LAS VEGAS — Ira Lee was in a good mood as he sat at his locker in T-Mobile Arena and reflected on his sophomore season.
“Sometimes you do gotta celebrate,” the forward said, never mind that USC had just handed Arizona a 13-point loss in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. “It definitely is something I’m proud of. I got a little better.”
Lee, who scored 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting against the Trojans, wound up averaging 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game as a sophomore, nearly doubling and tripling his season averages from his freshman year — and did so amid some difficult circumstances.
On Aug. 19, before the Wildcats held their first practice, Lee was cited for a “super extreme” DUI, which was just the latest of a string of unfortunate events for the LA native.
The day before the incident, Lee’s grandmother committed suicide, sending Lee deeper into desolation. Lee noted he was “already emotionally unstable and dealing with different personal issues” before her death.
“(Ira’s) been hit with more in the last three or four months than a lot of people are going to be hit with in their entire lifetime,” UA coach Sean Miller said in October.
That helped explain Lee’s DUI, though it didn’t make it excusable.
“The only person I can blame is myself because I knew how unstable I was,” Lee said. “And instead of seeking help I turned to drinking, which led to a terrible mistake.”
The UA handed Lee a one-game suspension, but also a second chance, one that he did not waste. Lee credits his coaches and teammates for sticking with him through his low points.
“There were days where I didn’t want to come out of the house, but they all dragged me out,” he said. “I’ve worked hard every day and gave it my all to the University. They gave me a second chance and I think I learned a lot from it and it made me stronger and it’s definitely a life lesson.”
Lee’s breakout season didn’t happen overnight. It took time and, at one point, appeared unlikely to happen at all. Lee struggled in the first half of the season, committing too many fouls and too many turnovers to play major minutes.
Then, right around the start of Pac-12 play, the game slowed down for him. Lee committed just 15 turnovers in 358 minutes in conference play after tallying a whopping 21 turnovers in 195 minutes in non-conference play.
“Coach (Miller) put it this way: if you don’t turn the ball over, you’ll play more,” Lee laughed. “Take a breath, catch (the ball), see what you have. If you can score it, score it. If you can pass it out, pass it out. Know what the defense gives you. That’s all I had to do.”
That approach helped Lee become an extremely efficient scorer. He averaged 7.8 points per game in conference play and shot 62 percent on the season, becoming known for his emphatic finishes at the rim and the eccentric celebrations that follow.
“My thing coming in is I played too fast, I was turning the ball over, creating stupid fouls,” Lee said. “As the year went on I started to get more comfortable scoring. Defense, I wasn’t fouling as much. I just feel more comfortable and I’m only going to continue getting better. At the end of the day, this is only the beginning for me.”
The next step, Lee said, is to improve his jump shot. For the season, Lee only made 41 percent of his 2-point jumpers, per hoop-math.com, while going 0 for 2 from behind the arc, essentially being a non-threat from 18 feet out.
“Everybody knows I can score inside, how I can dunk the ball, how I can drive, so I just need that last part — consistent shooting,” Lee said.
And if he gets that part down?
“Honestly, it will probably allow me not to use as much energy,” Lee said. “I can definitely slow things down a lot more and make it hard for people to closeout on me, instead of them just closing out short. So it will definitely do a lot to my game and help the team overall.”
Still, the best part of Lee’s game is — and always will be — his motor. He credits his seemingly everlasting energy to his father, Zeph, a former NFL player, who not only passed great genes down to his son, but a strong work ethic to boot.
“My dad played for the Raiders five, six years. His thing has always been work hard, work hard, work hard,” Lee said. “He doesn’t care if I have zero points, zero rebounds. As long as I play hard, as long as I gave it my all, that’s all that matters.”
That mindset allows Lee to make plays others wouldn’t even think about making. Like Wednesday when he came out of nowhere to swat Nick Rakocevic’s dunk attempt from behind.
“I could have easily said, eff it. Go ahead. Shoot the layup. That’s not who I am,” Lee said. “And honestly I think we need that mentality next year from everybody.”
Lee already has high hopes for his junior season, declaring that it will be something special for him and the team as they look to rebound from a disappointing 17-15 campaign.
“Trust me,” Lee said when asked why he is so confident.
It remains to be seen how Lee will fit on what is expected to be a much more talented squad, but the foundation is there for him to continue his ascension.
He has experience. He has the work ethic. He also seems to have another thing going for him.
When Lee apologized for his DUI in August, he said he would start focusing on getting back to “the happy state” he was once in. Seeing him smile after a 13-point loss suggests he has recaptured it.
“Ira has dealt with a lot of adversity, and I don’t think there’s any guy on this team that I’m more proud of than him, just because of the way he’s been so resilient,” said UA center Chase Jeter. “All the things that kid’s been through and how tough he’s been able to get out of that situation and focus on basketball and perform at such a high level like he did, he is the epitome of a scholar-athlete.”