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Kentucky freshman Marcus Lee hopes he can be a 'sponge' for John Calipari

When Marcus Lee chose to attend Kentucky, he expected to be challenged on the basketball court. He did not necessarily expect that challenge as a volleyball player.


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Lee, who was a standout volleyball and basketball player at Deer Valley High School in the Bay Area, spent some time working out with the UK women’s volleyball team this summer.


“My first time going against them I thought it was just going to be me dominating a whole bunch of girls, ’cause that’s kind of just what we think. And then I came in there, I got one huge kill and then they were like, ‘Oh, OK,’ ” Lee said in a one-on-one interview with KyForward in September. “Instead of backing off, they kind of went straight back at me. They never really backed down from me, which I loved.”


Whether Lee would be able to succeed longterm as a collegiate volleyball player seems to be a point of contention. UK volleyball coach Craig Skinner, who calls Lee the team’s biggest fan, has his doubts.


Marcus Lee. (Photo by Jon Hale)

Marcus Lee. (Photo by Jon Hale)

“To be honest, Marcus is super athletic but for him to serve, receive and do the things in first contact for volleyball probably would be a challenge for him,” Skinner said. “In fact, Cal and I have tried to get a match between his guys and ours. For some reason, they won’t let us play that. We’ll try and do that this year for the students maybe again.


“But he’s a great fan and he was a heck of a volleyball player.”


Listening to Lee recap his work with the team paints a different picture.


“They just battled with me constantly without giving up,” he said. “I thought it was awesome.”


Lee’s volleyball skills have helped him on the basketball court.


“Before I went into volleyball in the sixth grade, I was the most uncoordinated kid you’ve ever seen in your life,” he said. “I couldn’t chew bubble gum and walk at the same time. Then volleyball gave me the footwork to jump-stop, jump, come back down, move and then jump again, move past the ball.”


Lee thinks his volleyballs skills most easily translate to the basketball court on defense, especially rebounding and shot-blocking.


He arrives at UK with a reputation as a prolific shot blocker after averaging 6.7 blocks to go with 17.7 points and 19.5 rebounds per game as a senior at Deer Valley. He averaged 9.1 blocks per game as a junior.


UK fans are no strangers to prolific shot-blockers. Anthony Davis set an NCAA freshman and UK single-season record with 186 blocks in the 2011-12 season. The next season, Nerlens Noel blocked 104 shots, second-most in a single season in program history, in just 24 games. Along the way, Noel set the single-game record with 12 blocks against Ole Miss in January.


Lee is likely to come off the bench as a freshman at UK, meaning he may will not match Davis’ and Noel’s numbers immediately, but he is aware of their records.


“I’ve gone over those records,” he said. “I’ve always put myself at a top-record caliber, where I would see something and I would go after it. So it’s just something great to stand by or look over my head and say, ‘Oh, that’s still there.’ ”


Lee’s role as a freshman is still up in the air.


As a 6-foot-9, 215 pound forward, he faces competition from sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein as well as freshmen Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Derek Willis for playing time.


According to UK head coach John Calipari, the key for Lee to find playing time is sticking to what he does well.


“Dakari weighs 50 more pounds than him, at least 45,” Calipari said. “So you’re going to bang with him? You’ve got to out-quick him.”


Facing so much competition on a roster that includes seven former McDonald’s All-Americans and as many as eight possible future NBA first-round picks does not scare Lee.


“Here, I have to battle for everything I want, I have to battle for a starting spot, I have to battle for my minutes,” he said. “It makes me better in everything, battling with Julius, Alex, Willie and Dakari Johnson.”


Lee was rated a five-star recruit by Rivals.com, 247Sports and Scout.com, and ESPN.com had him as a four-star recruit. He was ranked anywhere from being the 14th to the 25th best prospect in the class of 2013 by the four major recruiting services.


Despite the lofty recruiting rankings, Lee has somewhat flown under the radar compared to some of his higher profile classmates. But being a little different is nothing new for Lee. He takes pride in not fitting into an easily defined box.


“I have other things on my mind,” he said. “I do want to be the smartest person around. I love technology, so I always like messing with things. I do like other sports. I think I just love learning things.


“My brother told me when I was younger, ‘Just be a sponge.’ And that’s what I started to be. I started to be a sponge, just soaking up all the information from everybody.”


Judging by his recent tweets, Lee is embracing everything it means to be not only a UK basketball player, but also a UK student.


The move across the country has opened his eyes to all sorts of new experiences.


“Just coming out to Kentucky for the first time was great,” he said. “More people come up to you and talk to you, have full conversation with you. And you get to learn from them.


“It’s really great learning the difference between California and Kentucky and through school life and coming in here and learning a whole lot more stuff about basketball that I had no idea about. It was really awesome.”




In the weeks leading up to the 2013 UK men’s basketball media day, KyForward is previewing the season with a series of stories about the Cats resulting from interviews with players and head coach John Calipari from September. As they publish, you can see all of the stories in the series here.

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