Asian players Lee and Padilla plead for NBA and WNBA

DAVIDSON, NC — Davidson junior forward Hyunjung Lee grew up in South Korea watching the Korean Basketball League.

It wasn’t until the age of 15 that Lee had his first opportunity to watch Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and then-world champion Golden State Warriors on television for the first time when his prospect changed on how the game of basketball is played to the next level.

“When I saw that, I was like, ‘wow, that’s just a totally different game,'” said 6-foot-7 Lee, who is averaging 15.5 points and 6.3 rebounds. for Davidson College. “After that, I was like, ‘I want to play in the NBA.'”

Lee is among the Asian players who excel at the NCAA level and have a realistic chance of playing professional basketball in the United States.

Kayla Padilla lights up the women’s scoreboard. The 5-9 Penn sophomore leads the Ivy League with 19.7 points per game, shooting 37% from 3-point range.

The list of Asian players who made it into the NCAA also includes Johnny Juzang (Vietnamese) and Natalie Chou (Chinese) from UCLA.

It’s another sign of the impact of the game worldwide, but players face a high chance of overcoming – just 0.4% of NBA players and 1.4% of WNBA players in 2021 were players of Asian descent, according to reports compiled by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

Lee and Davidson (19-3 overall, 9-1 A-10), who has won 18 of his last 19 games, are alone atop the Atlantic-10 standings and could earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

His stock has been on the rise since last season when he accomplished something in sophomore year that even Curry never did in school – shoot at least 50% from the field, 40% from 3-pointers and 90% from the line. fault. He was only the 11th Division I player to accomplish that feat since the 1992-93 campaign, and the NBA started to take notice.

There were seven league scouts in Davidson’s recent home game against VCU, and Wildcats coach Bob McKillop – who helped Curry on his way to the NBA – said Lee continues to improve each week. , claiming his immeasurable IQ and talents were off the charts.

“Every coach should have the opportunity to coach a player like Hyunjung Lee,” McKillop said. “He’s exceptional. He puts the team first and holds himself to a level of responsibility for a mistake or for an improvement at a level that very few people do.”

Lee succeeds despite the pressure of carrying the hopes and expectations of an entire nation on his back. He has become an extremely popular figure in South Korea, and Davidson’s AD assistant for sports communications, Joey Beeler, has been inundated with dozens of interview requests for Lee from South Korean media over the past few years. last weeks.

If Lee were to make it to the NBA, he would only become the first South Korean-born player since Ha Seung-Jin was selected in the second round of the 2004 draft by the Portland Trail Blazers.

He has over 24,000 followers on Instagram.

“There’s a lot of pressure, of course,” Lee said. “But I’m just trying to enjoy this moment and improve as a basketball player and as a person. Davidson is doing pretty well right now, and that’s what’s most important to me.”

Lee realized early in high school that if he planned to meet his expectations, he would have to play against better players, which meant leaving South Korea. That’s why he jumped at the chance to join the NBA Global Academy in 2018 in Australia.

Prior to arriving there, Lee had modeled his game on Kevin Durant as he had always been the tallest player on the pitch in South Korea and had strong ball skills. But he soon realized he was going to have to find another niche.

“I went to the academy and realized, ‘Oh, I can’t be KD, no way,'” Lee said with a laugh. “There were a lot of guys taller than me and a lot more skilled.”

His father, who coached high school basketball for 35 years, advised him to focus on his 3-point shot.

So Lee began to study Thompson’s shooting, modeling his game on the Warriors sniper.

Lee played in the senior South Korean national team for the FIBA ​​Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers and in the 2020 Olympic qualifying tournaments – following in the footsteps of his silver medalist mother Jeong A Seong in basketball for South Korea at the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Lee’s journey has been difficult.

He had to work overtime to learn English during his senior year of high school because he said “communication is key” in basketball, and added that he felt his physical abilities were in jeopardy. behind some of his teammates when he arrived at Davidson in 2019.

“My freshman year, I was still struggling with guys and playing the game,” said Lee, one of 10 finalists for the Julius Erving Award for the nation’s best small forward. “It’s probably a stereotype, but all the guys are like white and black, and I’m Asian. So I’m probably the least athletic. I was trying to find a way to overcome that. But that’s why I’m come to America. So I’m learning a lot.”

Like Lee, Padilla begins to attract attention at Penn and hopes to inspire other Asians to play basketball.

She has time to work on her game and improve her chances of making the WNBA with two more full years of eligibility remaining. The guard who grew up in Torrance, Calif., was the 2019-20 Ivy League Rookie of the Year. (She didn’t play last year because all Ivy League sports were canceled due to the pandemic.)

“If I had the chance to be one of the first Asian Americans and the first Filipino to play in the WNBA, that’s something I certainly wouldn’t turn down if the opportunity arose,” he said. Padilla said.

Filipina Chanelle Molina signed a contract last year with the Indiana Fever of the WNBA, but was waived from training camp and did not play a game.

While the WNBA remains a goal, Padilla is preparing for life beyond basketball in case things don’t work out.

She created an online platform called “The Sideline Post”, where college athletes can share their stories through their own words, a concept similar to The Players’ Tribune. She also has a merchandise line called “HCExKP” that she runs with her longtime basketball coach Jared Lloyd, as now permitted under the NCAA’s new “name, image and likeness” agreements.

Padilla said, “One of the main reasons I came to Penn was to have opportunities beyond just thinking about basketball.”

She can tick that box off her to-do list while basketball fans keep an eye on her and other Asian players.

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