Could Lee Hyunjung be the next Yuta Watanabe? Steph Curry's college coach thinks so
SEOUL (Korea) - Lee Hyunjung won’t be able to shake off the comparisons easily. That's not only because of the path he has chosen to take or where he is playing at the moment. Just the plain fact that he is playing basketball at all will draw comparisons. However, it’s probably not such a bad thing considering the people who he is being compared to.
“I’m not saying [Lee] will become an NBA player, but there are a lot of similarities between the two [Yatanabe] and beyond just the fact that they’re both from Asia.” - Bob McKillop
Lee will be turning 20 years old this October and is already one of the most promising prospects coming out of Asia. He’s been a star for Korea's youth national teams ever since 2015, most recently at the FIBA U18 Asian Championship where he led the tournament in scoring, assists, and steals.
His level of performance shouldn’t come as a surprise.
His mother, Sung Jung-A, is a women’s basketball legend in Korea. She was a part of the 1984 Olympics team which won the silver medal, making Korea only one of two Asian nations to ever make it that far. She’s also medaled in the Women’s Asia Cup four times, including two gold medals in 1984 and 1988.
His father (Lee Yoon-Hwan), while not as accomplished as a player, is a head coach at Samil Commercial School. One famous alumnus is former NBA player and national team star Ha Seung-Jin. The younger Lee himself established himself as a star playing at Samil coached by his father.
There have always been several layers of shadows cast over Lee, whether it’s being "Sung Jung-A’s son" or being "The coach’s kid". Nonetheless, he’s done well in making a name for himself and has now become a well-recognized player in his own rights.
Best of Both Splash Brothers
Lee was initially slotted as a guard in his earlier days due to his small frame. This pushed him to work hard on his ball-handling and shooting techniques. A late growth spurt shot him up to 2.00M (6’7”) and transformed him into a forward that can play like a guard.
It all came together - the size, smarts, and skills - and created an opportunity for Lee to enroll at the NBA Global Academy in 2018. That move, coupled with his continued development as a basketball player, caught the eye of Davidson University's Bob McKillop.
After a Basketball Without Borders event and a recruiting trip to Australia, Davidson were convinced to make Lee a part of their team’s future.
"He was very skilled, but we didn’t realize how good a shooter he was until I went down there," said Matt McKillop, Davidson’s associate head coach, as per the Charlotte Observer. "But I saw that he’s an awesome cutter and passer and has a great motor. The way he goes for rebounds showed how great his instincts are."
With global superstar Stephen Curry among one of the players to have played for Davidson, it’s safe to assume that the university does a pretty good job of evaluating shooters like Lee. The Korean teenager was aware and excited because of the connection between Curry and the school from the beginning but admits that he also had an opportunity to follow the footsteps of the other Splash Brother, too.
"I knew about Davidson because Steph Curry was from there and also Bob McKillop," Lee said, as told by the Charlotte Observer. "That was my dream. But I also visited Washington State, Klay Thompson’s school. I decided on Davidson because of how unselfish they are. They play smart basketball and are a good fit for me."
Funnily enough, Lee models his game after Thompson who he says is his favorite player.
"I’m trying to play like Klay Thompson with off the ball moves, defense and shooting balance," Lee told 247Sports back in 2019. "My strengths are shooting, off the ball moves, and leading the team. I’m getting better."
Next in Line from Asia?
The past year can be considered quite successful for the freshman in the Atlantic-10 conference. He was awarded as conference Rookie of the Week twice during the season and named to the conference All-Rookie team with solid averages of 8.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per game on 37.7 percent shooting from downtown.
Lee still has plenty of work to do to cement himself as a star in the NCAA like Japan’s Rui Hachimura, but the potential is there. Bob McKillop certainly thinks so, which was evident when he compared Lee to another Asian prospect who played in the Atlantic-10 conference.
"Yuta [Watanabe] was sensational and that’s because he became more and more familiar with European and American players," McKillop told the Charlotte Observer. "I’m not saying [Lee] will become an NBA player, but there are a lot of similarities between the two and beyond just the fact that they’re both from Asia."
Watanabe played against McKillop at George Washington University from 2014 to 2018 and was named the conference Defensive Player of the Year in his senior year. After not being selected in the NBA draft, he signed a contract to play for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Lee Hyunjung has been compared to his own mother, Klay Thomason, and Yuta Watanabe, all at such an early stage in his career and that's definitely a positive sign. At this rate, some other kid will soon be compared as the "Next Lee Hyunjung".