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Whitworth leaning on Sam Lees’ strong play entering second half of conference slate

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 30, 2020

Whitworth forward Sam Lees (12) eyes the basket as Whitman's Robert Colton (12) defends during the first half of a college basketball game, Tues., Jan. 21, 2020, at Whitworth University. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Whitworth forward Sam Lees (12) eyes the basket as Whitman's Robert Colton (12) defends during the first half of a college basketball game, Tues., Jan. 21, 2020, at Whitworth University. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The second pass through the conference schedule always presents Damion Jablonski with an enjoyable challenge.

“In your game prep, you try and put yourself in their shoes and be prepared for what they might do,” the Whitworth men’s basketball coach said. “It’s fun. It’s a different beast than the first time around.”

As the second-place Pirates (13-4, 7-1 Northwest Conference) start the second half of NWC games this weekend, almost certainly Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran will draw up plans aimed at slowing down Sam Lees.

Whitworth’s senior forward has steadily increased his scoring average since early January, when Lees scored 11 and 10 points in respective victories over PLU and UPS that opened conference play.

But since then, Lees has twice set a new career scoring record, with 26 points at Pacific on Jan. 18 and then 27 in the Pirates’ most recent victory, 98-95 over Linfield. He now ranks third on the team in scoring at 11.3 points per game behind junior Isaiah Hernandez (13.2) and senior Ben College (22.3).

That increase in scoring corresponds, not unexpectedly, with more volume: The last three games he attempted 44 shots (making 26), compared to 45 shot attempts the previous seven games.

Playing off the bench the last three seasons behind forwards Kyle Roach and Jared Christie, Lees wasn’t asked to be a scorer. As a junior he averaged 4.6 points per game, which was actually down from 5.8 as a sophomore.

But now as a regular starter, Lees is showing his qualities as a scorer.

“Opportunity has been huge for him, and we’ve all kind of reinforced our confidence in him and his abilities on the court,” said College, the NWC’s leading scorer. “He’s definitely been one of those guys who has filled more of a scoring role, especially this last week or two.”

Many of Lees’ points come via the mid-range jumper, a shot that analytics would say is a less efficient way to score.

That is, if you’re missing them a lot. But Lees is so efficient at them that players and coaches refer to his jumpers as layups.

“Personally I still really like the midrange (shot) because in some ways people have overcompensated and players don’t really know how to guard in that middle area,” Lees said, “and I think I shoot it at a higher percentage. If I was missing them it would be a different conversation.”

Even with that affinity for jumpers, Lees’ shooting percentage (57.1) is the best among Whitworth’s regular starters and ranks fifth in the conference.

Throughout his career Lees has not stepped back behind the 3-point line all that often: In 84 career games at Whitworth he is 22 of 71 from that range.

“He has a really good rhythm in that midrange and a lot of the 3-point shots end up being real catch and shoot shots,” Jablonski said, “so for him, it hasn’t been as natural.”

But, Jablonski added, that’s something Lees has been working on, and against Linfield he attempted 4 3-pointers (making 3), something he has only done one other time in his college career.

Earlier Friday, before the team’s win over Linfield, Lees had watched some of his high school highlights and said he was thinking about how he used to shoot 3-pointers really well.

“Maybe,” he said, “it was a confidence thing.”

Lees came to Whitworth sight unseen from Christchurch, New Zealand, based on Skype conversations with Jablonski, who was then the team’s associate head coach. But there was something different about Whitworth, Lees said, in the way coaches valued relationships and were focused on “helping boys develop into men.”

Also, Lees’ interests are wider than basketball – he is, for example, the Vice President of the school’s investment club – something that Jablonski said made Lees’ transition to a new country easier.

“He has found other things that made him fit into our community,” Jablonski said, “so as much as basketball was his identity, he had other things (too). … He fits Whitworth so well.”

Lees said after he graduates from Whitworth, he might pursue playing basketball in New Zealand, where he has previously been a development player for one of the nation’s pro teams.

“It’s hard to imagine not playing the sport that I’ve loved for so long,” Lees said, “but I want to make sure it’s something that gives me life and doesn’t draw or tax from me.”

The Pirates will certainly rely on Lees in his more prominent role as they push toward a return to the NCAA Division III Tournament. Whitworth is a game behind Whitman (8-0), which it lost to on Jan. 21, a game ahead of Linfield (6-2) and two games up on PLU (5-3).

Whitworth plays just twice more at home in the regular-season - Feb. 14 and 15 - with a chance to play at least one more home game during the four-team NWC tournament on Feb. 27 and 29.

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