Meet the Wildcats: Lee’s love for volleyball plays tall part in his basketball game

A new season brings new players and new stories to tell. Throughout the summer, will be profiling Kentucky’s newcomers in its annual and exclusive “Meet the Wildcats” series. Each story will be accompanied with video. This week it’s Marcus Lee. 

A ball in one hand and his eyes locked in front of him, Marcus Lee toes the line, spins the ball and lets out a deep breath. With the lights of Memorial Coliseum shining down upon his 6-foot-10 frame, Lee takes one final glance at his target, lifts the ball and … serves it?

Marcus Lee loves volleyball. He’s been obsessed with the sport ever since he and a couple friends started playing it in P.E. class in seventh grade.

From there, they formed an intramural team, started playing other middle schools, and eventually they moved on to Deer Valley High School (Antioch, Calif.) where they won a sectional championship and finished second in California’s state playoffs.

While Lee eventually turned into one of the best volleyball players in California, what drew him to the game, at least initially, was the challenge of it.

“I was terrible my first couple of games,” Lee said in an exclusive interview with “It was something I wasn’t really good at. I had to work hard at it.”

Marcus Lee has been praised in this summer’s workouts for his relentless energy. Where does he get it from. “I have no idea where it comes from,” Lee said. “There is no stop button on me. I don’t know really when to stop.”

As Lee gained attention on the basketball court for his speed and athleticism, volleyball became his sanctuary, a sport he could play just for fun without having to worry about who was watching him, who was recruiting him and what he needed to do to rise in the rankings.

“It gave me a release to basketball,” Lee said. “It allowed me to free my mind and not really worry about recruiting and how I’m going to get a scholarship. With volleyball it was just like, play and have fun.”

Make no mistake about it, Lee’s first love is basketball, and that will always be his top priority – Lee was playing basketball on breakaway goals in his basement just as soon as he could walk – but there is a passion for volleyball inside of Lee.

“It was something different,” Lee said. “That’s why I liked it.”

That’s why, whenever the Kentucky volleyball team had open gym this summer, Lee, with the permission of UK’s basketball coaches, joined the women for a couple games. He’s developed a relationship with and picked the mind of Craig Skinner, UK’s volleyball coach, and he said he would like to find a league or tournament in Lexington to get into once the basketball season is over.

Lee’s attachment to volleyball – not to mention his talent – became so strong in high school that he considered playing volleyball in college. He received Division I offers to play volleyball from UC Irvine, Stanford and Pepperdine, three of the top volleyball schools in the country.

Given his talent on the hardwood, Lee could have undoubtedly played basketball at any of those schools, but he had to make a choice between the two sports. Would it be basketball or volleyball?

“(I) considered doing (both), but the schedules overlapped too much and it wasn’t quite possible,” Lee said.

When it came down to it, as much as he loved volleyball, basketball was in his blood. He couldn’t put it aside.

“I put so much into the game of basketball, so I didn’t want to lose it and stop playing,” Lee said. “I was like if I want to do this, I have to put all of it into it. I’ve always done that. Basketball has always been my first love.”

Once Lee was sold on basketball, he then had to choose a school. As it turned out, that decision wasn’t nearly as difficult after Lee got a taste of Kentucky’s fan base.

Position: Forward
Date of birth: Sept. 14, 1994
Parents: Sherri and Ronny Lee
Hometown: Antioch, Calif.
High school: Deer Valley High School
Nickname: Pogo Stick
Twitter: @SuperKingMe
Favorite TV show: Big Bang Theory
Favorite food: Anything spicy and Mexican
Favorite superhero: Superman
Favorite player: Penny Hardaway
Favorite hobby outside of basketball: Volleyball
Favorite movie: Pitch Perfect
Favorite artist: Eminem

Lee was sold on UK after his visit to Big Blue Madness, and he committed to play for John Calipari and the Wildcats shortly thereafter. He always wanted to play for a passionate fan base, and to him, there was no better collection of fans than the Big Blue Nation.

Even so, what ultimately grabbed Lee’s attention was what appealed to so many other players in this 2013 recruiting class: the prospect that working hard was the only promise they would get by coming to Kentucky.

“Most coaches were like, ‘We’ll give you all this, we’ll start you, you’ll be our star player,’ but when Cal came in (to recruit me), he was like, ‘I’ll make you great, you might play and we’ll push you.’ No one’s ever told me that, so it kind of caught me off guard,” Lee said. “It was unique to every other coach that came into my house.”

That’s the reason that, even as the number of commitments piled up for the 2013 class, Lee’s pledge to UK only grew stronger. The idea of competing with and against the top players in the country on a daily basis appealed to Lee because he knows that’s what will make him a better player.

