What’s Driving Marcus Lee?

Marcus Lee had a double double with 12 points and 10 boards vs. LSU in March. Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF

Marcus Lee had a double double with 12 points and 10 boards vs. LSU in March. Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF

All the focus in the John Calipari era at Kentucky has been on one-and-done phenomenons like John Wall, Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, Karl-Anthony Towns – athletes who arrive on campus with their futures already set in stone, a brief but thrilling season in blue and white followed by an inevitable trip to the podium on NBA lottery night.

But there are other aspects to this whole thing. And this year, it’s not Jamal Murray – yet another almost sure-fire lottery pick – but Marcus Lee, a one-time McDonald’s All-American who has declared that he’s testing the waters at the deep end of the pool.

Lee is in no way ready for the pros. He’s an athletic but one-dimensional basketball player who can leap and block shots but has very little else to his game. He doesn’t even have the NBA’s blueprint physique.

He’s intelligent, seems to be a team player and is great company. He’s someone whom his teammates love – close with both the dour and inward Alex Poythress and the exuberantly outward E.J. Floreal. He’s also a great competitor, in that California beach-volleyball way.

None of those things prepares him for the jolting competition against the likes of Tim Duncan or LeBron James.

In another time, maybe on another campus, he’d have another year to progress, fill out his body and hone his skills. But this is Kentucky. He had that chance this year, one in which the position he plays was suddenly vacant. Towns, Trey Lyles, Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein – and even Randle and Nerlens Noel, who would still have been around if this were the old NCAA – had all gone for the money. And Skal Labissiere, who was going to be the rightful heir to that noble heritage, was found lacking.

Lee had progressed from the raw freshman who stepped in for the injured Cauley-Stein in the NCAA tournament against Michigan to the promising sophomore who could hide his gaps on one of the greatest, deepe

st college basketball teams ever to the seasoned junior who had been attending Class Cal for three years.

It was his opportunity. And he largely failed it, a campaign of constant foul problems, missed shots, bad free throw shooting and too many times getting pushed aside for rebounds that should have been his.

True, he has another season available to him. But next year’s freshman class includes a cast of bigs likely to rival the hype of the 2014 class. Three tall, athletic and muscular frosh – one of them is even nicknamed “Bam” – will occupy the inside for Kentucky.

And that doesn’t include the possibility of two more 6-foot-10 Burger Boys – the dysfunctionally indecisive Marques Bolden and the less-talked-about but equally promising Jarrett Allen – who could end up at Kentucky, pushing Lee even deeper onto the bench.

Of course, there is something to be said for experience. While Cal tends to disdain it, his best teams have profited from the steady, mature upperclassman hands of Patrick Patterson, Josh Harrellson, Darius Miller, Jarrod Polson, Cauley-Stein and Poythress. But Lee doesn’t have their pedigree. He’s not been a leader, just a one-dimensional role-player, even in the opportunity he was given this past season.

But what about what’s best for him? The NCAA rules have loosened up this year, allowing nearly every undergraduate who can palm a basketball to put his name in the draft without immediately losing his amateur standing. Does that mean a rush on sluice boxes and Levi’s as every kid goes prospecting for fool’s gold?

Or is it fool’s gold? The NBA may be the Holy Grail, but it’s not the only grail. The D (for “development”) League pays a minimal salary, but it’s a chance for a player to, uh, develop his game. The NBA rosters are full of players who paid their dues on the Delaware 87ers, Westchester Knicks, Fort Wayne Mad Ants, Rio Grande Valley Vipers and the rest. It’s a long-shot, but it’s still a shot. And arguably a better shot than sitting on the college bench for a fourth season.

Yet a better option is international basketball. Overseas players are paid more than D-Leaguers, and it’s generally tax free. Plus, many teams pay their players’ taxes as well as living expenses and even provide a car. It probably offers a less-direct path back to the NBA than the D League does, but the kid is getting paid to play basketball, which is the basic ambition to begin with.

In either case, the player has to have a certain confidence in his game. But isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway? VT