SEATTLE (AP) -Rashard Lewis took a rare breather, holding his head in his hands with elbows propped on the baseline table.
He's tired and beat up from carrying the SuperSonics through the final two months of another disappointing season, one done in by injuries that riddled Seattle's roster.
But that heavy burden could prove profitable.
Lewis will play what could be his final game for the Sonics on Wednesday night, when they close out another underachieving season with a home game against Dallas. On Lewis' horizon is a summer of free agency, where the versatile forward is expected to be one of the most sought-after players.
``In a way I do feel like I should be one of the top guys on the market. Not necessarily publicity wise. I don't have a big name out in the public,'' Lewis said. ``But at the same time, my numbers kind of speak for themselves. Every year, I improve.''
Lewis will turn 28 this summer and is entering his prime as an experienced, multitalented veteran with nine NBA seasons - all with Seattle.
He's 6-foot-10, but shoots 3-pointers at a 39-percent clip. He's a lanky 230 pounds, but doesn't shy from driving the lane, and often is Seattle's best post-up option.
Lewis has the ball-handling skills and the speed to play like a guard, and the demeanor to bang inside. This season, he's averaging career highs in points (22.4), rebounds (6.7) and assists (2.5). He would have been in the All-Star discussion if a hand injury hadn't sidelined him for nearly two months.
``I told him last year I think he plays to about 60 percent of his potential. I think he's moved up to 70 or 75 (percent),'' Seattle coach Bob Hill said. ``I think Rashard could be a perennial All-Star. ... I think he's got that kind of talent at 6-10.''
All that talent might equal a huge contract as a free agent come July 1. Lewis has said he will opt out of the final two years of his current deal with the Sonics, leaving $21 million on the table.
The windfall could be far greater.
Lewis is likely to draw offers of five years and in the range $15 million per season from any number of teams. Lewis is expected to be among the most hotly pursued players, along with Chauncey Billups, Gerald Wallace and possibly Vince Carter.
``We expect a tremendous amount of interest,'' said Tony Dutt, Lewis' agent. ``He really is going into his prime.''
Lewis could return to Seattle, and with Ray Allen, try to turnaround a franchise about to complete its fourth losing season in five years. Overshadowing that is the uncertainty about the franchise's future in the Pacific Northwest given the Oklahoma City-based ownership and an ongoing debate regarding a new arena. The Sonics have one advantage in being the only team that can offer Lewis a six-year deal.
``It was in his contract that he could become a free agent. And you can't blame him for wanting to see what's out there,'' Sonics' vice chairman Lenny Wilkens said. ``But that won't stop us from trying to get it done.''
Lewis' rise into the NBA's elite wasn't expected based on his start.
Lewis was thought to be a lottery pick out of Alief Elsik High School outside Houston in 1998, but on draft day team after team passed him by.
Television cameras caught the tears in Lewis' eyes as names continued to be called. Finally, Seattle took Lewis with the 32nd pick in the second round, and the 18-year-old entered an unknown world without the security of a guaranteed contract.
``I didn't know a lot. All I knew was from TV,'' Lewis said. ``I kind of jumped into a man's league, but at a young age. I had to sit back and watch, but mature fast. I didn't have time to do it over a couple of years as a college player.''
Lewis became a starter after two seasons, developing his game as a complement to Gary Payton. During the 2002-03 season, Payton was traded to Milwaukee for Allen, but Lewis' numbers continued their steady rise. He has improved his scoring or rebounding or assists every season of his career.
Lewis was an All-Star in 2005, and was on a similar pace this season. Even with the year a lost cause, Lewis avoided the temptation to loaf, raising his game after Allen was sidelined with season-ending ankle surgery. Lewis' stellar play down the stretch gave Seattle some meaningless wins.
They weren't without merit for Lewis, who has averaged nearly 25 points in the final weeks of the regular season.
``It's a great opportunity for him to step in and be a leader,'' Lakers' coach Phil Jackson said. ``I think that's one of the things people wondered about him, if he could elevate his personality and be a leader out there.''
Now, it's up to Lewis whether to take his talents elsewhere, or return to the only team he's known.
``I want Rashard to do what is necessary for himself, but this is his team that he's a part of and he's respected and he knows what's here,'' Allen said. ``He could do a lot of great things in the city to stay here and be a part of the franchise.''

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