said before, “As he(Lewis) goes; we go.” If JeQuan Lewis can continue his recent level of play, VCU will be going to a place it is very familiar with; the NCAA Tournament.