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[Newsmaker] Lee Hyun-jung, a second Korean NBA player in making?

Davidson junior may be just one promising NCAA player in the pack, but Koreans have high hopes

Lee Hyun-jung of Davidson Wildcats (Photo from
Lee Hyun-jung of Davidson Wildcats (Photo from

Days after Lee Hyun-jung of the Davidson Wildcats scorched the University of North Caroline at Charlotte 49ers with a career-high 32 points on Nov. 30, all the buzz around the Korean-born scorer focused on three letters: NBA.

Now in his junior year, the 21-year-old native of Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, has been making regular appearances in mock NBA drafts since he became the first Davidson Wildcat to record a 50-40-90 season -- at least 50 percent, 40 percent and 90 percent in field goal, three-point and free-throw percentages, a feat that even the team’s living legend Stephen Curry had not achieved in his college years.

If Lee makes it onto an NBA roster, he will be the second Korean player in history to join the world’s top basketball league, as well as the first wing player.

The first and only Korean NBA player, the now-retired Ha Seung-jin, is positive about Lee’s draft prospects.

“The NBA does pick players with one effective weapon, which in my case was size and strength. (Lee) Hyun-jung has size and shooting skills,” he said in an interview with local media.

Standing at 201 centimeters tall and weighing around 98 kilograms, Lee has the size of an NBA wing. But whether he will be fast and strong enough to secure a spot in the big league remains to be seen, which is among the reasons why he is yet to be considered a lock in the upcoming draft.

Lee’s prospects

Lee has taken on the role as the Wildcat’s leading scorer in his junior season, averaging 18.9 points 6.9 rebounds and 2 assists on 52.3 percent shooting from the field, 43.8 percent from the three-point line, and 90.5 percent from the free-throw line. His stellar shooting has drawn comparisons to Curry, although he has said his role model is Curry’s Golden State Warriors teammate Klay Thompson.

After averaging 8.4 points off the bench as a freshman, Lee blossomed into one of the key players on the team last season by starting all 22 games and becoming the second highest scorer on the team. His specialty is catch-and-shoot 3-pointers that utilize his off-the-ball movement and quick release.

But, few players have ever been drafted out of Davidson.

Curry is the only Wildcat to be picked in the last 50 NBA drafts. Only six Wildcats have ever suited up for an NBA team, with Brandon Williams -- undrafted and played from 1998 to 2003 -- being the most recent case.

Kellan Grady, who led the scoring for Davidson last year as a senior, transferred to another school with a wildcat mascot, Kentucky University. Kentucky is a NCAA powerhouse that has produced well over 100 NBA players, 27 of whom are active and which include superstars like Anthony Davis.

College players’ draft stocks are generally affected by how well they do in the NCAA tournament and Davidson has only made 14 appearances in its history. The only time it made a real stride was back in 2008 when it defeated the Gonzaga Bulldogs, Georgetown Hoyas, and Wisconsin Badgers in an improbable run to the Elite Eight, buoyed by monster performance of -- you guessed it -- Stephen Curry.

The Wildcats ran an offense that was almost completely built around Curry. In his last season with the team, he scored 28.6 points on 38.3 percent usage rate -- an estimate of what percentage of the team’s plays were used by the player while on the floor. In comparison, Lee is averaging 10 points less with a 26.4 percent usage rate.

Lee has yet to play in an NCAA tournament, and his only showing on the national level was when the Wildcats lost to the North Carolina State in the less prestigious National Invitational Tournament in 2021, where he scored 13 points on 4-of-nine shooting in his team’s 75-61 loss to the Wolfpack.

Surely, Lee is no Stephen Curry but one does not necessarily have to be a star to play in the NBA. As Ha said, Lee has a sure-fire weapon that can appeal to most NBA teams. Steve Kerr, Curry’s coach, was considered a one-tool player in his playing days, but his sharp shooting had allowed him to be picked 50th back in the 1988 draft.

The NBA draft consists of two rounds, with total of 60 players picked by 30 teams.

In his November mock draft, Bryan Kalbrosky of USA Today projected Lee to go 50th to the Charlotte Hornets, after putting him in the 29th overall spot in August.

Sam Vecenie of the Athletic put the Korean at 46th place, down from 28th in October.

High hopes from Korea

Lee may only be a leading scorer on a middling team in the eyes of an average NCAA fan, but for Korean basketball fans, he is their best shot at the dream league.

Korean men’s basketball has never had a great track record, failing to qualify for the Olympic Games since 1996.

Asians in general, with the exception of hall of famer Yao Ming, have never made much of an impact in the NBA. There are currently three players of Asian heritage in the NBA, with Yuta Watanabe being the only player whose parents are both Asian.

Lee himself has his eyes firmly set on the big league. He has been working to up his game, bulking up by 8 kilograms in the last two years. He says his skills are only “four out of 10” compared to the level he ultimately seeks to reach.

In an interview prior to this season, the Yongin, Gyeonggi Province, native said his goal for now is to lead the Davidson to the NCAA tournament.

“Davidson has always been assessed as a middle-low tier team. As Stephen Curry once did, I’d like to change that perception about Davidson,” he was quoted as saying. 

By Yoon Min-sik (