JaQuan Lyle, two ice packs wrapped tightly around each knee, slowly strolled into the mid-ramp media room late Wednesday night.
He was walking, as one reporter noted, like an old man.
As the oldest player on the this season’s Lobos roster at the ripe old age of 23, maybe the look suits him. Considering he just put in his second 31-point game of his Lobos career in just his 10th game and played 39 minutes in Wednesday’s thrilling 80-78 win over Boise State, all just 14 months after tearing his Achilles and missing all of last season, maybe it should be expected.
“For the most part, I feel good,” said Lyle, a 6-foot-5 product of Evansville, Indiana, who has been one of the driving forces behind UNM jumping out to a 8-2 start. “When it’s go time, I’ll be ready.”
He certainly has been through his short time as a Lobo.
In Paul Weir’s first two seasons as coach, while scoring has gone up, the Lobos had just one player – Vance Jackson on Feb. 16 against Fresno State – reach the 30-point plateau. As for multiple times in a season, Tim Williams did it twice for Craig Neal in the 2016-17 season. Elijah Brown had six such games in the 2015-16 season, but those were the exceptions. Even Cameron Bairstow’s monster 2013-14 season didn’t include a 30-point showing. Alex Kirk had one over his last two seasons. Kendall Williams scored 46 once in his Mountain West Player of the Year season in 2012-13, but there wasn’t another 30-point game that junior season or his senior season.
The point being, what Lyle is doing from an offensive standpoint, not to mention his assists (his 4.4 per game this season is fourth best among Mountain West teams), is something pretty special in the history, certainly recent history, of Lobo basketball.
“There’s times you’ve seen him, he plays in the post all night and scores,” said Weir. He said that, short of last year’s NBA No. 2 overall pick R.J. Barrett, who played for Weir on Team Canada’s Under 19 team in 2017, Lyle is probably the most fun offensive player he’s been able to coach.
“There’s times you see him he’s on the perimeter playing one-on-one, using ball screens. He’s just a really fun guy to kind of move around the chessboard a little bit and he’s terrific, and he was again tonight. He’s helped us win a lot of games, and he’s a great Lobo basketball player. I know he’s only had this one year, and a lot of great players have to put year over year over year, but I think he’s gonna be one of the greats here.”
Lyle has scored 182 points this season for UNM and has 925 through 76 career games. That puts him 75 points from reaching the 1,000-point milestone for his college career, which to date has only been two seasons at Ohio State and 10 games with UNM.
Offensively, Lyle is right near the top of all offensive categories among Mountain West players this season:
• 18.2 points per game (third)
• 4.4 assists per game (fourth)
• 47.5% FG (fourth)
• 73.8% FT (11th)
• His two 31-point games (Wednesday vs. Boise State and Nov. 13 vs. Green Bay) account for two of the four 30-point games in the league this season.
• His 11 assists vs. Division II Eastern New Mexico on Nov. 6 are the most by an MWC player this season.
And his confidence on the court? Well, if that was ranked, it would likely be among the league’s top, too.
“My coaches and teammates have a lot of confidence in myself to put the ball in my hands and trust me to make the right plays,” Lyle said. “And every time I step on the court, whoever’s in front of me, I don’t think they can guard me.”
But about those minutes? Lyle is also averaging 33.37 minutes per game, which is sixth most in the league, and something the UNM staff is well aware probably can’t last.
“Today was the first day I used the phrase ‘load management’ with one of my players,” Weir said Wednesday night, referring to Lyle. “… Quan this morning (Wednesday) was feeling it a little bit. We talked about potentially a load management, mostly in jest.”
Weir said it was “probably bad scheduling” on his part to have loaded up the Lobos with 11 games by Dec. 7 (Saturday at Wyoming), including five away from Albuquerque, before its first real break – next week they’re off during finals.
How much “load management” Lyle gets, and how much of that means fewer minutes in games as opposed to less running in practices, is yet to be determined. But the Lobos coaching staff will make it a priority for Lyle and several other heavily used players as the season continues.