by STEVE HAN | @RealSteveScores
For just the second time in history, South Korea will send a player to the NBA draft this summer with hopes of realizing a long-standing dream to have its countryman grace the hardwood on basketball’s biggest stage.
Yes, there was Ha Seung-jin who played for the Portland Trail Blazers between 2004 and 2006, but hoops fans in Korea will want Lee Jong-hyun, 21, to make a stronger impression than his predecessor, whose impact in the NBA was more or less forgettable.
The 6-foot-9 Lee, who plays for Korea University’s basketball team, has declared his eligibility for the 2015 NBA Draft, which will take place this Thursday in Brooklyn’s Barclay Center at 7 p.m. Since arriving in the U.S. earlier this month, Lee has been working out under coach Roc Bellantoni’s supervision in Chicago, where his agent Michael Naiditch is based. Notably, Atlanta Hawks swingman Thabo Sefolosha and Oklahoma City Thunder’s Enes Kanter are among Naiditch’s clients.
“I want to challenge that [NBA] dream,” Lee told Naver Sports last month. “I’ve talked to my parents and my coaches. They were very supportive of me.”
Lee and his fans are fully aware that the chances of him becoming one of the 60 rookies to be drafted by an NBA team for the upcoming 2015-16 season are slim at best, improbable at worst. Competing at the NBA Summer League—a developmental competition for second-year NBA players, drafted rookies and NBA hopefuls—seems to be a realistic target for Lee, who is still virtually an unknown commodity in the U.S.
An invitation to the Summer League could mean that Lee, ranked 47th among international players in the draft, may have a shot at becoming a backup player on an NBA team for the 2015-16 season. Although Lee has been playing center in Korea, his 6-foot-9 frame may require a change in position as post players in the U.S. are significantly taller, bigger and stronger. Fortunately for Lee, his serviceable mid-range shooting will come in handy.
Jeremy Lin, the most high-profile Asian American player in the NBA, took the same route; he entered the league as an undrafted rookie after playing in the 2010 Summer League.
Playing in the NBA may still be a long shot for Lee, but fans back home believe that his attempt at testing the waters in the home of basketball is a worthwhile challenge that will leave a lasting legacy for Korean basketball. Besides the gigantic Ha, a 7-foot-3 center who averaged just 1.5 points in two seasons after being drafted by the Trail Blazers in 2004, no other South Korean basketball player has ever played in the NBA.
Guard Bang Sung-yoon played briefly in the NBDL, a minor league for the NBA between 2004 and 2008. In 2006, center Kim Joo-sung joined the Toronto Raptors as a camp invite, but his subsequent knee injury forced an early return to Korea. In the 1980s and 90s, Korea’s legendary dead-eye shooter Lee Chung-hee and Heo Jae, dubbed the “basketball president” by the Korean fans, attracted some interest from the NBA, but no such move ever materialized due to restrictions on their contracts with their teams and South Korea’s compulsory military obligation for men.
On the other hand, the 21-year-old Lee is exempt from the military after winning the gold medal with South Korea at last year’s Asian Games. He also doesn’t have contractual complications as he already received clearance from his school, Korea University, to make the anticipated move overseas.
Although Lee is still considered a mere prospect even back home, he showed flashes of undeniable potential at the international stage. Competing at international basketball’s biggest competition last year at the FIBA World Cup, Lee led all players in the 24-team competition in blocks per game. To put his 2.6 blocks per game in perspective, he was the leading shot blocker ahead of two-time NBA champion Pau Gasol (2.3) and NBA All-Star Anthony Davis (2.1).
In Korea’s games against the Dominican Republic, Russia and Australia at FIBA, Lee was directly matched up against Atlanta Hawks’ three-time All-Star Al Horford, Cleveland Cavaliers’ Timofey Mozgov and the San Antonio Spurs’ Aron Baynes.
“I realize that it’s almost impossible for me to get picked at the draft,” Lee said before he left Korea two weeks ago, according to Yonhap News Agency. “But if I can make a name for myself in the Summer League, there could be a possibility for an opportunity. I’m in no position to choose teams, but I like the L.A. Lakers. I would also love to learn from watching Blake Griffin, Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol. Now is the most important time of my career so I’ll give it my all.”
Featured image via FIBA