Deer Valley’s 6-10 talent Marcus Lee burned up recruiting lists and is likely to do the same to opponents.
By MITCH STEPHENS | Contributor
At 6 feet, 10 inches, Deer Valley High School senior basketball star Marcus Lee broke out of the mold long ago.
He’s grown at a higher and faster rate than most as a teen, going from 6-2 as a freshman, to 6-4 as a sophomore to 6-8 last season to his current slender size.
Lee’s basketball skills and national recruiting ranking has climbed exponentially — perhaps greater — with his height. He was well under the radar through his sophomore season then climbed to 160 before his junior year, to 56 after it, and now he’s as high as No. 10 by 247Sports.com.
ESPN has him at No. 30, MaxPreps No. 24 and Rivals at 18.
On Nov. 14, he hit the pinnacle, signing a letter of intent with the defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats, a program not only enriched with great tradition under Adolph Rupp, but now, under John Calipari, the poster child of high profile, fast talking, seven-figure-a-year college coaches.
In June 2010, five Kentucky players, led by No. 1 pick John Wall, were picked in the first round of the NBA draft. In 2011, four went in both rounds. In 2012, six were drafted, four in the first round including the first selection, Anthony Davis.
Of those 15 picks, seven left after their freshman seasons, two as sophomores and one never even played a full season.
For a Kentucky recruit, Lee breaks the mold once more.
His vision and focus isn’t simply on the NBA. A 3.3 student, he sees a bigger picture and is refreshingly oblivious to the elite basketball culture.
According to Lee’s older brother and mentor Bryan Lee, Marcus didn’t even watch college basketball until a few seasons ago and he didn’t know who Calipari was until he was recruited by him.
Bryan, 27, a former Deer Valley standout and Division II All-American at Grand Canyon University, said Marcus’ personality is more befitting of volleyball, the second sport in which his younger brother excels, than basketball.
Marcus has started three seasons at Deer Valley in volleyball, a sport that not only accentuates Lee’s athleticism — quickness, timing and length — but also his makeup: mellow, fun and humble.
Whether he flyswats a shot out of bounds or smashes down a kill, Marcus is grounded to the core and lacks an over-inflated ego.
“He doesn’t understand all the (media) attention he’s getting from basketball,” Bryan Lee said. “He doesn’t expect all the calls he gets. None of that is why he plays or what excites him (about basketball).
“His attraction to Kentucky wasn’t so he could go to the NBA or play on ESPN every week. The most important thing to him was the school spirit and the camaraderie between the players. He likes coach Calipari not because he gets players to the NBA but because he’s engaging and energetic and his teams like to run.”
When asked about his trip to Lexington, Marcus Lee didn’t mention championship banners or the Fab 15 to the NBA. He said he felt a sense of family and enthusiasm. It felt more like a fun, warm Holiday gathering with cousins than a cold assembly line.
“The whole team did everything together,” he said. “You could really tell they were comfortable together. It wasn’t forced. It was real. The players ate together and joked together. I’m really excited to get there.”
OPENING DOORS, CLOSING LANES
In the meantime, says his volleyball coach Lou Panzella, Marcus will be the same friendly kid he first saw play as an eighth grader at Black Diamond middle school.
“If you talked to him on the telephone or anywhere for the first time, you’d never have a clue he’s one of the top athletes in the country going to the top schools in the country,” Panzella said. “You’d have to drag it out of him.
“He’s a real easy person to root for not because he’s from our school or he’s ultra talented, but who he is. He just gives it his all in everything he does and that, plus his God-given gifts, has opened many doors for him.”
Many didn’t see the door to Kentucky for Marcus, not only because of his personality but because he’s not yet a polished commodity.
Deer Valley boys basketball coach LeChet Phillips, however, said people have simply been looking at the wrong places.
Sure, Lee hasn’t been a huge offensive threat during his prep career — he averaged 13.9 points per game and shot 49 percent from the line last season — and the slender senior won’t move more physical big men out of the paint. But Lee can sprint down the court with any wing and with long arms and superb leaping ability, he can touch both palms to the top of the square. He also averaged 13.9 rebounds last season and 9.1 blocks, third best in the country.
Add an unusual skill set — he played point guard growing up — unselfishness and a Zen-like cerebral approach, and all signs attracted arguably the country’s top basketball program.
“If you watched his progression, this all makes sense,” Phillips said.
One other key component outsiders don’t see but recruiters have, is Lee’s family. He’s the youngest of four boys to a strong and supportive two-parent household.
“As far as support systems go, I can’t imagine there being a better one for any kid in America,” Phillips said. “You hear about kids being raised right. It’s almost a cliché. But everything about Marcus and his family is right. I think recruiters recognized that.”
Marcus’ father Ronnie, a 6-2 guard, played at Wilson High School in San Francisco and at Portland State. His mother Sheri wasn’t athletic, Bryan Lee said, “but she’s 6-2. That’s where he got all the height.”
Two older brothers Christopher and Robert, now 31 and 30, were also tall but not like Bryan, who is 6-8, and Marcus.
Bryan felt a special obligation to watch over Marcus, who came nine years after him.
“I dragged him out to all my practices and games,” Bryan said.
Said Marcus: “I remember sitting and watching my brother practice (at Deer Valley). I was like a little coach on the floor. I remember yelling at (Bryan) when he didn’t get the play right.”
Marcus actually played shooting guard his freshman season on varsity and a little point guard as a sophomore. When he began to sprout it took time for him to learn the post game.
Bryan has helped develop that.
“He’s come so far so fast and can do about anything on the court now,” Bryan said.
“But he still can’t beat me.”
Marcus confirmed, he still hasn’t beat big brother in one-on-one.
“I’m sure it won’t be long,” Bryan said.
GROWTH AND UPSIDE
Marcus was largely new to the AAU scene in California — he played with a Houston (Texas) team as a sophomore near extended family — until the spring when he joined the California Supreme.
Though somewhat in awe — “At first I was scared to death,” he said — Lee fit in and impressed quickly with his length, quickness, shot-blocking and improving offensive game.
At his first Elite Basketball Youth League (EBYL) tournament, Duke and Kansas offered full rides. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Marcus was one of the best big men he’d seen in years.
Gerry Freitas, a former college assistant who runs a recruiting service, said Lee’s potential is another big reason Kentucky went after him.
“He’s an impressive physical specimen with a very nice upside,” Freitas said. “He chose Kentucky because he wanted the highest possible challenge. That is what he will be getting going there.”
He’s started his senior season with big productive numbers in two games, averaging 19.0 points, 20.5 rebounds, 7.0 blocks and 6.0 assists per game. A minor concern is that he’s made 31 percent of his shots (14 of 45) and free throws 10 of 32.
His teammate Kendall Smith, a 6-1 point guard who is uncommitted, has been even more spectacular, averaging 29.5 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 steals per game.
Smith had 48 points in a 97-96 double overtime win over Sacramento and is shooting 63 percent from the floor.
Marcus and Smith were co-MVPs of the Bay Valley Athletic League last year and figure to lead the Wolverines to the Northern California regional playoffs and perhaps beyond.
With many of the elite squads heading to the Open Division, the door might swing wide for the Wolverines to head into the state Division I title game. It’s possible. Marcus has proved that.
“We’ve been playing together since we were kids,” Marcus said of Smith. “He’s a great player. I love playing with him. He understands everything about the game. We don’t even need to talk to each other on the floor.
“He and I are like running water. It’s constant and it flows.”
Mitch Stephens is a national columnist for MaxPreps.com.
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