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Marcus Lee was always ready for breakout, and he'll have to be ready against Wisconsin


As unlikely as it may have seemed this time last week, Marcus Lee could be a huge part of Kentucky's Final Four gameplan Saturday vs. Wisconsin (Photo by James Pennington)

As unlikely as it may have seemed this time last week, Marcus Lee could be a huge part of Kentucky’s Final Four gameplan Saturday vs. Wisconsin (Photo by James Pennington)

 

Marcus Lee didn’t have much to show for his freshman season before his 10-point breakout against Michigan in the Elite Eight—his performance there was so dumbfounding, Kentucky radio announcer Tom Leach exclaimed each of his dunks through an exclamatory laugh—but he knew his time would come at some point.

 

He didn’t know if it would be some time in January, and then January passed. He didn’t know about February, either, and it passed, too. March had almost run out until his big game on Sunday. He attributed much of his success Sunday—he also had eight rebounds and two blocks in 15 now-legendary minutes—to his preparation throughout the year when he was buried on the bench.

 

He started in four games for the Wildcats in November, only because Willie Cauley-Stein was struggling to win the opening tip. Calipari would start Lee for the exclusive purpose of winning the jump ball, then Cauley-Stein would immediately head to the scorer’s table to check in. In those four starts, he played no more than 12 minutes.

 

He had only played a total of 10 minutes in March when Cauley-Stein suffered his injury early in the first half against Louisville in the Sweet 16, and even then, he wasn’t thrown right into the fray against Montrezl Harrell and the Cardinals. Tweets from that game tell the story of how Lee performed in his one minute on the floor Friday:

 

  A few minutes later, he finally got in.

 

 

 

He did not check back in Friday.

 

But Lee went back and reminded himself of how he had gotten where he was—Kentucky—and that he wouldn’t achieve anything trying to play outside himself.

 

“It’s just, the fact is: Try to be ready whenever they do need you,” Lee said on Feb. 26, still buried on the bench for the foreseeable future. “Make sure you bring energy and be productive during the game. If you’re never really sure when you’re going to play, make sure you’re going to help your team with whatever they need help with.”

 

Lee may well play a big role Saturday in the Final Four against Wisconsin. The Badgers’ most dangerous scorer is Frank Kaminsky, a 7-foot junior who plays on the block but also ranges out to the perimeter. It would have been a perfect matchup for Cauley-Stein; nobody in the country would seem to be a better defensive player to stick on Kaminsky than Cauley-Stein, really. But Lee’s combination of athleticism and size—he’s still three inches shorter than Kaminsky—will be valuable.

 

Below is a story from Oct. 16 on Lee’s unique approach to basketball via another of his passions: math.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Without ever having known the game of basketball, its invention not arriving until a century and a half after his death a continent away in a country he never knew would secede from his own, it still seems relatively reasonable to predict that if Sir Isaac Newton were a college basketball fan, he’d have a new favorite player in Marcus Lee. Bear with me.
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That’s a bold statement, surely; Newton had many pursuits. He was a man of science, faith, calculus and the cosmos. But most of all, Newton was an outward thinker, and Marcus Lee appears to be—this is all relative, of course—an outward thinker in an arena in which thought is more often communicated through Xs-and-Os talk and mundane, pre-determined utterances instead of genuine introspection and creativity. Lee thinks creatively.

 

But first, consider his demeanor. Every time one of Lee’s teammates was asked about Lee, the first trait was one of two things: energy and athleticism. Nobody knows about Lee’s energy more than Dakari Johnson, Lee’s roommate. Lee is up every morning bright and early, and his head pops off the pillow with immediate zeal. It confounds Johnson.

 

“He’s up super early taking a shower, waking me up, always laughing, always smiling. He’s just non-stop,” Johnson said.

 

What time is super early? “I hear the showers around 6,” Johnson said. “That’s when I wake up. Then I’ll be like, ‘Why’d you wake me up?’ He’ll be like, ‘I don’t know.’” It should be noted that Johnson’s estimate is probably a true 6 a.m., because he started to form an F-sound for the number “five” before committing to 6 o’clock.