“My whole life I wasn’t really guaranteed anything,” Lee said. “Going through middle school and high school, I was never really the top ranked (player) until my senior year, so earning my spot is what pushes me to get better.”

Lee comes to Kentucky as a McDonald’s All-American, a five-star prospect, and another one of those lanky forwards in the mold of Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel who can run the floor and block shots.

And yet, for all the talent Lee possesses on the basketball court, Lee credits volleyball for making him the basketball player he is today.

Before volleyball came along, Lee was a talented basketball player, but he wasn’t among the nation’s elite. Since he started taking volleyball seriously his freshman year, he’s become one of the best basketball players in the country, especially on the defensive end.

While the technique of jumping is different for the two sports – volleyball is usually two-footed jumping while basketball is generally with one foot – the timing and anticipation of blocking and killing volleyball shots translates over to the timing of grabbing rebounds and blocking jump shots.

“My freshman and sophomore years I was terrible at blocking shots, but once we totally got into volleyball and I figured out how to block better in volleyball, I figured out how to time better, and that’s when I started leading the nation in blocks for basketball,” Lee said.

As Lee became a menacing force at the net with intimidating kills and daunting blocks, his rebound and block numbers soared in basketball. In his senior season of high school, he averaged 19.4 rebounds and 6.9 blocks, in addition to 17.9 points per game.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the most common trait between the two games – blocks – is Lee’s favorite part of the two sports.

“Seeing someone get excited to finally get a layup or get an open shot and you just take their glory away, that’s probably the best feeling in basketball,” Lee said. “It kind of just kills (their) momentum, and that’s what I love: killing people’s momentum.”

Although he’ll be hard-pressed to match the block numbers of Davis and Noel – Calipari’s 2013-14 team is expected to feature more players than his past few teams, meaning less minutes for everyone – he’s drawn comparisons to UK’s two greatest single-season shot-blockers.

Like Davis, Noel and even Willie Cauley-Stein – who, from a personality and style standpoint, he draws an eerie comparison to – he’s long, he’s fast and he possesses uncanny athleticism for a big man. The UK coaching staff calls him a gazelle for his ability to run, and Jon Hood, one of Lee’s best friends and mentors, calls him a pogo stick for his knack to get off the ground in a hurry.

“My game is total defense,” Lee said. “I’m the defensive guy. That’s just what I do, and just running, sprinting the court and getting easy buckets. … I love those comparisons because that’s what I do: I block shots. That’s probably my goal is to get to being one of the top blockers, which is where they are. Being compared is an honor.”

“Marcus Lee is a long, agile, quick-bounce, quick-twitch, 6-(10) forward. He gets to the basket, he’s a terrific shot-blocker and he can rebound above the rim. Marcus has unlimited upside because he’s going to get stronger and he’s going to improve his skill around the basket. His speed, quickness, jumping ability and length set him apart.” — Coach Cal
If, for some reason, basketball and volleyball don’t pan out for Lee, there’s a good chance the kid is going to be alright.

Family history – not to mention a good head on his shoulders – suggests Lee is destined for great things whether it’s on the athletic field or in the business world. His dad, Ronny, played football at Portland State, and all three of his brothers are successful in their fields of choice.

His oldest brother, Robert, builds airplanes for the Air Force; his second-oldest brother, Chris, designs footwear for Nike; and his third-oldest brother, Bryan, used to be a recruiter for Google and is now a recruiter for Apple. Both Chris and Bryan played college ball, Chris at Georgia Tech and Bryan at Grand Canyon University.

Lee, like his brothers, is into technology, but he’s taken a little bit of everything from each of his siblings to form his own identity.

“I kind of took parts of each and everything and I kind of wanted to put it together because I’ve always loved everything they’ve done,” Lee said. “I’ve always wanted to work at Apple (like Bryan) and build stuff like my brother Robert and be as artsy as my brother Chris and learn how to put things together. Once I find a way to put that all together and make a job out of it, that’d be my job.”

Lee said he could see himself following in Bryan’s footsteps and working for Apple. Of his three brothers, Lee said he’s closest to Bryan.

“Right now it’d be marketing in the technology area, especially since everything is technology now, trying to market stuff for Apple, like the iPhone,” Lee said. “All of those commercials, I would love to do stuff like that. With all my brothers in technology, I’ve just fallen in love with it.”

Of course, given his athletic ability and love for the game, there’s a pretty good chance this whole basketball thing is going to work out for Lee.

And if it doesn’t, well, there’s always volleyball.