The Returners: Maxwell Lewis and Matthew Murrell
Examining two returners with NBA upside.
Over the last few years, we have seen several college returners make a huge jump into the first round, or even into the lottery, the following year. This has happened with upperclassmen like Cam Johnson, Grant Williams, Chris Duarte, Davion Mitchell, etc. This has also happened with players that had been thought of as potentially entering the draft a year prior, but went back to school and ended up improving their draft stock. Examples include Tyrese Haliburton, Keegan Murray, Bennedict Mathurin, Obi Toppin, James Bouknight, Corey Kispert, and more. While this returning class doesn’t seem as exciting as previous years, there are still several intriguing returners that could break out.
Maxwell Lewis (Pepperdine, Sophomore)
Listed at 6’7” and 195 pounds, Maxwell Lewis already has the physical tools we look for in a wing prospect. It’s not easy to find players with Lewis’ size and athleticism that can create events on the defensive end, put up a high volume of 3s and knock them down at a solid rate, and also flash the ability to create shots themselves.
Unfortunately, Lewis didn’t get to play as much as you’d like during his Freshman season. Lewis missed a total of 11 games on the year, missing the first six games while waiting for NCAA eligibility and missing the final five games after suffering a season-ending wrist injury. In addition to those missed games, Lewis only reached 25 minutes in a game in six of his 21 games, with the first time of reaching that minute total not coming until January 15th.
Even without playing his full Freshman season, Lewis was able to display his potential as a 6’7” shooter, shooting 36.3% (33-91) from 3. The total volume of 91 attempts isn’t that high, but considering the fact that he only played a total of 410 minutes in 21 games, he was actually putting up a good amount of 3s when he was on the floor, shooting just under 8.0 3s per 40 minutes. When looking through the Cerebro Sports Database, there are 13 verified games for Lewis pre-college from when he played with Arizona Compass and Dream Vision. In those 13 games, Lewis shot 42.9% (18-42) from 3.
When comparing Lewis’ numbers to others in the Cerebro Database, there are only three players that meet the following filters.
Height ≥ 6’7
Usage ≥ 30%
3PE (3 Point Efficiency) ≥ 75
DSI (Defensive Statistical Impact) ≥ 75
For those who are not familiar with our terms, please click here for our glossary with definitions.
Before moving on, I want to make it clear that you can see that there is a big drop off in numbers from Kevin Durant and Bol Bol to Lewis, but it’s still a unique list to be on. This query was used to show that it is not common to find someone at least Lewis’ size with that level of usage combined with the shooting and defensive numbers. Putting things into perspective, it actually makes it even crazier to see Durant and Bol on this list considering they have several inches on Lewis, while also having even better statistical numbers, and nobody comes close to those two. Taking it a step even further, Durant being able to do this over a full season while playing a heavy load of minutes is something that neither Bol nor Lewis did.
Going back to Lewis’ length and athleticism, he does a really good job getting his hands in the passing lanes for deflections and steals on the defensive end, with some of his explosive highlight dunks coming from him turning defense into offense.
According to Barttorvik, Lewis was the only Freshman in all of Division I with:
STL % ≥ 3
BLK % ≥ 3
3PM ≥ 30
Combine those stats with his athleticism and dunks, and you already have an intriguing young prospect.
In addition to Lewis’ physical tools, he’s also shown the ability to create shots for himself off-the-dribble, which is intriguing at his size. Being able to create the space he can with sidesteps and stepbacks, at his size, is something that stands out instantly.
While impressive and intriguing, it should be noted that Lewis can settle for stepbacks when he has a lane to the basket and will force up bad shots at times. Someone with his profile would ideally get to the basket more often than he does.
When looking at Lewis’ shot diet, 73% of his halfcourt shot attempts are jump shots with only 14.6% of his shot attempts around the basket, and that includes cuts, offensive rebounds, etc. This is an area for improvement and doing a better job attacking closeouts or not settling for as many stepbacks are two things that could help out.
While Lewis is able to create events on the defensive end, his defense still needs improvement. When defending on-ball on the perimeter, he gives up penetration too often, whether it’s in isolation or closing out.
His main problems defending the perimeter are with his technique and footwork. On the positive side, he isn’t slow when sliding his feet, and has shown flashes of moving his feet well with players to cut off drives. Cleaning up his technique/footwork should hopefully provide more consistency here, and would ideally help him foul less, as he averaged 4.3 fouls per 40 minutes. These foul numbers are a reason why his DSI (read more on DSI here) couldn’t get above 80, even though he had good steal and block percentages.
Speaking of consistency, what Lewis brings from game to game varies a good amount. There are times when he looks like a top-20 pick with his physical tools and athleticism, event creation on defense, and his flashes of shotmaking, but there are other times when he’s playing like he doesn’t have a plan. Seeing more consistency from him this upcoming season can make him a first-round prospect if he can clean a few things up as well, such as being quicker with his decisions on offense. There are times when Lewis missed a quick swing pass on the perimeter or hesitated on the catch which then resulted in losing the initial advantage.
While it isn’t a necessity for his NBA success, Lewis improving his handle is a path for him to reach his upside. He has a nice double crossover that is effective and helps him get to his spots, but besides that, he doesn’t have many other moves and can struggle to deal with pressure at times. For reference, the Gonzaga game on January 8 is a good example of how he can struggle against pressure. As mentioned earlier, a lot of Lewis’ self-creation comes from creating space on his stepbacks, but if he can combine the threat of his stepback with good handles, that should help him create even better looks for himself, and probably helps him get to the rim more often.
