While many people spent this year's Thanksgiving holiday morning finishing preparations for dinner, scanning the internet for Black Friday sales, or sleeping, Drexel's dynamic freshman point guard Kurk Lee was back home in Baltimore, Maryland practicing at his old high school's gym.
Mike McCormick, who is Lee's Godbrother and trainer, went with Drexel's starting point guard and another relative to St. Frances Academy's gymnasium that Thanksgiving morning but initially was hesitant.
“I didn't want to workout that day,” said McCormick. “Kurk's mom was cooking and I was in the living room. Kurk was upstairs in the shower and called down to see if I wanted to rebound.”
Silence fell over the house as McCormick thought about his response to Lee's request to go to the gym -- on Thanksgiving.
“I eventually said okay but I told [Kurk] that he had to drive,” said McCormick.
Before Lee started training with McCormick during high school, he learned from his dad, Kurk Lee Sr., who starred at Towson, scoring 1,541 career points, and eventually playing in the NBA.
“As soon as I was able to stand, my dad put a ball into my hands,” said Lee Jr. “I'm fortunate enough to have a dad that has played in the NBA and he continues to help me everyday by giving me knowledge of the game.”
Lee continued to develop his game going into high school but suffered a setback when he was 16 years old. The lefty broke his shooting arm while riding on a 4-wheeler with his friends, which left him unable to use that arm for months. Throughout the rehab process, Lee's mom, Sonya, and McCormick accompanied Lee to every physical therapy appointment. Though Lee missed a substantial amount of time due to the injury, a light bulb went off in his head during the recovery period.
One of Lee's weaknesses at the time of the injury was his shot. When he was able to get back in the gym after he fully recovered, he focused on perfecting his shooting form, since he lost the ability to shoot with his left arm after surgery. It wouldn’t be a problem anymore.
“It was like teaching a person how to shoot again,” said McCormick. “His shot got better because he had to start from scratch.”
With Lee's shooting mechanics fine-tuned, the three-year high school starter went on to help St. Frances win the 2015-16 Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship, scoring 27 points and dishing out 7 assists.
He was also named to the All-Metro first team, as he averaged 16.4 points, 5.8 assists, and 3.6 rebounds as a senior. Lee finished his prep career with 1,372 points and more than 600 assists.
Though Lee had a successful high school campaign, his commitment to work on his game and improve his skills never wavered, as he and McCormick routinely stayed after team practice to put in extra work.
“If team practice was from 4pm to 6pm, we would do strength work, but if team practice was from 6pm to 8pm, then we would stay in the gym and [Kurk] would have to make at least 250 shots before we left,” said McCormick.
St. Frances head coach Nick Myles gave the two unlimited access to the gym and saw firsthand how Lee's practice habits transferred over into live games.
“The things that you see him do on game day, are the same things that he works on at practice,” said coach Myles. “He has a great work ethic and knows what he needs to get better at.”
This past summer Lee and McCormick trained together, as they normally do, to prepare for the 2016-17 college basketball season but were joined by former Drexel guard Damion Lee for multiple workouts. Damion Lee, who currently plays for the Maine Red Claws in the NBA D-League, helped Kurk Lee transition to Drexel, since he spent four seasons with the Dragons before transferring to Louisville, by demonstrating what it takes to be a Dragon and play at the collegiate level.
“Working out with [Damion Lee] was an honor,” said Lee. “He told me to ‘push through everyday and embrace the opportunity.’”
Not only did Lee gain wisdom and continue to get stronger while training over the summer, but he specifically devoted time to work on his individual skills and mid-range jump shot.
According to McCormick, the biggest asset of any small guard is their ability to hit shots, especially if they do not play above the rim. He didn’t want Lee to miss time because of a lack of strength or undeveloped skill. He wanted Lee to get to school and contribute right away.
Drexel did their annual preseason fitness test in mid-September. With Lee waiting to complete the pull-up assessment, Drexel head coach Zach Spiker asked McCormick, who was in attendance, how often he and [Kurk] workout together. McCormick estimated that they trained together about five to six times a week, primarily working on strength and skills.
