Any golfer who has taken a couple of years off after routinely hitting the links knows there’s no such thing as getting back into the swing of things without uncorking a few shanks into the sagebrush.
It takes time to adjust, to allow the body to rediscover the muscle memory that fades over time. Thinking about your swing and even hitting a few buckets at the driving range is no substitute to the real thing.
JaQuan Lyle’s no golfer, but he certainly understands the parlance.
Going two years without playing a meaningful game drove home that point in spades.
The University of New Mexico men’s basketball player is just two games into his senior year and he’s already showing Lobo fans why he’s arguably the most valuable player in the program. He’s leading the team in minutes played, averaging 13.5 points and 8 assists.
More than that, he’s developing into the leader the Lobos have needed for years. He’ll call teammates out when the situation calls for it and take ownership of the things he needs to do better.
What’s more, he’s not the wild playmaker some point guards tend to be. Yes, he’ll take risks, but he’s also got his hand on the proverbial emergency brake at all times.
Head coach Paul Weir said one of his favorite plays from the Lobos’ last game was a transition possession where Lyle passed the ball out to the wing instead of forcing the issue on a reckless drive to the basket. It’s an example of the mental sharpness the 6-foot-5 NBA prospect brings to the table.
He has the size and physical strength to absorb contact when assaulting the basket, plus the skill to create his own shot and find the open man no matter where he is on the floor.
Oh, and that jump shot that was supposed to be his weakness? Just fine, thanks. While he’ll never be the next coming of Anthony Mathis, he’s more than capable of knocking down the 3-ball.
But here’s the thing: Lyle should be rusty. He hadn’t played in a game since the 2017 NCAA Tournament when he was still at Ohio State.
He transferred to UNM following his sophomore year and was expected to be one of the most dominant players in the Mountain West last season. A ruptured Achilles just days before the opener cost him another year and, if he’s being honest, he didn’t reach 100 percent until this summer.
He’s finally at a point where he no longer thinks about pushing off his injured leg and not worrying about the consequences.
All the time he spent on the shelf made him acutely aware of the little things, like his diet and paying attention to basketball’s nuances. Watching film took on new meaning and his first few baby steps on the court came with a renewed sense of purpose. He truly appreciates the game and values his opportunity to play it.
During a conversation last May, he said he considers himself more of a finesse player nowadays. Taking countless shots while confined to a rolling office chair helped him better understand the fundamentals of his release, like squaring his shoulders and keeping his non-shooting hand on the ball a little longer.
Then there’s the intangibles that Weir loves. A happy-go-lucky kind of person, Lyle is downright pragmatic when assessing the role of his teammates and his own spot in the lineup. He leaves emotion out of it, choosing to be honest and, at times, blunt when delivering a message.
During a recent practice where half the team was at one end of the floor and the other half running a drill on the opposite side, he noticed one of his teammates miss an assignment and paused what he was doing to point out the correction. Weir said it’s that kind of attention to detail that separates Lyle from the pack.
What separates him even more is his raw talent and unshakable drive to make things work. After spending two years in the Big Ten and two more on the Lobos’ bench, he’s out to prove he still has a place on the basketball court.
Rusty? Not even close.
Will Webber’s commentary appears regularly in this section. The UNM beat writer for basketball and football, he has been covering sports for nearly a quarter century. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.