Sakers’ playmaker wows the league in his rookie campaignAbout a quarter way into the 2006-07 Korean Basketball League season, a rookie point guard is leading the preseason dark horse pick at the top of the league standings.
LG Sakers, at 8-3 through Sunday, now lead four teams by 1.5 games for the top spot.
The addition of former best foreign player award winner Charles Minlend, plus the fact that the team will not send anyone to the Asian Games training camp this month, had the Sakers tipped as the surprising team of the season. The Changwon, South Gyeongsang province-based team has not disappointed.
And as much as Minlend has done ― he is in the top five for both scoring and rebounding ― it is the play of the first-year point guard Lee Hyun-min that has been the driving force behind the Sakers’ rise.
Minlend has been doing his part, scoring 29.2 points and grabbing 10.2 boards per game. He and center Pervis Pasco, with 9.1 rebounds on average, are the KBL’s top rebounding duo
The three-point specialist Cho Sang-hyun is in top three in the league in both three-point shots made and field-goal percentage from behind the arc. Forward Hyun Joo-yup doesn’t have the gaudy statistics from his heyday, but he has been doing the little things ― getting offensive boards, setting picks, dishing out to open teammates, and even jumping in front of Minlend in a game last week to prevent a potential brawl with Pete Mickeal of the Daegu Orions after a hard foul.
And Lee acts as the glue that holds these pieces. He leads all first-year players in points, assists and steals, but his contribution doesn’t begin and end with numbers.
He is already adept at pick-and-roll plays, an essential part of the playbook in the KBL since teams rely heavily on foreign post players’ setting screens to either get themselves a favorable mismatch or create room for guards to make the next play.
Lee’s hustle on the defensive end has also been impressive. The Sakers’ full court pressure defense, considered the league’s tightest, begins with Lee, with all of his 174-centimeter (5-foot-8) and 72-kilogram (159-pound) frame, applying pressure on the opposing point guard.
All this is coming from someone who thought of quitting the sport just two years ago, not only on a recommendation from his own head coach but on his own volition.
At Kyung Hee University, Lee became the starting point guard only in his senior year. Jeong Jae-ho, Lee’s senior by one year, was the more highly touted player, and even Lee’s junior, Shin Myoung-ho, was ahead in the depth chart.
During his third year, Lee’s head coach Choi Bu-young suggested Lee consider another career path. Lee recently admitted he himself thought about quitting a few times. But he eventually straightened himself out and put in long hours at the gym ― he said he often took 1,000 shots until 2 a.m. ― and managed to leave an impression on at least one professional coach.
The Sakers’ bench boss, Shin Sun-woo, apparently saw enough in Lee that he urged the front office to select him as the third overall pick in the draft this year, ahead of more heralded point guard Kim Hak-sup and center Joo Tae-soo. It also helped that in his last collegiate tournament, the Basketball Festival last winter, Lee was the highest scoring point guard and carried the team to the semifinals.
“I think his biggest strength is that even though he is a rookie, he’s never intimidated,” Shin told sports daily Sports Chosun earlier this month. “Also, he is great at controlling the pace of the game, and knows when to go for a shot and when to defer to his teammates.”
Even Park Ji-hyun, whose playing time has been cut by Lee, praised Lee’s talents. Park said to the same paper, “With his speed and outside shot, I think Lee would present a major headache for the opponents.”
For the most part, Lee has remained modest, saying his teammates make him look better than he really is. He was once quoted by Sports Chosun as saying, “I am smaller than most, and so I have to run harder and take more shots in practice just to make up for it. A rookie has to play hard.”
And now, with the growing accolades, Lee says he has a little more confidence in himself than he did after the first couple of games. Confidence might just be the factor that could push Lee to the next level. Just ask his college head coach Choi.
“Lee is a late-bloomer,” he told Seoul Shinmun earlier in the season. “ If he continues to play with confidence, I think he will become an even better player.”
by Yoo Jee-ho