UK Men's Basketball

Marcus Lee: Going home, not playing time, fueled transfer from UK

Kentucky forward Marcus Lee was announced during player introductions before the team’s game against Georgia on Feb. 9, 2016, in Rupp Arena in Lexington.
Kentucky forward Marcus Lee was announced during player introductions before the team’s game against Georgia on Feb. 9, 2016, in Rupp Arena in Lexington.

The NBA Draft came and went Thursday with Marcus Lee literally and figuratively far away.

Of course, Lee was in Berkeley, Calif. He transferred from Kentucky to California this spring. In a telephone interview the afternoon of the draft, he sounded happy. He expressed gratitude for the experiences he had at UK. He insisted he transferred because he simply wanted to be closer to home, not because his basketball dreams had been unfulfilled.

“It had nothing to do with (UK) and basketball,” he said. “I absolutely loved Kentucky and everybody at Kentucky. I still talk to them on a daily basis.

“My family just needed me at home, and I needed them.”

Lee, who grew up about 30 minutes from Cal-Berkeley in Antioch, Calif., said that five or so trips across the country each year to see him had become too much of a burden for his family. “It’s too much money-wise,” he said.

Lee also said he found the separation from loved ones unsettling.

“They don’t know what’s going on in my head,” he said, “and I don’t know what’s happening in their lives. … I come from a family, we always keep in touch and know what’s going on in each other’s lives. I didn’t like that (separation). I was missing things.”

Lee, who chose Kentucky over California as a high school senior, has made a good first impression with Cal Coach Cuonzo Martin.

“Just in watching him in our workouts, I think he has a chance to be a very successful player,” said Martin, who formerly coached at Tennessee.

In a conference call with reporters last week, Martin seemed to hint that basketball might have been a factor in the transfer, that Lee might have wanted a better chance to play a prominent role.

“I mean, he’s had success at Kentucky,” Martin said. “Probably not at the level (he wanted) because they play so many guys. …

“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s a 30-minute guy.”

Lee, who arrived at UK as a celebrated McDonald’s All-American, insisted that his three seasons at Kentucky had been completely satisfying.

“Definitely,” he said. “One hundred percent. They pushed me to the absolute limit there, and that’s the whole point with being at Kentucky.”

When asked if the influx of another stellar freshman class led him to see California as a chance for a more prominent role, Lee said, “No. Not at all. I’m not LeBron James or Dwyane Wade or Kevin Durant, where I can start pulling players and (put) my own team together.

“I talk to all the guys coming in to Kentucky. I’m friends with all of them. They’re really great guys. I was looking forward to playing with them. But the way it was set up, I needed to be here.”

The hardest part about transferring was leaving UK fans, Lee said. “They supported me through everything.

“I was expecting a little backlash. I was actually expecting maybe being dropped in followers (on Twitter and Facebook). But they all kept with me. And I love that.”

Given Kentucky’s rich basketball history, it might seem that Lee’s transfer represented a step down. But Cal feels like its program is on the rise. Next season will see three starters returning from a team that tied for third in the Pac 12 and gained a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament (Cal’s best seed since regional seeding began in 1979). The Bears had two players picked in the NBA Draft: Jaylen Brown (third pick of first round) and Tyrone Wallace (last pick of the second round).

Because he must sit out as a transfer, Lee’s role at Cal next season will be elder statesman.

“I guess I’m the old head man,” he said with a chuckle. “Even though I’m new to the team, I’ve been around. I have a lot of knowledge.”

That knowledge includes two trips to the Final Four.

“Not many can say they’ve done that,” Lee said.

A reason to believe

On Monday, the SEC will hold its annual “summer teleconference” for basketball coaches. It’s a way to beat the promotional drums for a sport forever in the formidable shadow of football.

In the past, you could hear frustration in South Carolina Coach Frank Martin’s voice. SEC basketball was under-appreciated, he’d say with the passion of a tent revivalist. But there never seems to be any converts stepping forward.

The SEC spring meetings a month ago gave Martin a reason to believe.

“Those were the most productive meetings we’ve had as a conference for men’s basketball in my five years in those meetings,” he said. “Mike Tranghese being part of it is the most important reason.”

