'I think I can take that spot': Davidson's Hyunjung Lee wants to make history in the NBA

Hyunjung Lee didn't expect to play for a Division I team, let alone consider a career in the NBA. If the past three years are any indication, he could soon make history as the second South Korean in the pro league. Dani Gariglio, Davidson Athletics

The secret is out, and Hyunjung Lee knows it.

First came the crowds of Korean fans, who showed up whenever he was playing, often waiting with posters and memorabilia for the 21-year-old guard to sign. Then came the features in American news outlets and Korean publications reporting Lee could be drafted by an NBA team. Finally came the star treatment on defense, with opposing teams hounding the 6-foot-7 junior on and off the ball.

No longer is Lee just one of the few Asian basketball players who pops up on nationally televised games. He has become one of the centerpieces of a Davidson Wildcats' offense that finished the 2021-22 regular season atop the Atlantic 10 standings and hopes to re-create the magic of its Elite Eight run with Stephen Curry in 2008.

In this season's 69-66 victory at Fordham, he finished with five points on four shots from the field. Defenders trailed Lee like Baby Yoda following around The Mandalorian. And while the box score suggested it was his worst performance of the season, his presence shaped the game's entire dynamic. The Rams hounded Lee on defense, opening up the floor to create space for his teammates, setting screens and pulling defenders into corners to open up the paint for the team's top scorers.

Even with NBA talent evaluators in attendance, Lee's season-low points total doesn't faze him.

"It's like boxing when they're trying to miss," Lee says. "I gotta take it because if my man is staring at me every time other guys get open, I'll take that."

It's the approach he has taken to his entire basketball career, making the most of every opportunity. Lee never expected to find himself at a Division I school like Davidson, let alone in a position to consider a career in the NBA. As a high schooler, Lee attended the NBA Global Academy in Australia, anticipating he would go back to Korea and become a local star. Instead, Lee's competitive mindset in Korea, combined with his top-tier shooting touch, have NBA scouts comparing him to everyone from shooting maestro Duncan Robinson (Miami Heat) to Furkan Korkmaz (Philadelphia 76ers). Lee ranks No. 96 in ESPN's latest mock draft and is also one of five finalists for the Julius Erving award this year, given to college basketball's top small forward.

Before he goes to bed, Lee stares at the ceiling, wondering whether he can lead Davidson on another memorable run into March Madness, let alone actually make it to the pros.

"I think about it in dreams, too," he says. "But the thing is like, when I'm watching the NBA games, I'm like, 'Oh s---, I think I can take that spot.'"

He pauses.

"I have, like, a confidence, but I'm humble," he says sheepishly, like he's trying to manifest his words into reality. "But I got to fix a lot of things to get to that level."

For most kids growing up in the United States, the dream of becoming an NBA player feels akin to aspiring to live in the White House. Is it possible? Sure, in theory. Is it likely? Probably not, but at least the possibility exists.

The dream of playing in the NBA growing up in South Korea is more like a kid on Earth aspiring to become the president of the Milky Way galaxy: the question of whether it's possible wouldn't even get asked because where would you even start?

South Korea currently ranks 30th in the men's FIBA world standings and has not qualified for the Olympics since 1996. The country won the FIBA Asian Cup in 1997, but has not finished higher than third place since. Korea's lone NBA player -- 7-3 center Ha Seung-Jin -- played 46 games for the Portland Trail Blazers between 2004 and 2006. While the popularity of basketball flourished in the '80s and '90s thanks to the appeal of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, the sport has declined in South Korea over the past two decades, according to Daebum Son, a writer for Korean basketball magazine, Jumpball.

"In terms of popularity in Korea, if baseball and soccer are like BTS, then basketball is like '90s hair metal," Son says in Korean.

In Yongin, about 26 miles outside of Seoul, Lee grew up in a home uniquely situated to foster a love of basketball. His mother Jeong-A Seong won a silver medal in the 1984 Olympics, while his father Lee Yoon-Hwan played semi-pro hoops and is a prominent basketball coach. When his older sister Lee Ri-na started playing basketball -- she would make an appearance on the national under-16 team -- he tagged along and his passion for the sport grew.

Lee became one of the tallest people in basketball circles and in the country. He looked like a summer breeze could topple him over in his teenage years. And while Lee found himself playing the country's high-level players at a young age, he discovered the culture of competition didn't align with his own on the court: win at all costs.

"He had it easy in Korea," Seong says in Korean. "He didn't have to try too hard."

The culture of South Korea requires younger people (hoobaes) to be deferential and treat older people (sunbaes) with respect. That often clashed with Lee's on-court headspace. Issues flared up when Lee was a high school sophomore, playing one-on-one against a Korean Basketball League player. The professional expected respect from the teenager in the form of a victory. Lee had other plans, and beat him.

"He was really mad," he says. "I was like, what is that? People were telling me to say sorry to him. Why? I beat him. That's all that matters. If you beat him and then didn't say sorry, people would say, 'He's an asshole. His personality is really bad. He doesn't respect.' I was really sick of it. I didn't apologize at all."

Lee bucked other trends in Korean basketball culture. Instead of following the traditional Korean mechanics taught in the country, Lee emulated his shooting stroke off that of Brooklyn Nets' Kevin Durant and Golden State Warriors' Klay Thompson, resulting in a quicker release than most of his peers. Lee's parents supported the way he went about training. But he started to feel like he hit a ceiling.

That's when Eugene Park, a Korean-American who serves as the NBA's senior manager for elite talent identification, noticed Lee.

Park, who spent nine years with the Washington Wizards before moving to scout for the NBA internationally, first saw Lee at the under-16 games, and extended him an invite to the NBA-sponsored Asian Pacific team camp in Hangzhou, China. Park stayed in touch with Lee and eventually traveled to South Korea to pitch the family on the league's international player development program.

He highlighted how the newly launched NBA Global Academy, in Canberra, Australia, would help Lee develop a support system, learn English as a second language, provide academic tutoring and integrate life skills programs to learn the business side of the sport. Just as appealing would be the step up in basketball talent, allowing Lee to play against a significantly higher level of competition than he did at home.

"He wanted to expand what people thought was possible for a basketball player from Korea, even if it was just a little bit," Seong says.

His family expected that he would spend a year abroad before returning home. When he got to Australia, Lee realized he needed to improve quickly to keep up with the other players, in addition to learning English, which he could not understand at all.

"There were bigger guys, stronger guys, smarter guys than me," Lee says. "My dad told me I needed to focus on one thing and get elite at one thing, so that was catch and shoot. I had to do extra shooting drills every day like I was Duncan Robinson, Klay Thompson."

He picked up the language quickly and improved just as fast on the basketball court. Global Academy technical director Marty Clarke worked with him to lift up his flat jump shot. As he started hitting them more consistently, Clarke noticed Lee's confidence grew, describing him as a learner who doesn't let up until he's mastered a skill.

That improvement caught the eyes of scouts at American colleges, and Lee took visits to Washington State and Davidson. He thought hard about playing at WSU, Thompson's alma mater, but decided coach Bob McKillop's system at Davidson, which emphasizes passing and movement off the ball, seemed a better fit.

"He's obviously a great shooter, but he does a lot of small things," McKillop says. "He just had a tremendous balance between humility and confidence."

The plan of pursuing a career in the Korean Basketball League seemed more and more like a waste of time.

"Now that I've played at this level, my ambitions are growing and I want to try a little bit harder," Lee says he told his parents. "I need to try my best to go as high as I can."

Lee's arrival in America made him feel like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz": he was not in Korea anymore. The players were bigger, faster and stronger. His competitive instincts that had stood out in Korea blended into the crowd. He realized he couldn't stick to the same routines.

As the standards rose, his expectations for himself grew. His parents reminded Lee they were proud of him, that he had already exceeded their expectations.

"Mom, I am going to make it to the NBA," he says he told them. "Everything that's happened so far is small apples. I will show you that I can accomplish much bigger things."

Lee started off the bench in his freshman season at Davidson, averaging 8.4 points per game and shooting 46.7% from the field, 37.7% from the 3-point line and 3.1 rebounds on 20.9 minutes per game. As his role in the offense grew, so did his willingness to move without the basketball, use his offensive threat to create space for other players, set screens for teammates and use his height to pass over defenses. As a sophomore, Lee improved to 50.8% from the field, 44.3% from 3 and averaged 13.5 points in 29.9 minutes. His success surprised even his mother.

"When he came to America, we just wanted him to play in a lot of games," Seong says.

Flash forward to late February 2022, and a 29-point performance against Saint Louis that included a polished midrange game and an ability to create shot opportunities while moving without the basketball. As a junior, Lee is averaging 16.5 points on 48.3% from the field, 38.6% on a team-high 70 3s and 6.0 rebounds. Off the court, Lee now speaks fluent English, four years after he had moved to Australia.

Hyunjung Lee buries 3 while getting fouled for Davidson

Hyunjung Lee drills a trey while getting knocked down for a chance at a 4-point play for Davidson.

"He's evolved as a complete player," McKillop says. "He rebounds the basketball, he's got guard skills, brings the ball up the court, he can make plays with the pass and the dribble and we've always known about his ability to shoot the ball."

Seong says her son used to receive a lot of criticism online, from naysayers who thought he was wasting his time in the NCAA when he could be playing at home. In recent years, that chatter has transformed into support and attention, which Lee is trying to deflect.

"The first time I was getting attention, it was pressure," Lee says. "Coach McKillop told me to not have pressure, have fun, play your basketball. All I care about is winning, winning as much as we can. This college right now is where I am, that's my main focus."

But Son says the impact of Lee's success extends beyond Davidson.

"He's showing younger kids and teenagers in Korea that America, the NCAA, not anyone can play at that level, but he's showing that it's possible," Son says. "The thought used to be that you had to [be as tall as] Yao Ming in order to have a shot. But with Yuta Watanabe and Jeremy Lin, those perceptions are changing. Korean basketball stars -- whether it's in college or younger -- are now thinking about America as an option."

Park has noticed a shift in thinking in Korean basketball circles.

"He has almost been like a pioneer figure," Park says of Lee. "It has certainly opened the eyes of key stakeholders in Korean basketball. That's a gradual process. He has encouraged people to take risks and consider that there's this whole basketball ecosystem bigger than Korea."

Lee is currently not getting covered in South Korea with the media fervor of baseball stars such as Hyun Jin Ryu. But he knows that if he continues to make progress in college basketball, and get to the pros, all of that attention will come.

"It's a continuing process," Park says. "Hopefully in Asia, we can try to encourage more cases future players can follow, look after or kind of picture themselves because of that familiarity and how they look as well."

For Lee, those role models were Rui Hachimura, the Japanese-born former Gonzaga star and current Wizards player, and the Toronto Raptors' Japanese-born Watanabe, who showed him that Asian players could carve a path to the NBA. Seong says her son regularly talks about how, like Hachimura, he too could one day be a role model for players across Asia. While she regularly reminds her son that she will love him regardless of how his basketball career turns out, she no longer limits what she thinks could happen. And as Davidson begins the Atlantic 10 tournament as the No. 1 seed on Friday, her son could find himself leading the school to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2018.

Surprise regarding the heights of Hyunjung Lee and his accomplishments has become the norm.

"I never expected to be speaking to an American publication about him," Seong says.

Nothing that could happen this March or beyond could shock her now.