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Rookie award will go to 23-year-old guard

But which one of the 3 top candidates?

Jan 17,2007
LG Sakers’ rookie point guard Lee Hyun-min.
A late run by a 23-year-old guard has made it a two-man race for top rookie honors in the Korean Basketball League. His competition? Another 23-year-old guard.
Since the beginning of the season, Lee Hyun-min, of the third-place LG Sakers, has been the top candidate for rookie of the year. The third pick in last year’s draft, Lee, at 174 centimeters (5-foot-8), leads all first-year players in points (9.3), assists (3.7) and steals per game (1.3).


With the regular season ending in late March, his main challenger is Jeon Jeong-gyu of the Etland Black Slamer. Jeon was the first player selected in the draft, but the 187-centimeter shooting guard/small forward only started playing substantial minutes last month, when starter Kim Seong-cheol joined the national team for the Doha Asian Games. In a six-game stretch in December, Jeon averaged 13.4 points, and on Dec. 17, he scored 35, including seven three-pointers. It remains the highest point total by a rookie this year.
He is now the second-leading rookie scorer at 9.2 points per game, although he comes off the bench as the team’s sixth man.
A third 23-year-old rookie guard, Lee Won-soo of the defending champion Samsung Thunders, has also been a solid sixth man and his defensive work has earned him praise around the league. Then he broke a finger in a mid-December game against the Mobis Phoebus. He is out for at least another month.
The league mandates that the rookie of the year play at least half of the season ― 27 out of 54 games. Lee Won-soo was injured in his 20th game. At the time, he was averaging 6.8 points and shooting a team-high 48 percent from three-point range. Lee Hyun-min and Jeon have played every game this season, leaving Lee Won-soo trailing.
So where do Lee Hyun-min and Jeon stand?
Count Lee’s own head coach Shin Sun-woo as one of his biggest fans. He urged the front office to draft him with the team’s first pick, even though Lee only cracked the starting lineup at Kyung Hee University in his senior year. Shin said he needed a speedy guard for his run-and-gun style offense, and recently told the JoongAng Ilbo, “I felt Lee was the pass-first point guard who would fit right into our system, and that he could have a better pro career than he did in college.”
His university head coach, Choi Bu-young, suggested to Lee in his third year that he consider another career path, because Lee was buried so far in the depth chart. Now Choi says he loves to watch his former point guard play. He also told the JoongAng Ilbo, “Lee’s ball-handling skills are exceptional, and his passes on breakaways are usually half a step ahead of defenders.”
Earlier in the season, Lee often deferred to his teammates. He was quoted in the Seoul Shinmun last month as saying, “I tend to get a little tired in day games following evening games, and I still have a long way to go.”
His rival, Jeon, hasn’t been as shy. Jeon has maintained he’d love to win the top rookie honors, and once told the press, “I am just as good a scorer as Lee Hyun-min, and I am pretty confident in our race for the award.”
Still, Jeon has admitted that being the first overall pick was a burden on him earlier in the season. Jeon told the monthly magazine Jump Ball, “There were times when I was rushing things, and I was trying to calm myself down.”

Etland Black Slamer guard Jeon Jeong-gyu. Provided by the teams

In a story in the latest issue of the weekly sports magazine Sports 2.0, Jeon was quoted as saying, “I think every rookie wants the award just as badly as I do,” before adding, “Unless my team [dead last in the 2005-06 season] reaches the playoffs, my personal honors will all have gone for naught.”
Jeon has his share of boosters as well.
“He has been doing an admirable job for our team,” said his head coach, Choi Hee-am, also in Sports 2.0. “If he improves his endurance, he will be an even bigger part of our team.”
Lee Sang-yoon, a former player and now an analyst with Xports cable station, says Jeon proved himself a strong perimeter shooter in college, which is “something that will make him successful either as a shooting guard or small forward.”
Before their third head-to-head match Tuesday evening, the two rookies last faced each other on Dec. 30, when the Sakers came out on top, 95-89. In that game, Lee had 13 points and dished out a game-high seven assists. Jeon’s team-high 18 points weren’t enough for the Black Slamer.
Jeon had prevailed in their first showdown on Nov. 5, with the Black Slamer taking the game 82-76. He scored 13 points, going 3-for-3 from behind the arc. Lee had only 5 points, and committed a game-high 4 turnovers.
“Hyun-min and I play different positions, so I never really thought much about beating him one-on-one,” Jeon told reporters after that first face-off. “I just want to win games over his team.”
Since 1998, all but two top rookies played on post-season teams.
The last two, Bang Sung-yoon of the SK Knights last season and Yang Dong-keun of the Phoebus the year before, were the exceptions.
Through Sunday, Lee’s Sakers are in third place, five games out of first place, while Jeon’s Black Slamer is holding on to the sixth and the final playoff spot, a half-game ahead of the Dongbu Promy.


by By Yoo Jee-ho Staff Writer [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]


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