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Tuesday, April 4, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lewis' confidence rises along with his playing time

Seattle Times staff reporter

Rashard Lewis wore the white jersey of a starter during Sonic practice yesterday. Whether rising high for a dunk or an offensive rebound, the 6-foot-10 Lewis looked comfortable playing on the same squad as Gary Payton.

In practice, Coach Paul Westphal often mixes squads to prepare for game situations.

Recently, Lewis has been playing so extensively that he might as well practice with the Seattle starters.

What stands out, along with his minutes, is his confidence.

Lewis has more self-assurance on the court than at any other time since going from his high-school prom to the pros in 1998.

"His confidence is sky-high right now," center Horace Grant said. "He's making his shots. He's rebounding. He's playing defense. Whenever you do all that, good things happen and your confidence shoots right up."

A quiet man, Lewis now possesses a talk-softly-carry-a-big-stick type of swagger. It took time, and it is all because of time.

"The more minutes (Westphal) gives me, the more confidence I get in myself," said Lewis, 20, who is averaging 7.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 18.1 minutes. "Each time on the floor, I improve on something. So the more experience I get, the more confidence.

"It's a good feeling. It means that Coach has confidence in me - that I can help the team win ballgames."

He has shown flashes of solid play throughout the season. But after stealing the spotlight from Dennis Rodman on Feb. 9 against the Dallas Mavericks, Lewis has emerged as a key contributor.

"I was kind of up and down until the Dallas game, and once I had a breakout game, I felt more comfortable in myself," said Lewis, who had 30 points and 12 rebounds in that game. "Just knowing that I could do those things I did against Dallas. . . ."

When Vin Baker missed two games because of a strained left hamstring three weeks ago, Lewis flourished. His play made it impossible for Westphal to keep him out the lineup.

Lewis has played so much recently that he didn't notice setting a career-high in minutes (38) against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday. He finished with 18 points and seven rebounds, numbers that would have drawn raves early in the season. But to indicate his improvement, such a performance is expected.

"He's one of the strengths of the team right now," Westphal said. "That's how far he's come."

The drawback for the Sonics is that Lewis, a free agent after this season, is displaying his skills to other teams.

When the Sonics played the Toronto Raptors on March 12, Lewis had 28 points and 11 rebounds, outplaying the Raptors' Tracy McGrady, one of the league's best young players.

After play stopped momentarily, Toronto forward Charles Oakley walked up to Lewis and blurted: "Get your money."

Lewis is in the final season of a two-year contract worth about $800,000. The Sonics have the right of first refusal, which allows them to match any other offer. But Lewis says that minutes, not money, will be the deciding factor.

"The money will always be there," Lewis said. "So it will depend mostly on playing time."

Thus, the Sonics might face a quandary because of the solid play of Ruben Patterson, a candidate for the Most Improved Player Award.

In the past several games, Sonics have used both players together. Patterson is strictly a small forward, but Lewis can play against certain shooting guards and power forwards.

He has come a long way in two seasons as a pro.

Unlike most players who leave college early or skip it entirely, he has a midrange game. Many of his baskets are on short jumpers in the paint or along the baseline.

"He's got a rare ability in the midrange," Westphal said. "A quick release and a great touch."

And Lewis exploits his athleticism to be one of the team's best rebounders.

With the Sonics struggling in the eighth - and final - playoff spot, Lewis is the best development for the franchise this season.

The Sonics seem to be preparing Lewis for a bigger role next season. It's been hard to keep him out the lineup.

"Lewis is going to be here a long time," Westphal said. ------------------------- Denver at Seattle

When: 7 p.m.

Where: KeyArena.

TV: None.

Radio: KJR (950 AM).

Records: Sonics 41-32, Nuggets 30-43.

Probable starting lineups

P SONICS Ppg Rpg Apg

C Horace Grant 7.9 7.7 2.3

F Vin Baker 17.2 7.9 1.9

F Ruben Patterson 12.0 5.5 1.6

G Brent Barry 12.0 4.8 3.7

G Gary Payton 24.0 6.2 9.0

P NUGGETS Ppg Rpg Apg

C Raef LaFrentz 12.3 8.0 1.2

F Antonio McDyess 19.5 8.2 2.0

F Keon Clark 8.8 6.5 0.9

G James Posey 7.8 3.9 1.6

G Nick Van Exel 15.6 4.0 9.0

Notes: Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Denver's shooting guard, is out for the season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left wrist Friday. . . . More than half of Denver's 16 victories have come against playoff-bound teams. Seattle is the only team in the Western Conference that Denver hasn't defeated.

Injuries: Sonics - Emanual Davis (damaged facial nerve), F Chuck Person (arthroscopic surgery, left knee) and G Fred Vinson (tendinitis, left knee) are on the injured list. Nuggets - G Tariq Abdul-Wahad (surgery, left wrist) and Bryant Stith (right quadriceps contusion) are on the injured list.

Nunyo Demasi.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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