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Arizona basketball: Ira Lee’s motor and versatility ‘really jumps out’

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The UA freshman can “check the box in a lot of areas”

Photo via @ensor on Twitter

Ira Lee isn’t built like a typical freshman.

At 6-foot-7 with a hulking frame, the Los Angeles native looked right at home wearing Khalil Tate’s football jersey during the Arizona Wildcats’ Red-Blue Game in October (more on that later).

Lee is officially listed at 235 pounds, but he estimated he’s added 20 pounds of muscle since arriving at Arizona in the summer.

Lee credited that to strength and conditioning coach Chris Rounds’ regimen and ... biology.

“It’s natural,” Lee said. “Genetics.”

A fair argument.

Lee’s father, Zeph, played running back and defensive back in the NFL. Lee can apparently credit his father for his best skill on the court, too.

“Ira has a motor that I think he got from his dad a long, long time ago,” head coach Sean Miller said Tuesday at his weekly press conference.

“Him and his dad have a special relationship. I think he gave Ira the love of sports, but I think what he really gave him was a work ethic. He pushed him in a great way to really go for it, work hard, invest, and good things will happen.

“Ira really brings that mindset to practice. Wherever he is as a player today, he’ll be better in the future.”

A former four-star recruit, Lee said Arizona has been everything he expected it to be.

After all, the Wildcats offered him when he was a freshman in high school and he visited the school several times before signing last November.

Lee also knew Arizona’s roster would be loaded and playing time wasn’t going to be easy to come by, but he didn’t mind.

“Metal sharpens metal,” he said. “We make each other better everyday. That’s also why we came here. We could have easily gone to places where we could average 20 (points) and start, but we wanted to be somewhere where we get better everyday and play with the best.”

Lee should fit well on UA’s Final Four-aspiring team.

Miller said Lee is a “fun player” to have because he doesn’t “hunt shots” or need to score to be effective.

“He can check the box in a lot of areas,” Miller said. “He rebounds at both ends, he defends. He can do a lot of different things. It’s his versatility, his motor, his work ethic, his athleticism that really jumps out. We see it everyday."

Lee said he is a natural 4, but has been used as a small-ball 5, too. He could probably play the 3 as well. Miller said it’s hard to gauge what position Lee plays because one, he’s versatile, and two, “the game has changed so much.”

“Ira is a wing player, a forward,” Miller said. “Again, don’t judge him on November of his freshman year. Continue to judge him by who he is moving forward. Three months from now, I think he’ll be a better overall basketball player than he is now, because he’s not one-dimensional.”

Lee doesn’t quite have the passing ability of Emmanuel Akot or the shooting ability of Brandon Randolph, but he’s getting there.

“He made a couple jumpshots — 17-footers — in the last game, which I was happy to see, because he can really do that and he’s worked hard at his shooting,” Miller said.

Still, Lee’s best route to crack Arizona’s rotation is by doing what he does best: defend, rebound, and provide energy. A lot of that.

“I think that’s the key with us this year,” Lee said, “we just gotta know our roles.”

About that Khalil Tate jersey....

Lee said it really didn’t hit him that he was an Arizona Wildcat until October when he took part in the Red-Blue Game.

He was a spectator for two Red-Blue Games as a recruit — a much different experience than actually participating in the scrimmage.

“It felt kind of weird being on the court instead of sitting in the stands,” he said.

Despite some trepidation, Lee quickly won over the UA faithful by wearing Tate’s jersey while throwing down a double clutch reverse during the dunk contest (and doing the Heisman pose afterward).

UA equipment manager Brian Brigger suggested to Lee that he wear Tate’s jersey because both Lee and Tate are from L.A.

“I said OK I’ll do it until I actually put the jersey on and realized how tight it was,” Lee said. “But I still went with it.”

He’s glad he did.

“It was pretty cool, I’m not going to lie,” Lee said. “I was like ‘are people actually going to go for this?’ But people loved it and thank God Khalil has been doing what he’s been doing on the field.”


Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire