UK Men's Basketball

With neither NBA nor UK promising a bright future, Lee decides to transfer

Marcus Lee averaged 6.4 points and 6.0 rebounds as a junior at Kentucky.
Marcus Lee averaged 6.4 points and 6.0 rebounds as a junior at Kentucky. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

The options Marcus Lee had could be described as none and done.

Return to Kentucky where another heralded freshman class made the chances of a prominent role next season seem remote.

Remain in this year’s NBA Draft and almost assuredly not be picked.

With the deadline for remaining in the draft or returning to college at hand, Lee found a third way. He announced Wednesday that he will transfer from Kentucky and play his senior season for a school closer to his Antioch, Calif., home.

“I don’t know what the better alternative was, to be honest,” said Chad Ford, who analyzes NBA drafts for ESPN.

Lee and UK announced the intention to transfer in a news release. UK Coach John Calipari said the makeup of next season’s team “had no bearing” on Lee’s decision.

But Ford suggested that it had to be a factor.

“I think he looked at the situation with the front line at Kentucky and worried that he wasn’t going to be able to do much to really improve his draft stock with another year there,” the ESPN analyst said.

Three big men are among the players in UK’s ballyhooed class of 2016: Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones.

“You look at the ‘bigs’ that are coming in, and you look at the talent they have, especially ‘Bam’ being a potential lottery pick,” Ford said. “ ... And I think it’s the same thing over and over again.

“How do you carve out minutes when there are other players, despite the fact they are younger, they’re more skilled and potentially bring more to the table.”

Among the players Lee has had to compete with for playing time on Kentucky’s front line include Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein in 2013-14, then Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Cauley-Stein and Johnson in 2014-15.

The competition was not as stiff this past season: still-learning freshmen Skal Labissiere, Isaac Humphries and Tai Wynyard, plus Alex Poythress coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament. But foul trouble helped limit Lee to averages of 6.4 points and 6.0 rebounds. He did block 59 shots, which tied Labissiere for the team lead. His 100 career blocks rank 20th in UK history.

“I think he would have definitely stayed in the draft if he had any chance of getting drafted ... ,” Ford said. “I think he would have gotten more minutes at Kentucky. Don’t get me wrong. I just don’t know if he would have been featured. I don’t think he would have been.”

Lee did not help himself at the NBA Draft Combine this month. In 35-plus minutes of play, he made one of six shots, scored four points, grabbed three rebounds and committed six fouls.

“He was one of the two or three worst players at the Combine,” Ford said.

As for his draft profile, NBADraft.net ranked Lee at No. 78. Lee was not on Ford’s list of the top 100 prospects.

Kentucky granted Lee a full release. As with freshman Charles Matthews, there are no restrictions on where Lee can go.

At the Combine, Lee recoiled from the idea of transferring.

“I’ve always known I was going to finish out at Kentucky,” he said. “Transfer was never in my family’s head, and (I) never really thought about it.”

Because he has not completed work on a degree, Lee cannot be what’s known as a graduate transfer. With that label, he would not have to sit out a year as a transfer.

Ford saw significance in Lee having to sit out a season, and thus not be part of another NBA Draft until 2018. That’s because Lee will be 23 years old on that draft day, and less than three months away from his 24th birthday (he was born on Sept. 14, 1994).

“Age is a huge factor in the NBA,” Ford said. “So he’s going to be two years older when he takes another swing at this again.”

When told that Lee would be 23 at the time of the 2018 NBA Draft, Ford said, “In NBA Draft years, that’s old. You’re an old man.”

Even if Lee blossoms at another school, as former UK player Kyle Wiltjer did at Gonzaga, his advanced age will work against him.

“He’s dominating because he’s 23 years old,” Ford said of NBA thinking, “and two or three years older than most players in college basketball. And that’s why he’s dominating, and not because he’s necessarily gotten better.

“It’s going to be a tough road for him, now.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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