Trey Lyles: Taking a Closer Look at Spurs’ New Starting Power Forward

After Marcus Morris reneged, the San Antonio Spurs were not only mad that they traded away Davis Bertans for nothing, they were left with a bag of money to spend on the picked-over carcass that was the free agent market. The music had long since stopped in the real-life version of musical chairs and every free agent of note had found a new team.

The Spurs scanned the available free agent list and went with a reclamation project named Trey Lyles. Looking at the contract he signed with San Antonio, it wasn’t even clear if the Spurs wanted him or just wanted a tradable asset, as his contract is front-loaded in a way to maximize its value in a future trade.

When training camp started, Lyles wasn’t present. He was at home coughing in bed while battling a bout with pneumonia.

But a funny thing happened on the way to what appeared to be an eventual unceremonious trade. After missing the first two preseason games due to illness, Lyles was inserted into the starting lineup in his first game back. He remained in the starting lineup in the two subsequent preseason games and was still a starter in the regular season opener.

Even more surprising than Lyles going from scrap heap signing to the starting lineup is the fact that he was in the closing lineup. It usually takes a while for Pop to trust role players enough to close out games. For Lyles, it didn’t take any time at all. And, there he was, scoring the game-tying basket in the fourth quarter to help propel the Spurs to a come-from-behind victory.

How Trey Lyles Ended Up on the Scrap Heap

Lyles has a reputation around the league as a guy who is averse to hard work and who possesses a flighty attitude. That rep dates back to his high school days in Indianapolis when he decommitted from Indiana to go to Kentucky. 

Entering Kentucky, ESPN had Lyles rated as the sixth best player in his class, ahead of Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker and D’Angelo Russell. During his freshman year, Lyles mostly underwhelmed,  averaging 8.7 points and 5.2 rebounds in 24 minutes per game. While obviously talented, he got pushed around in the paint. Kentucky head coach John Calipari ended up playing him at small forward so he could spend more time on the perimeter. Lyles declared for the draft after that middling season.

Heading into the 2015 NBA Draft, scouts had a difficult time knowing what to make of him. Though Lyles was talented, he wasn’t quick enough to translate to the small forward position as a pro. He was young (19) and measured well at the combine (6-foot-9 without shoes, 241 pounds and a 7-foot-1.5 wingspan) so scouts started projecting him as someone who could toughen up and eventually play as a stretch four. But considering he hit only 4-of-29 three-point attempts at Kentucky, it took a lot of imagination to picture him becoming a solid NBA player.

The Utah Jazz decided to roll the dice on him with the 12th pick in the draft. In his rookie season, Lyles actually looked like a great selection. He played in 80 games, starting 33, for an overachieving Jazz team that went 46-36. He averaged 6.1 points and 3.7 rebounds in 17.3 minutes per game. Most notably, he shot 38.3% from three-point land. Lyles legitimately looked liked a building block for the Jazz.

But then a catastrophic sophomore season derailed Lyles’ Utah career. He shot 31.9% on threes and a horrific 40% on two-pointers, while starting only four games. After that season, the Jazz traded him to the Denver Nuggets. In his first season with the Nuggets, Lyles seemed to pick up where his rookie season left off. That season, he set career-highs in points per game (9.9), rebounds (4.8) and minutes (19.1). His shooting percentages (38.1% on threes, 56.3% on twos) completely recovered.

But, again, Lyles had a disastrous second season. His shooting regressed (25.5% on threes, 52.9% on twos) and his scoring and rebounding rates dipped. By the end of the season, he was the Denver’s 11th man. In the first round series between the Spurs and Nuggets, Lyles played a total of six minutes, in which he went without a point or rebound.

On the court, Lyles had volatile ups and downs over his first four seasons in the league. Off the court, he added to his reputation by whining on a podcast about Quin Snyder, citing his dissatisfaction that the Jazz head coach held practices too often and sometimes those practices would, gasp, last three hours.

How Trey Lyles Landed on the Spurs

Lyles path to the Spurs was quite the circuitous route:

1. Marcus Morris turns down a $41 million deal with the Los Angeles Clippers because he thought he could get more money.

2. With other options dried up, the Spurs tell Morris they can offer a two-year, $20 million deal. If he agreed to those terms, San Antonio would need to make a trade to create the necessary financial flexibility. Morris agrees and the Spurs make the Bertans trade.

3. Lyles, who was a restricted free agent to begin the summer, was getting no interest. To help him out (and because they didn’t want him back, anyways), the Nuggets decided to rescind their qualifying offer, which made Lyles an unrestricted free agent. 

4. Reggie Bullock’s two-year, $21 million deal with the New York Knicks is voided after he failed a physical due to a herniated disc in his neck. The Knicks suddenly had more money to spend in free agency and contacted Morris before he had officially signed his deal with the Spurs. Did New York know about Morris’ commitment to San Antonio? Yes, but they were glad to ruin the Spurs’ plans because they were mad at the Spurs for allegedly tampering with Kristaps Porzingis.

5. With Morris gone and the Bertans trade completed, the Spurs had money to spend. Lyles was one of the few free agents on the market holding out for a contract above the minimum salary — and he was literally the only above-minimum free agent who could conceivably play the stretch forward position the Spurs had wanted Morris to fill. 

Lyles to the Spurs wasn’t exactly a match made in heaven. It was more of a marriage of convenience for both sides. Lyles was the only notable free agent left who had the skills the Spurs wanted and the Spurs were standing there with money they would have lost if they didn’t spend it. You may kiss the bride.

What We Know About Trey Lyles’ Fit on the Spurs So Far

Maybe it’s just the honeymoon stage but, so far, Lyles has completely transformed his style of play. With the Jazz and Nuggets, he was mostly a player who looked for his own shot and didn’t care much for the other phases of the game. With the Spurs, in the small sample size we’ve witnessed, it’s actually been the opposite.

Last year, Lyles averaged 15.9 field goal attempts per 36 minutes with the Nuggets. To put that number in perspective, last season Rudy Gay — who isn’t known for his bashfulness when it comes to shooting — averaged 14.6 field goal attempts per 36 minutes. Lyles also shot considerably more often than Marco Belinelli (13.7) or Patty Mills (12.5).

During his short time in San Antonio, Lyles has been extremely judicious about attempting shots. In the preseason, he attempted 5.1 field goals per 36 minutes. In the season opener, Lyles shot four times in 24 minutes.

With less time spent hunting down shots, Lyles looks stronger on the glasser than he did at his previous stops and is also showing more dedication on the defensive end. That talent that he has flashed since his high school days has been most evident when he’s handling the ball out on the perimeter and making advanced reads that most bigs can’t make.

What to Expect From Trey Lyles the Rest of the Season

It’s way too early to make any conclusions but what Lyles has going for him is that, in theory, he brings to the table what the Spurs need. In a starting lineup extremely light on shooting, it’d be great if the Spurs can start a power forward who can space the court with shooting and perimeter skill (someone like, say, Marcus Morris).

Reining in his shot-happy ways is a good start. From here, Lyles will need to eventually prove he can knock down three-pointers. On defense, he’ll need to prove he’s sturdy enough and committed enough to thrive in Pop’s system. There’s a lot of work to do for Lyles to permanently claim a spot in the starting lineup.

On Saturday night, the Spurs will face a small Wizards team that plays the ultra athletic Rui Hachimura at power forward, with good ol’ friend Davis Bertans backing him up. Due to matchups, we can confidently say Lyles will be in the starting lineup for the fifth straight game. It’ll be another chance for him to prove this marriage of convenience is built to last.