Dwane Casey guided Rashard Lewis early. Now, Lewis is guiding young Detroit Pistons

Detroit Free Press

Rashard Lewis was, in his words, “released to the wolves” when the Seattle Supersonics selected him in the second round of the 1998 NBA draft. Just 18 at the time, Lewis bypassed college and was drafted right out of Houston’s Alief Elsik High School. Without the security that comes with a first-round rookie contract, Lewis feared for his future in the NBA.

The future two-time NBA All-Star’s fears were, of course, unfounded. Lewis enjoyed a fruitful 16-year career, including a championship with the Miami Heat in 2013. He credits Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey for much of his success.

Now, nearly 25 years after his NBA journey began, Lewis is returning the favor.

Lewis, 43, joined the Pistons as a player development coach this offseason. He and Casey, who was an assistant with the SuperSonics from 1994-2005, have a relationship similar to that of a father and son. Lewis entered the NBA with a lot of weight on his shoulders at 18. He was raised by his mother in a single-parent household, and his mom couldn’t accompany him to Seattle.

He credits Casey for taking him under his wing and helping him navigate the rigors of the NBA. Casey sees Lewis, who carved out a reputation as one of the league’s best shooters with the SuperSonics and Orlando Magic, as an ideal mentor for a young Pistons roster experiencing many of the same trials Lewis experienced early in his career.

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“I remember when I was going down to Houston staying with him, working with him, saying the same things he’s saying to these young guys now,” Casey said. “He has a calmness about him, a humility about him. At that time when he signed with Orlando with a max contract, I’ll never forget him calling me and talking to him. I said ‘You better hurry up and sign it, whoever that is before they change their mind.’

“Great family, his mom and dad are great people, family are great people and he’s almost like a son,” Casey continued. “To see him want to get into coaching and give him an opportunity to get his feet wet, listening to him, talk to players, demonstrating things with players, takes me back a long time because it’s the same thing I was saying to him a long time ago. It’s been great.”

Lewis is also close with Atlanta Hawks coach Nate McMillan, who was an assistant in Seattle alongside Casey from 1998-2000 before being serving as the Sonics’ head coach from 2000-05.

“Dwane Casey being here, he’s like a father figure to me,” Lewis told the Free Press. “I grew up without a father, and at a young age when I went to Seattle, I told him and Nate I look at them as father figures because my mom was a single parent raising me and my brothers and sisters. When I got to Seattle, I finally had a man to tell me how to do shit and what to do and how to act, and I looked at that as they were taking care of me and I really have so much respect for them. I would give back to them any day.”

‘They have to stick with the process’

Lewis may be best remembered by Pistons fans for his stint with the Magic from 2007-12. The up-and-coming Magic, led by a young Dwight Howard, challenged the Pistons for Eastern Conference supremacy and lost to the Pistons in the second round of the 2008 playoffs before advancing to the NBA Finals in 2009.

Lewis was the Sonics’ all-time leader in 3-pointers when he signed a six-year, $118 million contract with the Magic in a sign-and-trade deal in 2007. He’s a career 38.6% outside shooter, and averaged 18.9 points per game from 2001-09.

As a rookie, Lewis appeared in just 20 games. He emerged as a role player during his second season before entering the starting lineup in Year 3, leading Seattle to the playoffs along with Ray Allen. Casey took a vested interest in making sure Lewis figured out how to thrive in the NBA. During offseasons, Casey would fly to Houston, and Lewis would fly to Seattle for training sessions. During the season, Casey was a constant in Lewis’ ear to give him confidence and keep his spirit lifted.

There were times when Lewis contemplated quitting. Casey didn’t let him.

The Pistons’ head coach often espouses the virtues of patience to his young roster. Lewis can speak to it firsthand. He felt the anxiety of potentially not getting a second NBA contract — of having to potentially play overseas as a teenager despite having never left the United States previously. Sometimes, a good relationship with the right coach makes all the difference.

“With coach Casey, we built such a great relationship off the court that when he was able to talk to me, he saw me blow up in practice and get frustrated and wanting to almost damn near quit basketball because I’m not getting the opportunities that I thought I would get, that he would always be able to recharge my battery, refresh my mind and push me to keep going,” Lewis said. “I kept going, and I eventually ended up being an All-Star when I was in Seattle. You can appreciate coaches that are teaching you to play right to play the game as well as respect the game, and he was one of those guys that not only played the game but has a lot of respect for the game, and the game respects you back.”

In team meetings, Casey often points to Lewis as an example of what patience can bring in the NBA. The Pistons, in the middle of a rebuild, are banking on their young players eventually bringing the franchise out of the NBA’s basement and back to contention. Lewis didn’t make his first All-Star game until his seventh season, and signed his max contract after his ninth season.

