At 5:15 each morning, Thomas Lyles heard his son tap on the bedroom door.
“Dad, are we going to the gym?” a young Trey Lyles would ask, before both departed for their first of three workout sessions that day.
Lyles, now a third-year big man with the Nuggets, has talked consistently about “staying ready” even when he wasn’t receiving consistent playing time. But that’s not just a mind-set. It’s a direct result of his background.
That philosophy was first instilled in Lyles by his father during those grueling sessions in the gym while he was growing up in Indiana. It’s been tested during his NBA career, including this season when he was the odd man out of Denver’s big-man rotation to start the season. But with all-star power forward Paul Millsap having to miss several months while recovering from reconstructive wrist surgery and center Nikola Jokic out with a sprained ankle, the 6-foot-10 Lyles is now a key part of the rotation.
Lyles stayed ready. And now he is ready.
“This is what I worked for,” he said. “I think the coaches notice that too. I think I’m building trust in them (by) having me out on the floor. It’s what I expected. I knew that it would come over time.”
Catching the basketball bug
When Lyles was 7, his family moved from hockey-crazed Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to basketball-crazed Indianapolis. His father, Thomas, originally hailed from the city before moving north of the border to play for the World Basketball League. But Thomas wanted his family to be raised around basketball and knew “if you can play basketball here in Indiana, you can play anywhere.”
That also meant Trey got a late start in the sport compared with other local kids. So father and son went to work. At age 9, Trey strapped on a 20-pound vest to run sprints. He worked relentlessly, polishing fundamentals such as shooting and dribbling. Trey and Thomas spent seven to eight hours in the gym each day, with breaks for school and meals.
“Never, ever did he complain or did he stop,” Thomas said in a phone interview. “And I’ll tell you, I worked this kid extremely hard.”
Though Trey grew up in a suburb of Indianapolis, Thomas wanted him to play against the tougher competition in the city’s public school system. As a freshman playing varsity at Arsenal Tech, Trey was a scrawny 6-7 — and the target of physicality from opponents as well as verbal barbs from the stands because of brewing recruiting hype.
By the end of his career, Lyles was Indiana’s Mr. Basketball and a top-20 national prospect. He signed with Kentucky, playing an X factor-type role on a 38-1 team. He left the Wildcats after his freshman season and was drafted by Utah with the No. 12 overall pick. Two years with the Jazz produced mixed results. Lyles averaged just over six points in about 17 minutes per game.
Lyles was visiting family in Saskatoon when he got the phone call notifying him that he had been traded to the Nuggets on draft night last summer. He was initially surprised, then pleased. He had hoped the Nuggets would draft him two years ago, because he felt his versatile skill set would fit well in their free-flowing style. He already knew Gary Harris, another Indiana product, along with Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay and Jamal Murray from the international circuit.
“It kind of worked out in the end,” Lyles said.
He hired a new nutritionist, personal chef and trainer during the offseason. They helped him squash his late-night eating habits and add muscle to his frame. Nuggets head coach Michael Malone gushed about Lyles during training camp, impressed by his ability to stretch the floor, facilitate in the post and make plays off the dribble. But the Nuggets also had a big-man logjam after landing Millsap as a coveted free agent, re-signing Mason Plumlee and retaining mainstay Kenneth Faried. By the season opener, Lyles had been squeezed out of the rotation.
Frustrated and somewhat confused, Lyles nevertheless maintained the same approach fostered as a child. He arrived to practice early and stayed late. He picked the brains of assistant coaches and veterans such as Richard Jefferson while on the bench during games.
“He didn’t feel sorry for himself,” Malone said. “He didn’t drop his head. He didn’t have that self-pity that I hate to see.”
Added Lyles: “It kind of just added fuel to the fire.”
Increased playing time
Lyles followed routine late Thursday, calling his dad after the Nuggets’ dramatic win over the Bulls. The Nuggets fell behind by 18 points in the first quarter, after which Lyles helped spark their initial comeback with two 3-pointers in his first four minutes off the bench. He finished with 10 points, six rebounds and one assist in a season-high 22 minutes.
Entering the game against the Lakers on Saturday night, Lyles had averaged 7.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in the six games since Millsap’s wrist injury. He has been on the floor in crunchtime, though Malone would like to see an uptick in his rebounding numbers.
Without Millsap for months and Jokic for at least the immediate future, the Nuggets need Lyles. But Lyles doesn’t feel like much has changed, other than the increase in playing time.
He stayed ready. And now he is ready.
“(I’m) just trying to carve out time,” Lyles said. “So that even when Paul comes back, Coach knows that he can still count on me.”