Lee for 3! Can This South Korean Break the NBA Barrier? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Lee for 3! Can This South Korean Break the NBA Barrier?

Lee for 3! Can This South Korean Break the NBA Barrier?

By Ray Glier


Because his sweet shot could help open doors for the NBA in the world's 10th-largest economy.

By Ray Glier

  • Sweet-shooting Hyunjung Lee represents a new NBA hope for South Korea.
  • The 6-foot-7 wing models his moves after Steph Curry while playing at Curry’s alma mater, Davidson.

Hyunjung Lee lifts his right elbow just enough for a proper arc and flicks an unspoiled follow-through, with his hand finishing toward the rim. “Lee for 3” is as rhythmic as his classic shooting form. A 6-foot-7 sophomore wing player at Davidson College, Lee’s exquisite mechanics have him shooting 45 percent from 3-point distance and 90 percent from the free throw line this season.

In basketball’s ecosystem, you jump on the NBA’s radar with one elite skill, even if you are from a country with little reputation of producing basketball talent, like South Korea.

It was Lee’s flawless shooting that caught the NBA’s attention at a camp in Hangzhou, China, in 2017, when, Lee estimates, he made about seven 3s per game. Chris Ebersole, the NBA’s senior director for international operations, saw the performance and so did Eugene Park, director of talent identification for the NBA Academy program. “Everybody said he was the best shooter in the camp,” Ebersole says. “Looking at him mechanically, beautiful form, textbook.”

The NBA investigated Lee some more to judge his coachability, work ethic and personality, then invited him to its NBA Global Academy in Australia. The NBA has academies all over the world, but it is not just merely to develop young players. It is a more comprehensive proposition: to develop marketable stars in new markets by grooming them on and off the court.

[Lee is not just] an ambassador for the NBA, but for his own country and building up the game in Korea.

Chris Ebersole, NBA senior director for international operations

South Korea is one of those burgeoning markets; there has only been one South Korean to ever play in the NBA (Ha Seung-Jin, who played for Portland from 2004–2006). “There is a ton of interest and a ton of passion, and we expect it to grow,” Ebersole says of the sports-mad country of 50 million. “Lee, in our expectation, is going to be a big part of that, not just as an ambassador for the NBA, but for his own country and building up the game in Korea.”


Hyunjung Lee takes a shot during practice.

Lee’s favorite player is Golden State’s Klay Thompson, so he did a “Splash Brothers” tour when he was choosing a college. He visited Washington State where Thompson played, and Davidson where Steph Curry played.

Lee chose Davidson because well-regarded coach Bob McKillop has a style of play similar to what he learned at the NBA Global Academy for two years under veteran coach Marty Clarke — spread offense, passing, defensive fundamentals and ball security.

Lee averaged 8.4 points a game as a freshman and has boosted his average this season to 13.7 for the Wildcats (10–5). He is a better rebounder too, and he understands how to play the game without the ball. Pull up any video clip of Lee and you see a player cutting through the paint, head up, hands ready for a pass and a backdoor layup. His progress was noticed back home too: Lee was recently added to the South Korean national team as one of its youngest members.

Here is something else about the 20-year-old Lee: He does not wind himself up every day with ambitions and assumes nothing, even as the NBA has taken him under its wing. Ask the 210-pound scorer what he thinks of his chances to play in the NBA and he quickly says, “Right now? Probably zero. I have to improve a lot of things defensively, physically.”

That Lee has a constructive view of the game is no accident. His mother, Jeong A Seong, played on South Korea’s 1984 Olympic silver medal–winning team. His father, Yunhwan Lee, is a longtime high school basketball coach. Hyunjung played soccer as a child, but basketball was always going to be his thing.

He was 5 years old when he first started shooting. Lee took it too seriously. When one of his father’s high school players beat him in a game, Lee cried — he hated to lose. His father counseled him, “Enjoy the game first. Have fun with it.”

Lee says he was 11 when his father started to bear down on the granular points of the game. The lessons started with shooting and more shooting, and nature helped as Lee grew an inch a year. He made junior national teams in South Korea, but Lee says it was hard to find good hoops competition in his country because of the dominance of baseball and soccer.

Now he’s finding all the competition he can handle. Lee was making 50 percent of his 3s through 10 games with Davidson when defending Atlantic 10 Conference champion Dayton devoted their defense to stopping him in a January 8 game — and held him scoreless in an overtime loss. McKillop points out that Lee was also ill, and Dayton’s devotion to stopping Lee’s shot opened up driving lanes for the other Wildcats.

Lee has dealt with humiliation on the court before. His freshman season, he was looking at a wide-open 3 from the corner against Auburn before the shot was swatted away by the Tigers’ Anfernee McLemore, who followed with a taunt of Lee. “My shot flew back behind me,” Lee says with a chuckle. “I can’t remember his name. I should remember his name. I’m shocked.”

The willing self-mockery is part of Lee’s easygoing personality, cutting up in one video by strumming an imaginary guitar after draining a 3 to vanquish a teammate in a shooting competition. He feels comfortable at Davidson because of the number of international players on the roster (six).

More seriously, Lee said about McLemore’s block, “I had to do something about that.”

So Lee started working harder on The Steph: one hard dribble followed by a step-back jumper, the shot made famous by Curry when he led all of Division I in scoring while at Davidson. It is Lee’s signature move now.

Even as he improves, there is no hint of transferring to a school with more TV exposure, like so many others, so he can raise his profile. Lee says he has two more years to grow at Davidson under McKillop, who’s constantly pushing him to improve. “Off the court, he tries to treat me as family, but on the court, he always yells at me about defense,” Lee says.

In the modern NBA where a spread offense built on outside shooting is more valuable than isolation moves, the dutiful Lee would fit in. And as the NBA eyes the world’s 10th-largest economy in South Korea, Lee’s magnetic personality will matter just as much as his sweet jumper.

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