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Osaka Evessa Newcomer Hyunjung Lee Exhibits Talent from the Get-Go

In his first six games in the B.League, South Korean swingman Hyunjung Lee scored in double figures five times, including 23- and 24-point performances.

South Korean sharpshooter Hyunjung Lee has made a positive impact since joining the B.League's Osaka Evessa in March. He will be with the team for the remainder of the 2023-24 season.

The 23-year-old shooting guard/small forward has appeared in the Western Conference squad's last six games. He made his B.League debut on March 20 against the Ryukyu Golden Kings and had 24 points, four rebounds and four assists at Okinawa Arena in the Evessa's 89-79 defeat.

Since then, with Lee in the starting lineup, the Evessa (20-28) have won five consecutive games.

The 201-cm swingman had his first double-double in the B.League on Saturday, March 30, finishing with team-high totals in points (23) and rebounds (11) in a 96-74 home rout of the Levanga Hokkaido. Lee also dished out a team-best five assists as the Evessa had their highest-scoring game of the season.

After the weekend series-opening triumph, center Shawn Long, the team's leading scorer this season (18.6 points per game), highlighted the Evessa's cohesive play in the victory. 

"We won the game because we were able to play as a team throughout the game," Long told reporters.

In Sunday's rematch, Lee contributed 15 points on 5-for-17 shooting, seven rebounds and four assists as Osaka completed the series sweep with a 98-90 decision. Five Evessa players scored in double figures, with Makoto Kinoshita's 22 leading the club.

"We have 12 games left, but we will focus on the next game [on April 6] against the San-en NeoPhoenix first in order to further improve our team strength," Evessa head coach Mathias Fischer told reporters after the match.

Hyunjung Lee
Hyunjung Lee (KYODO)

Capitalizing on an Opportunity to Play in Japan

After a 6-0 start in October, the Evessa have slipped out of playoff contention. But their improved play of late is linked to Lee's arrival with 18 games remaining in their season.

Lee completed his first season of a three-year deal with the Australian National Basketball League's Illawarra Hawks in March. He averaged 7.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 17.2 minutes in 32 games, including the playoffs, for the Hawks. Melbourne United eliminated the Hawks in a playoff semifinal series.

Since he joined the Evessa, he's averaging 16.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 28-plus minutes per game.

While in Japan, Lee is using the early portion of Illawarra's offseason to focus on making improvements as a player.

"I am disappointed that the NBL season ended early [for the Hawks], but I am happy to have joined Osaka Evessa and am having a meaningful time," Lee told reporters on March 26, after he'd already appeared in two Evessa games. 

He added, "I am looking forward to enjoying playing in Japan while making the most of these opportunities."

Without stating that Fischer inserted him into the starting lineup right away, Lee pointed out, "My teammates and coaches have put a lot of faith in me, and I want to live up to their expectations."

At the press conference, then-Evessa general manager Yuta Kuroki noted that Lee is hungry to keep improving as a player.

"[His] desire for a place to grow and the club's desire to further strengthen his game were in line with his decision to join the team," Kuroki told reporters.

Four days later, ex-Evessa player Shota Konno was appointed GM and Kuroki became the assistant GM.

Hyunjung Lee
Hyunjung Lee averaged 16.0 points in his first six games for the Evessa. (B.LEAGUE)

Getting to Know Hyunjung Lee

Lee launched his pro career in 2022 after deciding to forgo his senior season at Davidson (North Carolina) College, the same school that NBA superstar Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors attended.

He had become a high-profile international player in his teenage years, competing for South Korea's Under-16, U17 and U18 national teams.

In addition, Lee was the top scorer (26.0 points) at the 2018 FIBA U18 Asian Championship.

During his Davidson years, Lee increased his scoring average from 8.4 points as a freshman in 2019-20 to 13.5 and 15.8 over the next two seasons. 

In the 2020-21 campaign, Lee bolstered his reputation as a top-notch shooter with a 50-40-90 season, meaning he made more than half of all his shots from the floor (50.8%), 44.2% of his 3-point attempts and sank 90% of his foul shots.

To put that accomplishment in perspective, consider that from 1992 to 2021, only 11 NCAA Division I players had 50-40-90 seasons.

After leaving Davidson, Lee was sidelined for six months with a foot injury, thus delaying his pro debut. After the injury healed, Lee made his pro debut in February 2023 and averaged 5.5 points in 12 games for the NBA G League's Santa Cruz.

It's just a shoe!

Impressions of Lee's Basketball Skills

In a November 2021 column in The Charlotte Observer, longtime Davidson head coach Bob McKillop spoke about Lee's dynamic play for the college team.

"Lee has been making plays for us all year long," McKillop, who retired in 2022, was quoted as saying by the newspaper. "And what's most thrilling about it is, yes, he's making 3-pointers, but he's also making 2-pointers and he's making foul shots, and he's rebounding."

Winner of the National Association of Basketball Coaches' 2008 Coach of the Year Award, McKillop added: "You put the ball in his hands and generally some good things happen."

Lee was the fourth Korean male to play for an NCAA Division I basketball team. 

The sport has established roots in his family. His mother Jung A Sung played for runner-up South Korea at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and his father Yung Hwan Lee has coached high school ball for decades in Yongin City.

Hyunjung Lee
Hyunjung Lee spent three seasons at Davidson College (2019-22) before turning pro. (B.LEAGUE)

Aiming to Reach the Pinnacle of His Sport

Lee has aspirations to become the second Korean to play in the NBA, following in the footsteps of Seung Jin Ha, who suited up for the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2004-05 and 05-06 seasons.

To achieve his goal, Lee has displayed a concerted effort to become a better defender.

"Each game in the NBL was a fierce, high-level competition, so I think I grew as I gave it my all in each game," he said at the March press conference, looking back on his first season in Australia. 

"In order to overcome the issue of my weak defense, I went to Australia and made a lot of efforts to improve my defensive skills, playing a lot of one-on-one with players at the same position. I did yoga to improve my physical flexibility and made a lot of efforts to improve my muscle strength."

He then said, "I think I also gained the intelligence to be able to play defense without losing my physical strength."

In addition to Lee, Korean compatriot Jae Min Yang (Sendai 89ers) is currently playing in the B.League. Yang became the first Korean player in the B.League first division in 2020 when he joined the Shinshu Brave Warriors. Busan-born guard Gibeom Cheon played for the B2's Fukushima Firebonds in 2022-23.

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Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.

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