Back in October, I doubt many of us picked Marcus Lee to be the key to this team’s success. Tyler Ulis? Definitely. Jamal Murray? Possibly. Alex Poythress? Only if you were really optimistic. But Lee? Sure, he was one of the few veterans on the inside, but considering he only averaged 2.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 10.9 minutes per game last season, I think most of us took a “wait and see” approach with the junior forward. Even John Calipari wasn’t sure what role Lee would have on this team.
Fourteen games in, one thing has become painfully clear about this squad: as Marcus Lee goes, they go. In two of Kentucky’s three losses this season, Lee’s absence dealt a fatal blow. Against UCLA, Lee left the game with a head injury less than five minutes in, after which the Cats collapsed inside and couldn’t recover. Last night against LSU, Lee fouled out in five minutes with 0 points. Kentucky’s problems against Ohio State extended far beyond Lee, but he fouled out of that game as well.
After last night, it’s hard to think about March with this group, but if Kentucky is going to make a run for #9, Lee will be the reason why. Hear me out…
Lee’s been better than any of us anticipated
I love Marcus Lee, but I didn’t picture him coming in this season and averaging 8.4 points and 6.9 rebounds, mostly because I thought Skal Labissiere would be better. Skal started the season off well enough, but fell off the deep end at the end of November. Skal’s struggles have been well documented by now, but one of the reasons Kentucky didn’t stumble when Skal did was because Marcus stepped up to fill the void; however, because Lee has been so great, that means when he’s not, it hurts the team more that before, as you can see in…
…Lee’s stat line in UK’s losses
Lee actually played well vs. Ohio State, but the rest of the team dug itself such a hole that not even Jamal Murray hitting seven threes could get them out of it. Getting injured vs. UCLA was beyond his control, but with him out of the game, Kentucky had no presence on the offensive glass, which came back to haunt them after going 8-25 from three-point land.
Lee’s performance against LSU was within his control and it wasn’t good. He picked up two fouls within the first five minutes of the first half and in the second, fouled out with 13 minutes left in the game. When he was in the game, he didn’t do much, attempting two shots, grabbing two rebounds, and turning the ball over twice. All of that in just five minutes. Ouch.
However, when Lee plays well, Kentucky plays well
Lee’s best games this season have been against Duke, Illinois State, Arizona State, and Ole Miss, which you could also argue are four of Kentucky’s best wins outside of the Louisville game. I included the Louisville game because, although his stats aren’t flashy, Marcus had a huge impact. Calipari played Marcus late in the game despite the fact he had four fouls and it paid off. Lee was able to defend the paint from collapse without fouling out, an under-appreciated performance that I’m not sure Kentucky would have won without.
If Lee suffers, so does Alex Poythress
After playing together for three years, it’s only natural that Marcus and Alex have developed chemistry, and with Skal Labissiere struggling, the two veterans have found themselves working side-by-side in the starting lineup. Looking at the box scores, if Lee doesn’t play well, neither does Alex. With Lee out of the UCLA game, Alex only scored four points and fouled out. He also disappeared against LSU, putting up only four points, four rebounds, and three turnovers.
He’s the best offensive rebounder we’ve got
While Alex Poythress has dominated the boards for UK on the defensive end, Marcus is the team’s leading rebounder on the offensive end. Lee has 44 offensive boards this season; Alex is the next closest with 32. As I mentioned earlier, one of Lee’s biggest strengths is rebounding his teammates’ misses from three-point land. Without him, Kentucky isn’t just a poor shooting team, they’re a poor shooting team that can’t get a second chance.
He’s the best rim protector we’ve got
Marcus leads the team in blocks with 26, with Skal close behind with 23; however, most of Skal’s blocks came in the first month of the season. Since the end of November, Skal’s only had 6 blocks. Marcus has had 15.
His energy is crucial and contagious
I don’t know about you guys, but one of the worst parts of UK’s performance last night was how listless the team looked. They looked like they were just going through the motions. Instead of getting up for the challenge of playing Ben Simmons in their SEC road opener, they shrank away. As a junior and a starter, yes, some of that falls on Marcus.
Before the season, Lee’s role was the energy guy off the bench, ready to give the team a spark when needed. Lee’s been starting most of the season, so bringing the energy is a little different now, but for Kentucky to succeed, Lee has to get back to clapping, hustling, and all of that other intangible stuff we love him for. Look, I get it; some days are just tough, but Lee’s energy is contagious, and because of that, it’s crucial.
More of this, Marcus:
Without it, this team won’t go far.