The kind of ultra-elite prospects who make up the Kentucky basketball roster are usually in so much of a hurry to start their NBA careers that redshirting never enters into the conversation. Now that Marcus Lee has opted to stay in Lexington past his unimpressive freshman season, though, the Wildcats coaches need to convince the young center that sitting out a year will help both him and his team.
In 2013-14, Lee was stuck in the unenviable role of third center behind both Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. He got a few token starts by virtue of his outstanding vertical leap—John Calipari got sick of losing the opening tap—but finished with just 6.3 minutes played per game over the course of the season.
Amazingly, Lee’s shot at playing time will get even worse in his sophomore campaign. Both Cauley-Stein and Johnson elected to return to school, and Kentucky has also added highly touted freshman Karl-Anthony Towns to give Coach Cal’s roster still another 7-footer.
The major factor that kept Lee off the floor as a freshman was that he didn’t have any advantage to offer over the other two centers. Johnson’s shooting touch makes him a superior back-to-the-basket option, and while Lee is impressive as a shot-blocker and fast-break finisher, Cauley-Stein can do both jobs even better.
The arrival of Towns, who immediately becomes the best pure three-point shooter on the roster, only exacerbates the issue.
If Lee plays out his sophomore year, he’ll be nothing more than injury insurance for a team unlikely even to need that. If, on the other hand, he takes a redshirt year, there will be benefits down the road.
Redshirting in the face of an overcrowded position, after all, would hardly be a show of weakness on Lee’s part. Andre Dawkins provided outstanding leadership for Duke following his redshirt year, while Kelly Olynyk parlayed his into an All-America season at Gonzaga and a lottery pick in the NBA draft.
Like Olynyk, Lee would benefit from the chance to hit the weight room and add mass to his 6’9”, 215-pound frame. A season of focusing on his half-court offensive game would also be a major asset to a player who—even after a full year of college ball—is still counting on his raw athleticism to carry him.
In addition to the individual advantages for Lee, a redshirt would make sense for Big Blue as a team. There will be a playing-time crunch at center with or without the Californian in the mix, but having one less body to find minutes for will make Calipari’s job a bit easier by providing more opportunities for the players who are ready to help Kentucky this season.
In 2015-16, meanwhile, Lee could come back with more maturity—physical and mental—and play a similar role off the bench to the one Alex Poythress filled so successfully last season. Whether he’d be filling in as a center or power forward would depend on which players stay or go from next year’s roster.
Details aside, though, it’s all but guaranteed that the traffic jam in the post will be less severe than the version that’s looming right now.
Lee already made one smart move by staying in school rather than rolling the dice on his length and agility to earn him an NBA roster spot right away. Now he needs to double down on that show of good sense by agreeing to a redshirt. By leaving next year to the many centers ahead of him on the depth chart, he’ll be able to return in a better position to carve out his own niche in the Wildcats lineup.