Jairus Lyles was searching for a fresh start and to be closer to home; he found both at UMBC.
The 6’2” guard committed out of DeMatha to VCU and played one season with the Rams before deciding to transfer to Robert Morris, but chose to come home to UMBC after spending the fall 2014 semester with the Colonials. After waiting three semesters to play, just about a year and a half, he has picked up where he left off.
He started his season after the first semester ended and in his eight games with the Retrievers he is averaging a team-high 25.5 ppg.
“I just do whatever the team needs and if the team needs me to score, I can score,” Lyles said. “It’s just about confidence, going in there with confidence and letting the game come to you and not trying to force anything, but your teammates have to put that trust in you.”
Lyles has led the team in scoring in each of the eight games he has played, including a career-high 30 point performance in their loss at NJIT on Jan. 2. After coming off the bench for his first two games, he has become a fixture in the starting lineup for Aki Thomas’ squad.
“He’s been practicing with us in practice, he’s been doing a lot of the things that we’ve seen him do in games,” Thomas said. “You just never know how things translate in the games. I didn’t forsee him being maybe this potent, but I have seen a lot of these things that we’re seeing now in practice, so he’s definitely consistent, that’s for sure. I’m glad he’s able to provide that for us, provide that kind of spark for us.”
The sophomore already owns the UMBC highs this season for points in a game and field goals made in a game.
“I told him he’s going to start seeing some really tough defenders,” Thomas said. “We have some really good coaches in this league that are going to try to figure out how to keep his numbers down.”
So far the only thing that has kept his numbers down was his year and a half long absence from playing college basketball. Lyles averaged 0.6 ppg in 22 games at VCU as a freshman, but after spending a semester at Robert Morris, he wanted to return home to be closer to his family. Thomas said that his grandfather was really sick and that motivated the Silver Spring, Md. native to seek out UMBC and Thomas, who himself was a transfer from Colorado to Howard when he played.
“When I talk to transfers, I always talk to them about my experience,” Thomas said. “I always tell them about transferring to Howard, getting more playing time and being a focal point of the team and how much that helped me confidence wise and later on trying to have a pursue a professional career.”
Thomas played three seasons for the Buffaloes before transferring to Howard, where he averaged 11.7 ppg and 8.1 rebounds per game, earning a spot on the second team All-MEAC in 2002. Lyles said he grew up close to Howard and felt that Thomas helped him from the perspective of being a transfer himself.
“He knows the obstacles you have to face when transferring, when coming to a whole new school, whole new position,” Lyles said. “He helped me and guided me through that again, so it was definitely good.”
When he reached UMBC, Lyles knew he had learned plenty of tough lessons through the process of transferring.
“In high school, my preparation for getting ready for college I didn’t, I could say, I was kind of immature,” Lyles said adding that through school it was him and his mother Carol Motley navigating the process. “You’re learning. you live and you learn, so everything happens for a reason.”
When Lyles reached the campus for the first time, not only did he have to sit out for over an entire season. With UMBC running low on players last season, Lyles and the group did mostly shooting drills and could not run five on five drills. Being away from playing in a college basketball game since March 5, 2014, Lyles was anxious to get back on the floor.
“Not being able to play with teammates or just basketball besides practicing, working out for a year and a half, two years is definitely stressful,” Lyles said. “It can take a toll on you, but you can’t let that get the best of you. You got to just remain humble, keep working, keep doing the things you’re doing, focus on your school work, focus on basketball, family and then everything will work itself out sooner or later.”
So far it has worked with the Retrievers. In conference play he has already shown his ability to have an impact. Lyles ranks fourth in true shooting percentage (66.5%), 11th in two-point field goal percentage (61.9%) and seventh in three-point field goal percentage (45.0%). There is every reason to think he will continue to have an impact in conference play, but also contribute in other ways besides scoring.
“I’m sure he’s provided a ton of scoring for us, but outside of the scoring I think defensively he’s helped us as well,” Thomas said. “Jairius gets a lot of deflections, he’s very active. He does really good things on the other end of the floor too.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.