 

Now, athleticism. Head coach John Calipari called him a “young Dennis Rodman”; Alex Poythress called him the most athletic player on the team; so did Dominique Hawkins; Derek Willis said he’s the most athletic player he’s ever played with. Willie Cauley-Stein called him a freak athlete; the term “pogo stick” was used ad nauseum.

 

His combination of creativity and athleticism means he can do just about whatever he wants with his body, because it’s difficult for him (or his teammates) to think up things he can’t do. This is its truest with regard to lob dunks. Get creative and throw it wherever you want; wherever it lands, Lee will grab it and dunk it.

 

“Cal’s like, ‘Well, if you throw it anywhere in the gym—no, if you throw it anywhere in this city or country, Marcus will end up finding it and getting it,’” Lee said. “We kind of just sat there and died because we knew it was all kind of true.”

 

If you associate lob dunks and Kentucky’s 2011-12 national championship run, frequency is one of the first qualities you’ll remember. They threw a lot of lobs. This year’s team may turn out the same, and Lee well may be throwing down more than anyone. Even though Hawkins said he hasn’t seen Lee miss one yet, Lee will probably miss one at one point. He’ll either fail to grab a ball out of the air or brick it off the rim while throwing it down.

 

But accepting failure is built in to Lee’s approach to the game. That’s what he learned from math.  Lee loves math. He hasn’t declared a major yet, but he said he’s considering math. Working out an equation requires a certain kind of creativity in simultaneously thinking ahead and thinking backward. It’s logical, and all of the parts of a formula work together to produce a final figure.

 

He never much liked English class, he said, because memorizing facts isn’t for him. That’s not engaging to him. Math is engaging. If he misses a class or doesn’t remember a step to an equation, he isn’t left hanging. He can work his way through to the end, see where he messed up and weave backward to diagnose any problems encountered. He stays open-minded throughout, letting the logic guide him instead of any preconceived notions he has in his head. He applies that same discipline and curiosity to basketball.

 

“Basketball, it’s where you have to learn things,” he said. “You might mess up, but you can take a step back, look back at it and, like, ‘Oh, that’s what I did wrong,’ and then go back and fix it. Math, you can get that problem wrong and go back and look at the steps. You see what you did wrong and you can fix it, and then you have the right answer.”

 

Based on teammates’ descriptions of Lee’s doings through the first several practices this season, he’s awfully close to defying some of Newton’s laws of physics. Jon Hood, who was on the sideline with an ACL injury during Anthony Davis’ one year in Lexington, is one of Lee’s go-to lob throwers during practice scrimmages. Hood’s strategy, paraphrased: If I get in trouble, just throw it in the vicinity of the rim. Wherever I throw it, Lee will clean it up.

 

As unafraid as Lee is to fail, and as unlimited his skills to grab a ball out of the air seem to be, he still finds ways to surprise Hood. And everyone else, really. He said he still surprises himself.

 

Said Lee: “I get at least one a practice where I’m walking back and I’m like, ‘How did that happen?’ And usually Hoodie is on my team, and he’s usually the one throwing it, so he’s like, ‘How did you catch that?’ Don’t ask me. It was a big blur. I don’t remember anything.”

 

Such an approach to basketball seems rare. Players are drilled to think about the game all day, and many players come across in interviews and on social media as two-dimensional figures. Lee’s third dimension is fully realized. His left brain and right brain seem to combine every day to tackle the task that brought him from California to Kentucky. If his approach isn’t novel, his willingness to talk about it is.

 

But even as creative as he is, and even as unafraid as he is in the face of failure, and even as athletic as he is, he won’t abuse any of those characteristics. He’s still pragmatic. At Kentucky’s media day Tuesday, he was asked if he could jump and grab a dime off the top of the backboard.

 

“Um, if that dime was worth $1,000, yes. But if it’s worth a dime, I will not try.”


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