Tranghese, a former commissioner of the Big East Conference, has been hired to help steer SEC basketball toward national credibility.

“Mike is arguably the most influential, decorated person in college basketball who hasn’t won a game coaching . . . ,” Martin said. “Do you think he would have signed up to be part of a conference he thought was a joke? He wouldn’t have done that.”

Tranghese, who also served on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, will be given the benefit of the doubt when he touts SEC basketball.

“He’s not (someone) sitting in some studio somewhere creating opinions about something they know nothing about,” Martin said. “He’s a person who’s been deeply involved in college basketball for a long, long time.

“It was the most excited I’ve been in five years.”

Martin simply thinks the SEC cares more than ever about basketball.

“The voice of basketball was important to the powers that be,” he said of the tone at the SEC Spring Meetings. “In the past, it was kind of a rehearsal. Go through the rules. Go through this. Go through that. Share ideas, but the voice is not as impactful.”

This year was different.

“There was a refreshing excitement with the voice, and voices in the room, and it actually garnered attention. . . .,” Martin said. “Our league is good. I don’t care whatever TV shows on whatever networks say about our league.”

Youth served

Chad Ford, ESPN’s analyst of NBA drafts, said he liked Jamal Murray more than Buddy Hield as a prospect. One reason is age: At 19, Murray is perceived as having a greater “upside” than Hield, who is 22.

“What players do at 19 is actually a very strong indicator of what they’re going to do at the NBA (level),” Ford said on a teleconference earlier this month. “Guys that don’t figure it out until they’re 20, 21, 22 can struggle more in the NBA. … They end up topping out in college basketball.”

At 19, Murray averaged 20.0 points, the highest average for any player in John Calipari’s seven seasons as UK coach. Hield averaged 7.8 points as a freshman.

Former UK star Rex Chapman wondered if Ford’s rating of Hield contradicted this general assessment. Was Hield much better positioned in the mock draft this year than last year?

He was. In his 2016 mock draft updated early last week, Ford had Hield being taken with the No. 8 pick. Hield was not among Ford’s top 30 prospects going into the 2015 NBA Draft.

Then in the draft, New Orleans took Hield with the sixth pick, while Murray went seventh to Denver.

Youth-is-served has not always been the NBA philosophy. Chapman recalled feeling like he was at a disadvantage as the youngest player in the 1988 draft and in the first few seasons of his pro career.

“I can remember trying to grow facial hair, thinking it will help me get calls from the referees,” he said.

Draft leftovers

Leftovers from Thursday’s NBA Draft:

▪  With Jamal Murray, Skal Labissiere and Tyler Ulis, UK increased its totals during John Calipari’s seven seasons as coach to 28 players picked, 21 in the first round and 11 in the second round.

In that time, Duke and Kansas each had 13 players drafted (11 Dukies in the first round, nine Jayhawks in the first round). As for top 10 picks, UK (11) has had as many as Duke (six), Kansas (four), North Carolina (one) and Louisville (none) combined.

▪  Labissiere, who was the 28th player chosen in the first round, became the highest pick from Haiti since Samuel Dalembert was the 26th pick in 2001.

▪  The Memphis Grizzlies picked point guard Wade Baldwin IV of Vanderbilt with the 17th pick. He became the highest pick from Vandy since Will Perdue was the 11th pick in 1988.

Born too soon

Kenny Walker is well aware that he was drafted before the age of tweeting, texting and ever-evolving means of electronic communication.

“The emoji you see today, that’s the only thing I’m disappointed about,” he said in a playful tone of voice. “I didn’t get a chance to tweet out. I feel I was robbed of that opportunity.”

When asked what emoji he would have used to convey his feelings on draft night, Walker said, “Probably praying hands. Definitely a smiley face. Anything that has any association with celebrations, that I’m happy, a dream come true.”

Happy birthday

To Brandon Stockton. He turned 32 on Saturday. … To former UK Athletics Director Larry Ivy. He turns 73 on Sunday (today). … To Dominique Hawkins. He turns 22 on Monday. … To former Duke point guard Bobby Hurley. He turns 45 on Tuesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton