There is always more than what meets the eye when it comes to feel good stories in professional sports.
Two years before “Linsanity,” Jeremy Lin finished with 30 points and nine rebounds against No. 14 UConn. Lin was the first star player for Tommy Amaker, a former Duke player and longtime assistant under Basketball Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski. Amaker brought in Harvard’s first ESPN top 25 recruiting class in 2009. In other words, before he “came out of nowhere” for the New York Knicks in Feb. 2012, Lin was the best player on a pretty good D-I basketball team.
For this season’s Atlanta Hawks, the feel good narrative has held true for both of its two-way players: Nathan Knight and Skylar Mays. On Dec. 26 against the Memphis Grizzlies, it was Knight’s turn as he had 14 points and three rebounds in nine minutes. This past Friday, Mays scored 20 points in 17 minutes with no turnovers against the San Antonio Spurs.
Although he went undrafted, Knight was the 2019-20 Lou Henson National Player of the Year, which goes to the top mid-major player in the country. The 50th pick of the 2020 NBA Draft, Mays became the first player in LSU history to have 1,600 career points, 300 assists, 400 rebounds and 200 steals, according to Sports Illustrated.
Mays and Knight didn’t come out of nowhere. No one in the NBA does, because as the cliché goes, everyone in the NBA can play.
For Mays, he knew what he was capable of if given the opportunity, even after toting a career-high five minutes going into his second month as a professional.
“As a competitor, you always want to be out there doing what you can to help the team, but Coach has a great plan for us and we’re playing well,” Mays said. “We need to string some wins together, but my pursuit is to come to work every day with my guys and do what I can when I do get time.”
Mays grew into the role of prep star early at University Laboratory School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Head coach Joe Spencer started Mays and Wayde Sims as eighth graders, and at the end of that season, he started a third eighth grader. The young corps developed quickly and won three-straight state championships, two with Mays before he transferred to Findlay Prep his senior season.
“I knew he was going to make it in the pros because of his work ethic and his leadership,” Spencer told Peachtree Hoops. “He does remind me a lot of Garrett Temple.”
Temple also attended UHigh in the early 2000s and set the school record for assists, which stood for about a decade before Mays broke it. Sims also broke the school record for points, previously held by Glen Davis, during that stint as well.
A moment where Spencer saw Mays’ full potential on display was his sophomore year in the state championship game in 2014 against Ridgewood. In the final minute of a close game, the Rams decided to switch its defense from zone to man.
Mays’ eyes lit up.
He got a high-ball screen before dishing off an assist to Sims. On the next possession, Mays got another high-ball screen and decided to keep it himself on a drive for the dagger.
“He drives all the way in, scores and we win the state championship,” Spencer said. “It was as simple as that. I just remembered thinking, ‘Coach, I wouldn’t go man,’’and they went man and Skylar tore them apart.”
UHigh took the title in a 69-64 decision.
Sims and Mays reunited at LSU after Mays spent his high school senior year in Nevada, but the duo’s time was cut short when Sims was fatally shot after a fistfight at a fraternity party just off of Southern University’s campus in September 2018, according to the Advocate. It’s a loss Spencer said Baton Rouge is still feeling the effects of today.
“(Mays) has always got Wayde in the back of his mind,” Spencer said. “He talks about it all the time and he honors Wayde in different ways and I think that’s a little bit of what drives him. Skylar’s such a good person with great, high character.”
The basketball community at UHigh and in Baton Rouge is tight knit. Although Spencer began coaching at the school a couple of years after Temple graduated, the coach said the Chicago Bulls guard and his family remain extremely involved with the program and never hesitate to lend a helping hand. In-between seasons at LSU, Mays would be at a local gym getting up shots at 5 a.m. on a regular basis.
“Anytime I have to give an example of something, I can point to Skylar Mays and Wayde Sims, what they’ve done in the past and how hard they worked,” Spencer said. “I talk a lot about Skylar and Garrett Temple because of how hard they worked. Garrett had a tough road to get to where he was, but he never stopped working. Skylar’s done a tremendous job to work to where he is, so there are really no two better examples of role models I can give as far as how they lived their lives not only on the court, but off the court. We talk about (Mays) a whole lot.”
Spencer missed Mays’ NBA career night as UHigh defeated Parkview 71-68 on Friday. The matchup with Parkview Baptist ironically drew another memory of Mays for the coach. In one game against Parkview years ago, Spencer challenged Mays before the guard took a charge at halfcourt and hit his head on the court. Mays ended up re-entering the game to score 10 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Cubs to a win. When Spencer woke up on Saturday to a phone full of notifications and a social-media feed full of Mays content, flashbacks of nights like those came to mind.
“I was like, ‘Man, this is fantastic,’” Spencer said. “What a way to wake up. It’s hard to explain how proud you are.”
He evolved from a pass-first point guard to a three-point shooter and scorer in college. When he was the first player off the bench for the Hawks this past Saturday against the Indiana Pacers, he played the role of spot up shooter while sharing the floor with the likes of Trae Young and Kevin Huerter.
“At LSU, I got as many shots as I wanted, now I’m just trying to find my way and doing what I can to help the team,” Mays said. “Having that transition and having guys like Solomon (Hill), (Brandon Goodwin), Bruno and going to work with Nate (unclear if Babcock or McMillan) every day. Me and Nate work out every day, those guys bring me so much energy and it makes it easy to go out there and play hard when I do get an opportunity.”
As Mays continues to find his path in the NBA, the people of Baton Rouge will continue to be in his corner.
“Skylar was a pro before he made it to the NBA. The way he handles himself, on-and-off the court, in the classroom. I know he’s going to be a great addition for any team, and I still feel that way,” Spencer said. “There’ll probably be changes throughout his career in terms of where he plays and how he’s used, but he’s such a professional guy with great character and such a great role model. I know he’s going to make it.”