Ailene Voisin

With free spirit Lemar, UC Davis to play for Big West title

Brynton Lemar, UC Davis senior guard plays his final home game against Hawaii on Thursday March 2, 2017 in Davis.
Brynton Lemar, UC Davis senior guard plays his final home game against Hawaii on Thursday March 2, 2017 in Davis. jvillegas@sacbee.com

If the thump, thump, thump of a bouncing basketball echoes inside the practice gym late at night while most of the UC Davis campus sleeps, the Aggies’ rebel-with-a-cause is the most likely culprit.

Brynton Lemar sways to his own rhythm – sometimes to his Jamaican father’s beloved Bob Marley – and somehow manages to be a company man. He scores, he defends, he assists, he makes crucial plays, and he makes his teammates better. His competitive edge is more subtle than spectacular, but name a sport, and beware.

Swimming. Tennis. Soccer. Basketball. He wants someday to shoot like Steph Curry, but since boyhood has adhered to the Kobe Bryant work ethic. Others sleep. You hit the gym. And when your team has a chance to win its second Big West Conference regular-season championship in three years Saturday? On the road against top challenger UC Irvine?

One afternoon late in the week, Lemar practices with the Aggies. Conducts interviews. Jokes about his typical campus mode of transportation – an old mountain bicycle parked outside the gym – then goes back to work, just him, a basketball and a hoop.

On an Aggies team that went undefeated this season at the Pavilion, yet regardless of Saturday’s outcome against Irvine still needs a conference tournament title to earn an NCAA Tournament bid, Lemar is the starting shooting guard and a San Diego beach kid by birthright only. Unless you look closely, really study his skills, he is swallowed by the waves. He didn’t choose the company he keeps, and these Aggies, well, their personalities are as dynamic as their game.

Darius Graham is the Sacramento-born fireplug, the natural leader who forgets that he is barely 5-foot-10 and dreams of being a King. Roseville’s enduring and physical J.T. Adenrele is still threatening to become a college lifer because of a laundry list of injuries. Lawrence White is cut like Schwarzenegger and provides muscle, guile and sweet shots. Chima Moneke wears glasses that resemble swim goggles, leads the Big West in rebounds and blocks, and days ago against Long Beach State swatted a shot into the bleachers with such ferocity that Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein grinned and whooped with his buddies seated baseline.

Brynton Lemar. If the Aggies win the conference, the Player of the Year award could easily come down to Moneke and Lemar, the junior and the senior, and who knows how the coaches will vote? While Moneke can be spectacular – and is an absolute steal of a recruit for Aggies coach Jim Les, who plucked him out of a community college tournament in the Midwest – the lean, slinky 6-4 Lemar emerged late last season as an invaluable all-around contributor.

Entering the weekend, the former Saint Augustine prep standout ranked in the top five in the Big West in scoring (team-high 15.9 points per game), 3-point percentage, three-pointers and minutes, and in the top 10 in assists. He also was among the league’s elite defenders based on advanced analytics.

“Brynton is not going to wow you with high-flying dunks,” said Les, his voice rising with each word, “but after every game, just look at his stat line. He does a little bit of everything. He can handle, create his own shot, play off ball screens, shoot 3s, finish at the rim, and every night, he guards our opponent’s best perimeter player. Oh, and he makes big plays – free throws, jumpers, steals – when we need them.”

Lemar’s love of hoops is both inherent and inherited. His father, Earl, an engineer with San Diego-based Qualcomm (owned by the Jacobs family, Kings minority owners), grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, playing soccer and water polo. He was a member of Jamaica’s national water polo team in high school, though he says, with a resigned tone, that a lack of funding dashed any hopes of competing in the Pan Am Games or qualifying for the Olympics.

After relocating to San Diego and joining dozens of family members trekking to San Diego State, he became a basketball convert – make that a Magic Johnson-Lakers convert.

“When Brynton was born, three or four months later, my wife wanted to get a tiny basketball to put in his crib,” Earl said this week. “I wanted the official size. So I put it in his crib, and at night, he would cling to that ball. And then when we would sit together and watch the Lakers. He was very good at tennis and soccer, but it was always basketball and the Lakers.”

Brynton, brave soul that he is – considering he rooms with Graham, a die-hard Kings fan – picks up the story from there: “I remember being a kid, watching the Kings-Lakers series (2002), and high-fiving with my dad when Robert Horry hit that shot. I loved Kobe, especially. No one worked harder.”

Kobe’s individual streak impressed Brynton, as well. Although virtually every member of his family attends or graduated from San Diego State, he was receptive to overtures from Les, and true to his nature. “Brynton always wanted to be different,” his father said, chuckling. “When he was in middle school, we would pack his lunch, and he had a teacher who loved sports as much as he did, and loved the fact Brynton knew all the stats of basketball, soccer, hockey players. They would have lunch together. Who does that?”

Obviously, Brynton. His goals are as wide as his world. After earning his degree in communications this May, he will pursue pro basketball and eventually consider a career in broadcasting, working for a professional organization or becoming an attorney. He is intrigued by litigation and admits that the image of courtroom battles appeals to his competitive nature.

In a former life, who knows? It might have been Lewis & Clark and Lemar.

“I’m a trendsetter,” he says, “not a follower. I like creating my own path. That’s why coming here (to Davis) was so appealing. I liked the idea of building one of the premier programs in the Big West, being part of something special and proving we can compete against anybody in the conference.”

He is fixated on driving the Aggies to the conference tournament title and the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid, and then, with a grin, he wonders: “Who knows?”

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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