The rise of mid-major prospects: Pepperdine's Maxwell Lewis carving his own path to the NBA

CHICAGO — This year's NBA Draft class is unique with not only the talent projected at the top, but also the variety of teams and programs represented in the lottery and first round. Top players no longer have to be one-and-done, blue-blood prospects to get NBA scouts' attention with more and more mid-major players getting noticed the past few draft cycles.

Last year's No. 12 overall pick, Jalen Williams, played three years at Santa Clara in the WCC and was very productive as a rookie for the Oklahoma City Thunder, receiving NBA All-Rookie first team honors.

"Talent is talent and that's something that you can't hide," Williams told reporters in March. "Go where you're wanted and needed. A lot of times people look at who make it out of big schools and lose track of who don't."

This year, many scouts and front-office executives were stopping through Malibu, California, to get eyes on Maxwell Lewis, the Pepperdine guard from Las Vegas. The 6-foot-7 sophomore's path to the NBA is different than any player in this draft class.

Lewis, a four-star high school recruit, had only five offers following his senior season before he committed to Pepperdine. His freshman season was met with challenges after he was sidelined with a wrist injury to close out the season. Lewis entered his sophomore season making a strong statement in his first game against Rice where he finished with 29 points (including five 3-pointers) and 5 assists. He went on to average 17.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists for the season, even with the Waves struggling to win games after finishing last in the WCC and going 9-22.

Pepperdine forward Maxwell Lewis dunks during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Gonzaga on Jan. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
Pepperdine forward Maxwell Lewis dunks during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Gonzaga on Jan. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

"It's tough going through a season like that," Lewis told Yahoo Sports. "Each game I just tried to get better and help my teammates get better and continue working."

Lewis declared for the NBA Draft shortly after the season and returned to Las Vegas to work out with trainer Joe Abunassar at Impact Basketball for the pre-draft process. Abunassar has been training NBA players for 25 years and has helped develop players like Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, Kawhi Leonard, Kristaps Porziņģis, Kyle Lowry and most recently, Tyrese Haliburton and Josh Green.

The most noticeable difference in Lewis is his size. He's put on 12 pounds of muscle since the end of the season, weighing around 210 pounds now, and is way more physical, particularly on the defensive end, during 3-on-3 and 2-on-2 drills. Lewis shoots the ball extremely well and has shown improvement in the way he creates space and separation when getting his shot off. Throughout the last month, Lewis has run through rigorous shooting drills with Green and San Antonio Spurs guard Blake Wesley and holds his own.

"Those guys are where I want to be, and it’s been great working out with them," Lewis said. "I just watch their footwork, the way they create separation and how they move off the ball. Just being able to work out with them is amazing and competing every day, I’m just getting better."

Lewis is a projected first-round pick and only one of two players from mid-major programs predicted to go in the first round (the other player is Taylor Hendricks out of Central Florida). Going into workouts with teams and into his rookie year, Lewis has a little bit of added motivation coming from a smaller college program.

"I’m definitely going in next year with something to prove," Lewis said. "I’m not going to lie, if I were a blue-blood recruit or player and I saw a guy from Pepperdine, I’d overlook him as well. I know how guys are thinking about me and I’ll have a chip on my shoulder to show I do belong."

The notion that there's a huge jump to the NBA outside of the Power 6 collegiate competition is dissolving with how well players like Williams played right away.

"I just want to show other players that are mid-major prospects that you don’t have to go to a big-time school to make it," Lewis added. "The sky’s the limit as long as you put in the work. Everyone’s path is different."

Lewis and several other NBA Draft prospects are currently in Chicago for the NBA Draft Combine and meetings with teams. The next five weeks leading up to the draft for Lewis will be filled with NBA team workouts and continuing to train at Impact alongside Green and Wesley as he prepares for the NBA Draft on June 22.

"I don't know what my emotions are going to be on draft night, it's going to be crazy," Lewis said. "I can't wait and that's when the real work begins."