Shakey Rodriguez, the Miami high school basketball coaching legend, vividly remembers the first time Chris Lykes caught his attention.
It was late December 2015, and Rodriguez was in the Ronald Reagan High gym watching the Jr. Orange Bowl Classic, a holiday tournament that draws teams from out of state. Also in the bleachers that day was University of Miami coach Jim Larrañaga.
“Coach L walks up to me during layup lines in pregame and says, ‘Guess who I’m here recruiting?’’’ Rodriguez recalled. “So, I point to a 6-8 kid, and he says, ‘Nope.” I point to another tall kid. He says, ‘Nope.’ I point to six or seven guys. He keeps shaking his head. Then I say, ‘Don’t tell me it’s the little fella.’ Coach L smiled, and said, ‘Yup.’
“One quarter into the game, I turned to Coach L and said, ‘The little fella is pretty darned good.’ He couldn’t have been taller than 5-6, but he was the most dominant and impactful kid out there.”
That little fella from Washington, D.C., is now a freshman point guard for the undefeated sixth-ranked Hurricanes (8-0) heading into Saturday’s road game at George Washington University, in Lykes’ hometown.
And, he’s still little — generously listed at 5-7 and 160 pounds.
But what Lykes lacks in size he makes up for in skill, speed, and heart, which is why his suitors included Villanova, Georgetown, Notre Dame, and Stanford. It is why during that high school holiday tournament, Lykes’ Gonzaga Prep team beat Coral Gables High 81-47, beat Gulliver 91-65 and knocked off Miami High 82-49 in the final.
“Chris Lykes has a dynamic game, meaning his speed, quickness, and jumping ability,” Larrañaga said. “If he were 6-5 or 6-6, he’d be Michael Jordan. That’s how dynamic he is.”
Before the season began, Larrañaga told Miami reporters that they were “in for a treat” with Lykes. The freshman quickly proved his coach right with his breakneck speed, shooting ability and energy. When he comes off the bench, it’s impossible not to notice him, not only because he’s the smallest man on the court, but because he makes such an impact on the pace of the game. He is averaging 7 points and 1.6 assists per game.
“It doesn’t matter your height, what matters is the size of your heart in terms of what you’re capable of doing with your talent,” Larrañaga said. “With his talent, he needs to be a nuisance on defense, and he needs to push the tempo on offense. He needs to look for his three-point shots, but also look to penetrate and pitch. He’s very capable of doing that.”
Larrañaga said he had “no reservations whatsoever” about taking a player Lykes’ size. He has always had a place in his heart for players others consider undersized, which is why he was so high on Shane Larkin and Angel Rodriguez, both of whom led the Canes to the Sweet 16.
“When you’ve played and coached college basketball as long as I have, you have a lot of experience of comparing players to other players; and the comparisons are never exact, but there was a guard, Calvin Murphy, who was 5-9, that’s eight inches shorter than me, and there’s no way I could guard the guy,” Larrañaga said. “I had to coach against Earl Boykins and Muggsy Bogues, and there was nothing we could do to stop those guys. And in Muggsy Bogues’ case, he’s 5-foot-3. Chris towers over him.”
Ever since he was 8, Lykes has been hearing he’s too short for basketball.
“Nobody’s told me directly to my face, but I’ve heard people say, especially when I walk on the court, I can hear it, guys joking, ‘What is he, one of the trainers? Team manager?’” Lykes said. “But I just try to show my game. I knew I was going to be small my whole life. No reason to complain about it, just make the best you can of it. I wasn’t going to let anyone tell me no. It just built a fire inside me, motivation. I want to show you I can be on the court.”
Lykes set the Gonzaga Prep career scoring record with 2,266 points. As a senior, he averaged 17.6 points and 4.2 assists. He was named All-Met Player of the Year, and ESPN rated him the 12th-best point guard prospect in the nation. He fell in love with the Hurricanes during their 2012-13 Sweet 16 run, and paid special note to how often they ran the pick and roll for undersized guard Larkin.
“When Coach L was recruiting me, he told me height really doesn’t matter. He doesn’t see it as a disadvantage,” Lykes said. “He has proof to back that up, with guards like Angel and Shane Larkin. Those were really good guards here, and the impact they made in his offense, I saw that and thought I can do the same thing.”
At a glance
▪ No. 6 UM vs. George Washington.
▪ When: Saturday, noon.
▪ Where: Charles E Smith Center, Washington, D.C.
▪ Records: UM (8-0), GW (5-5)
▪ TV: CBSSN