After spending his freshman season stuck on the bench behind a talented Kentucky frontcourt that included Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee played behind an even deeper front line during his sophomore season, as Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles replaced Julius Randle.
In part because of that depth, Lee's minutes didn't quite see the jump many had hoped for. Now an upperclassman going into his junior season, the former top-20 high school recruit has yet to play more than 11 minutes per game.
From a numbers perspective, Lee fared better in some respects, and worse in others. His scoring rate dropped, from 15.0 points per 40 minutes, pace adjusted, to just 9.7. He blocked 2.6 shots per 40 minutes after adjusting for pace, down from the 3.6 he blocked during his freshman season, but still a good figure. On the positive side, Lee's defensive rebounding improved, from 3.8 defensive boards per 40 minutes, pace adjusted, to a much more acceptable (yet still underwhelming) 5.7, and he shot even better from 2-point range, from 61.9% to 64.4%.
These numbers carry very little relevance, however. With how little Lee has played over the last two seasons, there's a tremendous amount of noise in his statistics, making this an incredibly important year in store for him, which will tell us quite a bit about what type of NBA prospect he actually is.
When watching film, Lee remains the same incredibly intriguing physical specimen we've been tracking over the last few years. While Lee is slightly undersized, measured around 6'9 in shoes, he has an 8'11 standing reach and a 7'3 wingspan that more than make up for it. When you combine Lee's length with his incredible quickness and explosive leaping ability, there's a lot of potential still left to untap.
Lee weighed in at 220 pounds at the Kentucky Pro Day last fall, an increase of 21 pounds over where he was weighed at the LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire camps back in 2012. Still, Lee needs to add considerable strength before this stops being a concern, especially in the lower body. Lee struggles to hold his position defensively, something which Kentucky was mostly able to overcome thanks to their incredible frontcourt depth, but which could be exploited down the line as moves into pro settings against better and more physically mature competition.
Despite that, Lee continues to make progress in turning his athleticism into realized defensive ability. While Lee's shot blocking numbers were down slightly this past year, from a 9.2% block percentage to 6.8%, that was most likely a result of spending more time away from the hoop thanks to the plethora of interior defenders that John Calipari and his staff had access to. Lee was still able to use his length, along with incredible quickness off of his feet and solid timing, to alter a ton of shots around the hoop.
On the perimeter, Lee improved his technique this past year, doing a better job of getting down in a defensive stance, and he has the lateral mobility necessary to defend the pick and roll, and even to switch out on guards and hold his own. What's more, Lee has the quickness, and quick-twitch reflexes, to get back into plays and alter shots around the basket even when he's initially tasked with helping on the perimeter, which is extremely intriguing in today's NBA.
While his size and strength still holds him back as a defensive rebounder, Lee did do a better job on the defensive glass than he did during his freshman season. He has pretty good technique boxing out and does a good job of locating his man and putting a body on him. If he's able to add that much-needed strength down the line, there's hope that he could round out into a positive on the defensive glass, something that will be tracked closely this year considering how important it is for his pro profile.
On the offensive side of the ball, Lee gets almost all of his points off the ball, as his quickness and explosiveness make him a highlight reel waiting to happen, with emphatic displays of athleticism in transition, off offensive rebounds, cuts to the hoop, and lobs from his teammates.
Still, Lee's progress from a skills perspective could certainly be described as disappointing. With the plethora of options that Kentucky had in the front court, nobody was really expecting Lee to be featured all that much in the Kentucky offense, but some of the same holes that were present in his game during his freshman season remained.
The perimeter game is where you would hope to see some development from Lee this season, especially since few bigs have the foot speed to keep up with him. But Lee attempted only four jump shots all season, according to Synergy Sports Technology, and more concerningly, shot a miserable 32% (8-25) from the free throw line. The addition of at least some semblance of, or progress towards, a jump shot would help him fill the energy role he would be projected to have at the next level, and perhaps open up opportunities for him to take his man off the dribble using his terrific first step.
Kentucky's incredible depth over the past two years has certainly impacted Marcus Lee's playing time, which makes it difficult to really evaluate how much he's grown, and how much bigger of a role he is capable of filling. While Kentucky saw Karl-Anthony Towns, Dakari Johnson, and Willie Cauley-Stein leave Lexington for the NBA draft, they also brought in some frontcourt additions in Skal Labissiere, and to a lesser extent, 17-year old Isaac Humphries, while returning an extremely talented power forward in Alex Poythress. While Humphries will likely not be ready to contribute in a major way immediately, Kentucky still has talent and depth in the front court that pretty much any other program would be envious of. Still, this may be Lee's best chance to earn big minutes and give decision-makers a chance to see what he's capable of. With Kentucky already reeling in a number of highly touted frontcourt players from the 2016 high school class, this is a pivotal season for Lee to not get lost in the shuffle.