Ever an underdog, Jairus Lyles wants to show he can grow with the Jazz

The new face of March Madness upsets, the former UMBC star wants his story to continue

UMBC's Jairus Lyles (10) drives past Virginia's Isaiah Wilkins (21) and Kyle Guy (5) during the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, March 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

At the moment, Jairus Lyles keeps having the same conversation, which gets tiring after a while.

“Everywhere I go people are talking about the Virginia game,” he said. “I don’t want to be known as just the guy who beat Virginia.”

And yet that event, when his 16-seed UMBC Retrievers toppled the top-seeded Cavaliers, is the thing that opened a door to the NBA for Lyles, who signed a contract with the Utah Jazz on Thursday.

It’s been a solid summer for Lyles, a 6-foot-2 guard who has averaged 7.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists for the Jazz across four games. He understands that beating Virginia — in which he scored a game-high 28 points — caught the attention of the pro ranks, and now comes the hard part.

“You always dream about being in the NBA,” he said. “I’m not quite there yet: My foot’s in the door, now I’ve got to open it. It’s always a blessing to get an opportunity.”

While one game looms larger than the rest, Lyles’ resume is longer than most know, back to his days playing for Maryland powerhouse Dematha High.

Lyles helped breathe life into UMBC’s program, averaging 20.3 points per game over the course of his three-year career. Traditionally, the Retrievers haven’t been merely an afterthought: They’ve hardly been a thought at all, even in their hometown of Baltimore. But with Lyles, the team went from 7-25 in his first season to 25-11 in his last.

Still, few expected the Retrievers to be an actual threat to Virginia, an experienced, tempo-controlling squad. Lyles played a starring role in a game that has gone down in March lore, going 9 for 11 from the field.

“It was definitely a big stage, playing in front of all those NBA scouts,” he said. “It opened people’s eyes.”

Lyles has always had scoring ability, and that’s a big part of why the Jazz are bringing him into the fold for training camp. While he sports a thin frame, he’s shown an ability to shoot from long range, but also finish near the basket against larger competition. It’s a long shot for him to make the NBA roster, so his contract likely means the Jazz will retain his rights to sign him to the Salt Lake City Stars.

But Lyles is never one to pass on an opportunity: He’s spent summer league getting close to G League veterans Georges Niang and Naz Mitrou-Long about taking the next step as a pro. He knows his job in September will be to push the veterans any way he can, and he hopes to keep workshopping his game to show his fame will last beyond 15 minutes.

“I’ve been a scorer all my life,” he said. “But it’s about getting better about things you’re not good at.”