Sometimes, things click immediately for young players. But more often, it takes time. Lewis jokes that the Pistons are still young enough to play in the NCAA tournament. It’s barely a joke — the roster has eight players 23 or younger. When Lewis speaks, players listen.

“He wants me to come in and help these young guys and install that same work ethic, because you can see the potential,” Lewis said. “They’re very coachable, they want to be good, they want to win. All they have to do is keep putting in the work. Yeah, we’re going to have some bad days. We’re going to have some good days. That’s a part of rebuilding, and they have to stick with the process.

“That’s why he brought me on, because I had bad days when I was going through the process. I was frustrated as hell,” Lewis continued. “I wanted to fucking quit. But I also had good days, like ok, maybe I will be good at this. The days you want to quit, you need a guy like Casey that’s been through the ringer, as well as the experience to keep you going to give you that confidence and lift you up. I had to experience it, I played 17 years in the league. These guys are two, three years in the league. They don’t understand it yet, they don’t have that experience. Some days they want to blow up and say this shit is not working. But yes, it’s working. It just takes time.”

‘He’ll see what the hell I’m talking about ‘

After practices, Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren can often be spotted participating in big man drills run by Lewis and player development coach Drew Jones. On Nov. 6, Stewart and Duren took turns posting up Jones and Lewis, respectively. It got competitive, and the coaches made a point to get under the players’ skin with smack talk.

On consecutive possessions, Duren lost his balance, leading to frustration.

“I pulled the chair on you!” Lewis yelled, amused at Duren’s anger. “It’s a veteran move!”

The third time Lewis tried it, Duren kept his balance and finished an easy dunk. Lewis wanted to teach Duren a lesson — as big and as strong as the 18-year-old center is, he won’t survive off of strength alone in the NBA. His longterm success hinges on him doing things that haven’t yet come naturally, such as playing with better positioning in the post and taking care of his body. It illustrates why Casey wanted Lewis on his staff. Lewis gets it, because he has lived it.

“He stopped, he kept his balance and he dunked the ball,” Lewis said. “I told him, you caught on quick. That’s the NBA. It’s not only about being strong, brute strength. You have to be able to play strong and physical and play smart at the same time. Back in college and high school, he was probably bigger, stronger and faster than everybody so he was able to be successful. But in the NBA, everybody’s big, everybody’s strong, everybody’s fast. If he can do that and play with a high IQ at the same time, that was a part of teaching him without telling him. I wanted to teach him first and then I talked to him after the fact. You can tell he catches on pretty fast.”

Lewis sees aspects of himself in Duren. They both entered the league at 18, and although Duren has a guaranteed contract, his future in the NBA is far from secure. The Pistons have high expectations and hopes for Duren, who they prioritized acquiring on draft night. Lewis is making it his personal goal to make sure Duren succeeds, as Casey did for him.

“It’s been good for me, honestly, because of how he came into the league is kinda similar to how I came in,” Duren said. “A young guy just trying to learn. Even from an advice standpoint, him just talking to me and giving me advice about my body, how to stay in the league for a long time, recovery and all that. And like you’ve seen on the court, competing with him on the court. He’s competitive. Even though he’s old now, he still be wanting to hoop against us and make us better.”

Beyond the post-practice drills, Lewis has been preaching the importance of after-game care. Duren doesn’t always use the cold tub, but Lewis suspects that by the middle of the season, the rookie will begin heeding his advice. Playing 16 seasons in the NBA requires some luck, but it also requires understanding that the weekly grind of the league will take a toll regardless of whether you feel it early on. Lewis credits Allen, his teammate in Seattle and Miami who played 18 NBA seasons, for teaching him how to care for his body.

“It’s an 82-game season, so you’re playing night in and night out,” Lewis said. “If you’re not playing, you’re traveling or you’re practicing. When I was young, I would say, I don’t need no ice, I don’t need no cold tub. I’m young, I can go out there and play all day. It’s for the longevity. When I finally started taking care of my body, that’s why I was able to play 17 years in the league.

“That’s what I’m trying to tell him now,” Lewis added. “He don’t get it yet, but I’m sure he will 30 games into the season. He’s gonna be like, ‘Damn, you were right. Now I understand what you were talking about.’ Sometimes it takes you to go through the experience to understand. Right now he’s going through the experience. He’ll see what the hell I’m talking about 40 games in.”

Lewis has long held coaching aspirations, and it was a no-brainer for him to move to Detroit when Casey reached out over the summer. He founded the Rashard Lewis Academy, a basketball-focused youth sports organization, in Cypress, Texas, in 2009. But this is his first season on an NBA bench.

Similar to his NBA career, Lewis doesn’t want to skip steps. If he were offered a head coaching job now, he would turn it down. For now, he’s focused on being a great development coach for the Pistons.

“My ultimate goal is to become a development coach, hopefully an assistant front bench coach and then maybe down the road become a head coach,” Lewis said. “But I know I’m a rookie all over again, and I’m OK with that.”

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