“He just played very, very hard’: Arizona’s Ira Lee makes the most of increased playing time

Seven rebounds, a steal and a pair of crowd-pleasing dunks may have earned Ira Lee some rousing cheers Saturday at McKale Center, but they were hardly a revelation.

Not only has Lee’s high-motor game been on display at Arizona for two-plus seasons now, but his ability to impact things was clear within the numbers even before helped UA sweep Utah and No. 20 Colorado over the weekend.

Given just five minutes at Oregon on Jan. 9, Lee responded with four points on 2-for-2 shooting, a rebound and three assists with no turnovers.

And, despite playing just 12 minutes combined at Oregon and Oregon State last weekend, Lee entered last week with the highest defensive rebounding percentage of any UA player — collecting opponents’ misses 23.6% of the time when he’s on the floor.

He also entered last week as UA’s best per-minute rebounder, averaging 12.8 per 40 minutes.

That was at the same time that UA coach Sean Miller was complaining about the Wildcats’ lack of rebounding, suggesting that perhaps something else in Lee’s game was missing. Like maybe defense, or fouling too much (Lee also had UA’s most fouls per minute, 5.43 per 40 minutes, entering last weekend).

Miller said Lee played only a limited role against Oregon State on Jan. 12 because of matchup issues in facing versatile Beaver star Tres Tinkle when he played power forward, although it might have cost UA on the glass.

Lee didn’t play for the first 16 minutes of the game and Miller said it was “mind-blowing” that only three UA players had rebounds before halftime (Zeke Nnaji, Nico Mannion and Stone Gettings).

Asked after the Oregon trip if there were things lacking in Lee’s game that were keeping him off the floor, Miller did not directly answer.

Instead, he said:

“We’re looking to put him in a little bit more, and give him bigger opportunity,” Miller said. “You know, Ira is one of our team’s hardest workers, and his attitude is tremendous. I thought at Oregon, he really did a good job in the minutes that he played. He was a positive contributor for sure.”

Lee then played 12 minutes against Utah, getting three rebounds and two points on 1-for-2 shooting, while blocking two shots and dishing two assists.

On Saturday against Colorado, Lee had six points, seven rebounds, one steal and one assist in 26 minutes.

“He just played very, very hard,” Miller said. “He finished around the basket, he rebounded at both ends. Ira is one of our most consistent practice players. I think the guys on the team will tell you that.

“And when you’re like that, sometimes you really can break through in games. (On Saturday) he had a big day.”

In five games before last weekend, Lee played no more than nine minutes and he didn’t play at all in the second half of UA’s Dec. 21 loss to St. John’s.

“I give credit to my teammates, they kept me locked in,” Lee said of the reduced minutes. “I just came in every day, did the same thing I do every day: Work hard, get my extra reps in, get my extra runs in.

“I didn’t change anything, but I give the biggest credit to my teammates. They’re always talking to me ‘Hey, stay ready, stay ready,’ they’re just always letting me know that I’m a good player and I kept that in mind. I just kept going. That’s all.”

With Lee playing well Saturday, Miller cut back on minutes for Stone Gettings, who has been starting in place of Chase Jeter inside. In two starts, Gettings has averaged 5.0 points and 2.0 rebounds while shooting a collective 3 for 5 from the field.

Gettings played 28 minutes on Thursday against Utah and, probably in part because of what Lee was doing, played only 15 on Saturday against Colorado.

“I think he’s gotta get used to playing more minutes, playing in a starter’s role,” Miller said. “I sense that, not in a negative way, but he was a little tight in both games.

“He wanted to do well. He knew that we were counting on him. But I believe he’ll settle in as he’s in this starter’s role, and has a bigger opportunity. I think he can do more and be better. I really believe that.”

It isn’t known if Jeter will return soon to possibly take some of his minutes back. Jeter didn’t play against Utah or Colorado after Miller said Jeter reported back pain in practice Tuesday. After Saturday’s game, Miller put no expectations on his return.

“I don’t have an update other than I think he’ll let us know when he’s feeling better,” Miller said. “He’s working hard with Justin (Kokoskie, UA athletic trainer), like you would expect him to.”

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