During his first public appearance as an Arizona Wildcat, freshman Ira Lee didn’t need to shoot, run or defend anybody to show he was physically ready for college basketball.
All the 6-foot-7-inch, 235-pound forward had to do was slip on Khalil Tate’s football jersey during pregame hoopla before the Oct. 20 Red-Blue Game … and nearly bust out of the thing.
“I said ‘OK, I’ll do it’ until I actually put the jersey on and realized how tight it was,” Lee said, having OK’d a request from equipment manager Brian Brigger. “I still went with it, and I liked the idea.”
The football gesture worked on several levels. Lee said he agreed to wear the jersey of UA’s star quarterback because both of them are from Los Angeles, but Lee is also built like a tall tight end himself — and happens to have football blood inside him.
His father, Zeph, was a running back and defensive back who played for USC and several pro teams including the Oakland Raiders and Arizona Rattlers. Zeph Lee passed down his approach to sports to his son.
“Ira has a motor that I think he got from his dad a long, long time ago,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “He and his dad have really a special relationship. He gave Ira the love of sports but really what he gave him was a work ethic. He pushed him in a great way to really go for it, work hard, and good things will happen.
“Ira brings that mindset every day to practice, and wherever he is today he’ll be even better in the future.”
Considering that Lee is a power forward on this particular Arizona team, having that sort of mindset is something of a necessity for daily survival.
During any given practice, Lee might need to escape a block by Keanu Pinder, or fend off the rangy Emmanuel Akot. He might need to stop the almost-unstoppable offense of Dusan Ristic down low, or try to stay in front of savvy Duke transfer Chase Jeter.
And, of course, there are also moments when Lee has to try to do something – anything – to slow down Deandre Ayton.
“Deandre?” Lee said, pausing and smiling when asked what it is like facing him. “Deandre’s 7-1 and 260 pounds. He’s a big dude. So you’ve gotta do your work early with him.”
It’s all work, all the time. Different types of work. But Lee isn’t complaining.
“Honestly, it prepares me well,” he said. “Having to guard Deandre, he’s a really unique talent. He’s a big guy who has touch and can finish around the basket. Then Keanu is a defensive guy so it’s just learning to get to the basket and create my own shots off of him.
“I also have to guard Dusan, who’s a really skilled big man, and then Emmanuel is an all-around guy so I have to guard him on the perimeter.
“So I get a really well-balanced practice.”
Of course, Lee brings his own unique set of skills to the competition, too: His combination of energy, size and athleticism isn’t easily found.
“He can check the box in a lot of areas,” Miller said. “He rebounds at both ends and he defends. He’s very athletic and when the game gets going fast, he can make tremendous plays on both sides of the ball.
“He’s not a guy who needs to hunt shots and needs to score. So he’s a fun guy to have on your team and part of your program.”
Those personality traits are a good thing for the Wildcats, too. Even though the four-star talent may be physically ready, and motivated, all that talent around him means playing time won’t come easily.
Lee and Pinder are expected to be the two primary backups in the post behind Ristic and Ayton, though Akot could play power forward in small-ball situations, which could further shave a bit from Lee’s minutes.
Lee says he’s used to playing on supremely talented teams. In high school, he played at nationally competitive Sierra Canyon High School before finishing at Santa Monica Crossroads. In travel ball, he joined the well-regarded Oakland Soldiers and Earl Watson Elite.
He’s not running away from competition this time, either.
“Metal sharpens metal,” Lee said. “We make each other better every day and that’s why we came here. We could have easily gone to places where we could average 20 and start but we wanted to be somewhere where we’d get better every day playing with the best.”