On the positive side, Lewis can still have success as an impactful NBA player without tightening up the handle if he can improve his decision-making a little on both ends. He has the size, length, and shooting potential to have an impact in a 3-D type of role. The ‘3-and-D’ label has become overused for lots of players that aren’t either great shooters, or great defenders, but Lewis improving on the defensive end instead of tightening up his handle, combined with his shooting, could fit him in that role.
Lewis might have some of the most intriguing flashes as a prospect in this upcoming cycle, but whether or not he can consistently have a positive impact on the game is something to keep an eye out for. If he brings more consistency this year, he could make that jump into the first round like we have seen in the past from players mentioned at the beginning of this piece.
Matthew Murrell (Ole Miss, Junior)
Matthew Murrell is someone who had recognition entering college as he was a highly touted recruit from IMG but had a disappointing Freshman season. When looking at his Sophomore season as a whole, nothing stands out too much, but that’s because he got off to a slow start to the season. Starting on January 1st throughout the rest of the season (19 games), Murrell averaged 15.2 PTS while shooting 41.4% from 3 on 5.8 attempts per game. That alone is worth keeping an eye on this upcoming season and would be great to see that level of play consistently throughout the whole year.
In addition to how Murrell shot from January 1st until the end of the season, there are a bunch of other numbers that back up how impressive of a shooter he is. According to Synergy, Murrell shot 45.9% (17-37) on ‘Off Screen Catch & Shoot’ 3s this year. While it’s not the largest sample size, having the ability to run hard off of screens and knock down shots at that rate is impressive. In this video below, you’ll see that Murrell is capable of knocking down shots coming off of screens to his right, or to his left, and will also fade to the corner when necessary, depending on how his defender is chasing him.
In my NBA Range Shooting Database, Murrell shot 35.87% (33-92) on NBA 3s last season.
The Cerebro Database has 33 verified games for Murrell pre-college, going all the way back to 2018, with the majority of those games being with Team Thad Young and IMG. In those 33 verified games, Murrell shot 38.8% (50-129) from 3.
And if we combined Murrell’s pre-college shooting numbers with his two seasons in college, he’d be shooting 37.6% (128-343) from 3.
Overall, it should be known that Murrell is an impressive shooter who is not limited to just hitting spot-up 3s.
In addition to his shooting, another sell for Murrell is his defense. As of now, Murrell is a good defender, but it’s an area I’d like to see improve and be even better this upcoming year because he has the ability to be a very good defender with his strength, movement ability, and understanding of team defense fundamentals. The first half of the video below is Murrell’s on-ball defense (with possessions defending TyTy Washington, Sahvir Wheeler, Quenton Jackson, Eric Gaines, and more) with the second half being on his off-ball defense.
The area that Murrell could improve on when defending the ball is his discipline. He tends to bite on jab steps, or crossovers, more than he needs to, and sometimes tries to anticipate the use of an incoming screen, which allows the ballhandler to reject the screen and have a lane to the basket. Going up against NBA-level athletes will only make it harder to recover in these instances. It doesn’t seem like icing the screen is part of their defensive coverage considering how the big is playing in those situations, but it is something to at least note without having inside knowledge of the team’s defensive game plan.
Moving back to the offensive side of the ball, Murrell is also a pretty good finisher given his size. According to Synergy, Murrell shot 64.6% (42-65) at the rim last season, which ranked in the 76th percentile and shot 62.3% (48-77) in the restricted area. His touch is solid, shooting 58.8% (40-68) on ‘touch shots’, which I described as ‘layups’, ‘hooks’, and ‘floaters/runners’ in my Ryan Kalkbrenner piece when talking about how dunks can skew numbers when trying to discuss ‘touch’.
While Murrell is an above-average athlete, he isn’t someone who has consistently beaten other guards off the dribble. That being said, he has a good first step and that has been able to help him get to the basket at times, and his strength against smaller guards is another advantage he has as well. There are times when he seems pretty quick with long strides after his first step, but it isn’t something that is shown often. Something that might be able to help with getting to the basket easier is improving his handle. This upcoming video will show Murrell’s vertical explosiveness as an athlete, but you can also see some problems with his handles in these clips as well.
Even if the burst doesn’t improve, adding some shiftiness to his handles might be enough to help him beat perimeter defenders more often. Also, it should be noted that when bigs are switched onto Murrell, he’s quick enough to get to the basket a majority of the time against them.
Listed at 6’4”, Murrell’s skillset isn’t the easiest translation to the NBA level because he’s more of a 3-D guard instead of being someone who has the size to defend wings or being a guard who is capable of running an offense with the ball in his hands. Being a 3-D guard mostly relies on being an elite, or close to an elite defender. At 6’4”, this brings up some tricky situations, and it’s similar to the type of prospect someone like Ty-Shon Alexander was, although he did improve his on-ball skills by the time he entered the draft. On the positive side, an example of a successful NBA player in the ‘3-D guard’ mold is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who has had a very successful career and was arguably the 3rd best player on the Lakers championship team.
Murrell has shown flashes of passing and on-ball shotmaking, and it would be nice to see him take another step forward with these skills this upcoming year.
While I’ve listed several areas of improvement for Murrell, the three main things I’m looking for with him next season, in order, are:
1) Can he play near-elite defense consistently?
2) How great is the shooting?
3) Did he improve his on-ball reps?
If Murrell is able to answer two of those questions in a positive fashion, he should be looked at as an intriguing prospect, even if he fits into an archetype that is tough to fill.
Zach Milner, @ZachMilner13 on Twitter