“Where is he?” asked University of Miami junior Valeria Velasco at the mention of Lykes’s name. She whipped her head around to see an empty court at the center of the dense Watsco Center in Coral Gables, Fla.
Lykes, a Mitchellville, Md., native and freshman guard for the Hurricanes, was nowhere to be found. A late January matchup with Louisville was still an hour and a half away, which meant the students had to wait just a bit longer to see Lykes, who is finishing his first college season and is already one of the ACC’s most exciting, and likable, players.
That starts with his size, the first thing fans and opponents notice when he walks into a gym, but is buoyed by his downhill attacks of the rim, deep three-pointers and pestering defense. In December, Miami Coach Jim Larranaga said, “If he were 6-5 or 6-6, he’d be Michael Jordan.” After Lykes scored 18 against Florida State on Jan. 7, Seminoles Coach Leonard Hamilton called Lykes a “flawless dribbler.” Later that month, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski called him “one of the better on-ball defenders” in the ACC.
Lykes has to re-prove himself, and rebuild his reputation as a defense-splitting, floor-stretching scorer, each time he steps on a new court for the first time. At Miami, where he was averaging 9.2 points in 20.6 minutes per game entering Tuesday night’s game at No. 9 North Carolina, that did not take very long. Next up is a regular season finale against Virginia Tech, the ACC tournament in Brooklyn after that and, if the Hurricanes earn an NCAA tournament bid, his first crack at March Madness.
'The fans' favorite player'
“We love Chris. His height is just so relatable,” said Velasco, who is 5-foot-2, before the Louisville game. “There are a lot of short people here.”
“He’s definitely the fans’ favorite player,” said junior Kyle Mastoloni, who heads Miami’s basketball student section, Category 5.
“I have a small crush on him,” said a freshman while walking into the arena, and all she could do was blush when asked for her name. “It’s his smile, I think.”
“I’ve always had to show people what I can do to get any respect on the court,” Lykes said. “Middle school to high school, then high school to college, then college to wherever I go after that, it will always be that way. It’s just fun that people here in Miami know what’s going on now.”
They didn’t always. When Lykes first got to Miami’s football-crazed campus, he felt like there was only a small handful of people who knew he was there to play basketball. They were the recruiting junkies, the die-hard Miami hoops fans, the ones who watched YouTube videos of him pouring in shots and shaking past defenders for Gonzaga College High in Washington. He started building himself into a local star as a freshman guard for the Eagles and on the AAU circuit with Team Takeover, climbed into ESPN’s Top 100 recruiting rankings by his junior year, then averaged 17.6 points and 4.2 assists as a senior playing in one of the country’s toughest high school basketball leagues.
Whenever Lykes lifted Gonzaga with a big game, Coach Steve Turner found himself saying, “Superman put on his cape again.”
He committed to Miami, in part, because he saw himself in the team’s pick-and-roll system. It was the right fit for two 5-foot-11 guards in recent years — Shane Larkin, now with the Boston Celtics, and Angel Rodriguez — and Lykes envisioned himself slashing toward the paint with the offense at his fingertips. But most fans weren’t seeing that. Not yet, at least.
Lykes has most of his freshman classes with 6-foot-4 guard Lonnie Walker IV, a high-profile recruit from Reading, Pa. Professors knew they had two basketball recruits in the class but could only spot one. Lykes even carried the “basketball player backpack” — black with a shiny “U” by the zipper — and still drew little attention.
“Then, after recent ACC games, I’d come into class and the teacher will be like, ‘That is you?’ ” Lykes said, laughing. “Everyone is always so surprised at first.”
Everyone includes Miami fans, opposing fans, opposing players, but never Lykes himself. He embraces his height and sees it as a tool, helping him squeeze into cracks of the defense, bother opposing ballhandlers and catch opponents sitting back at the start of games, allowing him to launch threes from any distance. He likes the comparisons to 5-foot-9 Los Angeles Lakers guard Isaiah Thomas and, as ESPN’s Dick Vitale mentioned on a January broadcast, 5-foot-3 Muggsy Bogues, the shortest player in NBA history. He and his teammates all created their own player in the newest NBA 2K video game, and the big men made themselves as shorter guards so they could do things they can’t in real life. Lykes created himself at 5-7 and never considered another option.
Yet all the height stuff can also be wearing. Lykes loves watching Thomas, but he also looks up to the Washington Wizards’ John Wall, the Houston Rockets’ Chris Paul and the Boston Celtics’ Kyrie Irving, point guards who are all 6-foot or taller. When he watches his games on replay, the first thing commentators say when he enters the game is something about “5-foot-7 Chris Lykes.” They say it again whenever he scores or makes a play. He has heard it enough.
“It’s getting a little old. My biggest thing with that is, I don't believe there is a certain height to play basketball,” Lykes said. “When they continue to say the height, it's like you're pointing out something that is not supposed to be out there. And I am supposed to be out there. I don't think it's ever going to change. I've gotten used to it because I just have to.”
Serving as a spark plug
In the second half against Louisville in January, with the Cardinals leading by three and the home fans in a lull, Larranaga paced along the bench and pointed at Lykes.
“We need to get the crowd involved,” Lykes remembers his coach saying to him, and the guard shuffled to the scorer’s table to check in.
This is mostly how Larranaga has used Lykes this season, as an off-the-bench spark plug, instant offense, endless energy. He did not engage the crowd much while at Gonzaga, instead letting his dribble moves and off-balance layups trigger the noise. But he feels it is part of his role with the Hurricanes and knows he only needs one play to get the Watsco Center shaking.
He does so by drawing an offensive foul in the backcourt, as he was stuck to Louisville guard Quentin Snider before Snider shouldered him to the court. Lykes popped up and waved his arms at the student section, demanding more volume. A few possessions later, he caught a pass on the left wing and buried a deep three. The place erupted, and the Hurricanes eventually won in overtime.
“I know this, our fans absolutely love when he is in the game,” Larranaga said. “And they can’t wait for someone to throw him the ball. He lights up the room. He creates that electric environment that you want on your home court.”
The biggest challenges of his freshman year are the ones most college kids face. He’s locked himself out of his dorm room many times and, because he doesn’t have a roommate, shamefully visits the residence office for a spare key. He sometimes trades a real dinner for a bowl of Fruit Loops with mini marshmallows. He once put a red sock into the laundry with his white clothes and they all came out light pink.
But Coral Gables is everything he hoped it would be, and he feels closer to the day when he enters a gym and everyone already knows who he is, when the opposing crowd doesn’t assume he is a manager or ballboy, when he doesn’t have to show he belongs despite his 5-foot-7 frame, but because of it. Yet he knows that the height that will always nag at him is also why he already means so much to these fans.
So he’ll just have to keep proving himself, again and again, into the postseason and whatever comes of it, and then whatever comes after that.