EDINBURG — Sitting out three full months with an Achilles injury last season and playing only sparingly when healthy, guard Julien Lewis had a quiet first year with the RGV Vipers.
Still, Lewis said his mentality never wavered. That remains true for the 2017-18 season, even as he’s taken on a much more prominent position with the team. Entering a matchup with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the State Farm Arena in Hidalgo, Lewis has appeared in 35 of the Vipers’ 42 games, starting 20 of them.
“I go out there and take on the challenge,” Lewis said. “Whatever role coach gives me, I’m going to go out there and do it to the best of my abilities.”
Lewis is averaging 7.9 points and 2.6 rebounds in 17.8 minutes per game this season — all significant jumps from the 4.6 points, 1.8 rebounds and 13.7 minutes per game he averaged in just 14 appearances last year.
His 3-point shooting percentage is down slightly, from 35.0 percent last season to 31.7 percent this season, but his shooting from the field is greatly improved. Lewis has hit 47.4 percent of his shots in 2017-18 compared to 36.7 percent last year.
“A lot more maturity. I’m more focused,” Lewis said. “Not saying I wasn’t focused last year, but just getting into the league and understanding new things. … I’ve been learning and listening.”
Two-way guard Monte Morris was recalled from RGV to the Denver Nuggets on Monday, and Vipers coach Matt Brase said two-way guard Markel Brown will be out indefinitely after suffering an ankle injury during Friday’s loss to the Austin Spurs. The two absences mean Lewis, nicknamed “Juice,” could play an even more prominent role Tuesday.
“Juice has been good. He’s kind of been our mainstay in terms of he’s a G League guy who has started a lot of games for us. We like his defensive energy,” Brase said. “If they have a talented wing, he guards the wing. If they have a point guard, he’ll guard the point guard. He has some versatility on the defensive end.”
Lewis is one of only two players, along with Chris Walker, to play for the Vipers on G League contracts both this season and last.
Walker praised Lewis for getting steals and taking charges in recent weeks.
“He’s making things happen for us,” Walker said. “I told him myself, ‘Man, you’re looking good. You can get a call-up here soon.’ I told him to just keep his head up and keep playing. Anything is possible.”
Walker added that Lewis is a positive influence in the locker room, bringing levity to the squad. Lewis said he tries to take a leadership role by motivating his teammates and keeping them calm during practice.
Brase said Lewis is a naturally quiet person who leads because of the effort he gives each day.
“You love having a guy like him,” Brase said. “He’s not a rah-rah guy. He doesn’t get on guys, but he’s constant in his approach. You know what you can expect from him every single night.”
Lewis played collegiately at Texas from 2011-13 before transferring to Fresno State for the 2014-16 seasons. He never ranked better than third on his team in scoring, averaging just 8.7 points per game while coming off the bench as a senior.
Despite the lack of elite production, Lewis received a call from the Rockets after his college career was completed about the opportunity to try out. Now, he’s looking to rise to the highest level of the organization.
“To the league — to the NBA,” Lewis said. “That’s what I want to do: go to the NBA and work as hard as I can to stay there.”