Keith Dambrot has never been shy about his praise of Duquesne sophomore point guard Mike Lewis II.
Shortly after being hired, Dambrot assured the St. Louis product he would be the centerpiece behind the program’s rebuild. That promise steered Lewis II away from jumping ship to a Power 5 team. Nonetheless, Dambrot is not afraid to criticize his best player, either, especially when the moment calls for it.
“I was on him especially hard today, so if he answered the questions well today, then he handled it pretty well,” Dambrot said Monday at the team’s Media Day.
Lewis, who lead the team in scoring last year (14.1) and is just the fourth Duquesne freshman to ever do so, took the teachable moment in stride.
“It doesn’t matter who are, he’s going to yell at you if you mess up every time,” Lewis II said of Dambrot’s coaching.
Lewis II displayed an uncanny ability to score the basketball last year and will shoulder an even bigger responsibility this season. No freshman in the Atlantic 10 averaged more points per game, and he scored 20 or more points in seven of the Dukes’ final 11 games, earning All-Rookie Team honors. He set Duquesne freshman records for threes made (63) and free throw percentage (.832).
Dambrot said the only player he has ever coached that averaged more points than Lewis II as a freshman was a guy named LeBron James and that was at the high school level.
“I’ve never had a guy score 14 points a game as a freshman,” Dambrot said. “Never in all my career. Maybe LeBron as a freshman in high school but that’s about it…so to score that many means he’s [Lewis II] pretty good at what he does.”
The Dukes must replace more than 50 percent of their scoring from a season ago, and Lewis II and junior Tarin Smith are the only returning starters. With five transfers sitting out this season and several new faces in place, as those two go, the Dukes go.
Lewis II is keenly aware of his role not only as a scorer but also a leader for the rest of his teammates. Accepting criticism demonstrates his willingness to grow as a basketball player and the relationship that is budding between coach and player.
“If he gets sensitive, and doesn’t like the criticism, then he won’t progress to the level that he should,” Dambrot said.
What that level is should excite Duquesne fans, as Dambrot went as far as suggesting a NBA caliber player, equating the team’s success to Lewis II “getting paid.” In order for the Dukes to turn around the program, Dambrot must mold his star guard into a complete player and one of the Atlantic 10’s best.
“Now my job is to improve his passing ability, creating shots for others, making him a good on-the-ball defender, making him a good off-the-ball defender,” Dambrot said. “Those are the things I have to do with him.”
Despite his successful freshman campaign, opposing coaches voted Lewis II just a third-team preseason all-conference selection, and the Dukes as a team were picked to finish last in the A-10 race.
“It hurt a little bit, but such is life,” Lewis II said of being named to the third team. “I’m not one to dwell on past things so it is what it is. Like I said, we just have to come out and prove people wrong.”
Lewis II has not set any personal goals for the upcoming season but remains focused on the bigger picture. The sour taste from last year’s 10-22 record and talk of this season being a transition year are the only motivation he needs.
“We don’t look at this year like a rebuilding year,” Lewis said. “We practice hard everyday, and we want to win.”