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Energetic Ira Lee ‘playing the best basketball’ of his Arizona career

arizona-wildcats-college-basketball-asu-sun-devils-recap-analysis-up-down Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Coleman has played five seasons of college basketball at three different schools, but he has never had a teammate who gets hyped after dunks the way Ira Lee does.

“This is the first guy I’ve played with that gets that excited.” Coleman said. “Sometimes I say, ‘Ira get back on defense’ and he’s like, ‘oh snap I gotta play defense.’”

Lee, sitting to Coleman’s left, chuckled as he nodded in agreement.

“I like to see McKale (Center) jump,” Lee said. “That’s the only reason why I do it. I’ve been doing it my whole career, so for me to bring that energy to my team and the fans, it’s beautiful.”

Lee’s motor has been the hallmark of his game during his brief career at Arizona, but the others parts are coming along of late as well. The sophomore forward scored a career-high 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting in the Arizona Wildcats’ win over Stanford on Sunday, continuing a recent hot streak.

Lee is averaging 8.8 points and 4.6 rebounds over his last five games while shooting an absurd 19 for 23 from the field, serving as a solid third big behind Chase Jeter and Ryan Luther.

“He knows how to use the offense to catch the ball and setting great screens, rolling, getting good position inside, holding his position,” UA coach Sean Miller said after the win vs. Stanford. “If you think about how he scored tonight, we got him the ball inside a lot. And he has a better feel for how that works now than maybe he would have two months ago.”

Lee has also cut down on his turnovers since the start of conference play. He has committed 12 in 15 Pac-12 games after committing 20 in 12 non-conference games.

Part of that is because Lee is committing fewer silly fouls these days. He is averaging 5.3 fouls per 40 minutes in conference play after committing 6.2 per 40 minutes in non-conference play, when he was prone to being whistled for illegal screens, charges and over-the-back fouls.

But Lee said he has learned how to slow himself down and “play within the game.”

“Just going back to what Coach always says: honoring the process, working hard every day, being consistent, going 110 percent each and every day and now I’m just seeing the results pay off,” he said. “It’s great, especially with a group of guys like this. They’ve encouraged me through my lows and the highs, so it feels great.”

Coleman, continuing to encourage his teammate, declared that Lee is “playing the best basketball of his career.”

“This is my guy,” Coleman said. “We meet a lot and I’ve seen him grow, I’ve seen him honor the process, I’ve seen him go hard every day, take extra shots after practice. I’m just proud of this guy to my left. He’s a really good player.”

Perhaps the next stage in Lee’s development is on defense. Yes, he leads the Wildcats in blocks and box plus-minus, but he has one noticeable flaw on that end of the court.

“Now he has to run back on defense,” Miller quipped. “I would say nobody has ever celebrated every made field goal more than Ira. That’s a point between him and I. We want him to be enthusiastic but you have to expect to make the jump hook and run back. But I think all of us, his teammates included, appreciate his smile, appreciate his enthusiasm, his love for the game. He wants to do well, he wants to win. It’s nice to see him be rewarded for his work.”