Remember how devastated Rashard Lewis looked on draft day in 1998? The slender 18-year-old from Elsik High in Alief, Texas, sat among the top prospects in the greenroom, shifting uncomfortably in his seat as one player after another walked out the door to receive an NBA team cap from commissioner David Stern. Before long Lewis was alone in that room, weeping, his dream of becoming a first-round pick shattered.
Two years later Lewis, a 6'10" small forward who was taken 32nd by the SuperSonics, is about to become a very wealthy young man. Seattle may have been bounced in the first round by the Jazz this month, but not before Lewis gave Utah a scare with his timely baskets and uncanny poise. With an average of 15.4 points per game, Lewis was the Sonics' second-leading scorer in the series; he also hit nine of 19 threes and averaged 6.2 rebounds. Seattle coach Paul Westphal predicts that if Lewis improves his ball handling and beefs up his 210-pound frame, he will pour in 20 to 25 points a night.
Unless the Sonics do a major overhaul to free up salary-cap room, which is not in their plans, they can offer Lewis, a restricted free agent, only $3.9 million a year. At present just three teams—the Magic, the Bulls and the Clippers—have the cap space to offer more, but Seattle is also nervous about the Raptors, who are expected to lose their own wunderkind small forward, Tracy McGrady, and will be looking for a replacement. Says Sonics president Wally Walker, "It's safe to say Rashard is our top priority."
Lewis barely played as a rookie and logged only 19.2 minutes a game this season as Seattle tried to build his confidence. "Rashard would get to where, if he missed a couple of shots, he'd lose his confidence and stop shooting," says assistant Bob Weiss.
But kind words from Kings forward Chris Webber, Toronto forward Charles Oakley and Pacers coach Larry Bird persuaded him that he'd gained the respect he'd hungered for ever since he chose to turn pro. "By the time the playoffs came around, my confidence level was pretty high," Lewis says. "I got a lot of feedback after the [Jazz series] too, and everyone said: 'You're a totally different player from last year. You look like you belong now.' "
Lewis says he is grateful to the Sonics, who in 1998 gave him a guaranteed contract (worth $687,500 over two years) even though they didn't have to. One scenario he's considering is re-signing with Seattle for one season, which would put him in position to earn the maximum from the Sonics as a Larry Bird free agent in the summer of 2001.
"Right now I'm leaving all my options open," says Lewis. "My agents [the Poston brothers, Carl and Kevin] tell me all sorts of teams are interested, even teams over the cap. It feels good. That night when I was sitting all alone in the greenroom was pretty tough. But when my name was finally called, I said, 'Time to go to work.' "
Now the only question is where he'll be working.