Marcus Lee lives more than 2,000 miles away, but there’s no questioning his school spirit when it comes to the University of Kentucky.
Lee woke up early Wednesday to send in his letter of intent before school started, becoming the first member of UK’s top-ranked recruiting class to formalize his commitment to the Cats.
Anyone who follows the 6-foot-9 forward from California on Twitter knows he has already fully embraced being a Wildcat. He tweets words of encouragement during games, interacts with UK fans and seems to hang on every play.
He’s the ultimate team player, and he’s not even on the team yet.
LeChet Phillips, Lee’s coach at Deer Valley High School in Antioch, Calif., says Marcus has the same attitude on the court: Whatever is best for the team is best for him.
“One of the big things is he will defer to other kids,” Phillips told the Herald-Leader. “He doesn’t seek attention. He doesn’t need to be the center of attention. He will fit in wherever he can get in. He will do all of the things that nobody else wants to do on the basketball court, and that’s what made him so popular. Everybody likes that.”
Lee’s a different kind of high school prospect in the sense that he has been quick to embrace the defensive side of the game. Though Phillips said his star player has the ability to put up big offensive numbers if he wants to, that’s just not Lee’s approach.
It’s in Deer Valley’s best interests that Lee be a defensive stopper, and it’s a role the future Cat relishes.
“It’s a rare quality,” Phillips said of Lee’s attention to defense. “I guess you could equate it to Magic Johnson or Larry Bird liking to pass the ball back in their day. Dennis Rodman liking to rebound. When you get people that realize there’s a niche there and something that they can carve out for themselves, they do real well with it.”
Calipari’s teams at Kentucky have been defined by their success of getting several five-star recruits to put individual accomplishments on the backburner. Cats like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and DeAndre Liggins have earned national acclaim by focusing on the “little things,” making hustle plays that aren’t usually associated with superstar players.
Phillips expects that to be Lee’s role when he gets to Lexington.
“Everybody seems to think that you have to score to be successful, when really all you have to do is be a really good all-around player and do all of the little things. That’s what makes you a coach’s dream for anybody’s team. And that’s one of the things we emphasized with Marcus as he was coming up through the program. Scoring is a great thing, but if you do all of the little things that gives you a lot more longevity if you decide to pursue this.”
Phillips, who grew up in New York City before ending up on the West Coast, referred to Calipari as “my homeboy,” touting the UK coach’s East Coast ties and his approach to the game.
The Deer Valley coach said Calipari made quite the impression on Lee and his family by selling UK’s team-oriented approach. Though other coaches had recruited Lee longer, Phillips said he wasn’t surprised at all when his player committed to Calipari and Kentucky.
“He’s the kind of guy that understands basketball talent,” Phillips said. “And it doesn’t take him and his assistants much to see these good kids as they come along. And, once he gets wind of it, he’s going to try and gather the best kids that he can. And that’s what you see with this program. He’s done a tremendous job with it.”