In perfect succession, Lee stepped up to the pull-up bar and began the evaluation. By the time he reached 20 repetitions, all of his new Drexel teammates had surrounded him and started cheering him on. Lee surpassed expectations on the pull-up challenge, just as he did with all of the other physical tasks that day.
Coach Spiker was so impressed by his recruit's display, that he told McCormick that he wanted to send more players to train with him.
Once Drexel began preseason practices, coach Spiker reiterated to his young guard that he wanted him to be a leader on this year's team. Despite Lee's status as a true freshman, he slowly took on more of a leadership role as the Dragons progressed through preseason workouts.
“I eased my way into things,” said Lee. “I know that I’m a freshman in the classroom, but not out on the court.”
Lee has certainly not played like a freshman through Drexel's first 12 games, as he has scored in doubles figures in all but one contest and leads the Dragons in minutes played, assists and steals.
The 5-foot-10, 150 pound guard has enjoyed coach Spiker's fact-paced practices, which complement his speed and overall game. Lee describes these workout sessions as intense with a up and down pace and he enjoys every second of it. Additionally, Lee has gained confidence from the belief that his coaches and teammates have in him.
Two teammates that have given Lee that self-assurance are senior Rodney Williams and redshirt junior Major Canady. The two upperclassmen have taken Lee under their wing and advised him that every practice is not going to be perfect but to make the most of it.
Off the court, Lee has also made an impact on Drexel's men's basketball program, as he hosted recent Drexel commit Jarivs Doles, who also trains with McCormick, for a campus visit. Lee knew Doles before the visit since he is from Baltimore as well and showed him what Drexel is all about.
“It was a great moment for [Jarvis],” said Lee of Doles’ commitment. “He enjoyed the visit and it's great that he committed to Drexel. He definitely fits the offense that coach runs.”
Even though Lee has gotten off to a hot start this year, he continues to train with McCormick, who drives up from Baltimore once or twice a week, to work with Lee on basketball skills. When he can't make games, he live streams them. If he sees that his mechanics are slipping, he always makes sure to let Lee know.
“I see all of the points and I expected that but I also see where Kurk can improve,” said McCormick. “Pound for pound, he's been playing well. The main thing is to remain consistent, limit the turnovers, and raise his free-throw percentage.”
Coach Spiker had similar comments about his leading guard after Drexel lost to Saint Joseph's earlier this month.
“In your freshman class, you're fortunate to take the floor and he needs to come in and command a presence,” said Spiker during his postgame press conference after Drexel lost to Saint Joseph's. “I think he's done that and he’ll learn. Certainly there's a lot of things we can work on with his game.”
With that being said, Lee plans to spend the upcoming Christmas holiday in a very familiar place.
“When we have Christmas break, I definitely see myself being in the gym,” said Lee. “Why not work on your craft?”
Photo: AP Photo/Mel Evans
Through the first 8 games of Drexel's new men's basketball era with Zach Spiker in charge, the Dragons are off to a 4-4 start. This may come as a surprise, as the team’s fourth victory last season came in late February.
Moving on from last year's 6-win season was not an easy task, especially after losing five players. But Spiker's system has worked.
Playing at a faster pace has led to more high percentage shots and steals. As a result, Spiker's group has been able to attempt more shots, helping them average 75.6 points per game this season.
Not only is Drexel scoring more but they are forcing opponents into lackluster mistakes due to their intense style of play. So far the Dragons have stolen the ball 55 times, contrary to last year's squad which only had 34 steals at this point of the season. A lot of the team’s early season success can be attributed to freshman standout Kurk Lee, who is the epitome of speed and leads the team with 15 steals.
Lee has flourished in this system from the start. After his collegiate debut where he led the team in scoring with 17 points, the Baltimore native scored a career-high 24 points against Hartford in Drexel's home opener. He followed that up by dropping 21 points against city rival La Salle and putting in an all-around performance against High Point with 16 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists, and 2 steals in 35 minutes of play.
The 5-foot-10 guard’s ability to impact the game by attacking the basket, nailing mid range jumpers, sticking tight defense, and distributing the ball to open teammates is essential for this team to be successful. Not to mention, his speed fits in perfectly with how coach Spiker wants this team to play. Lee plays relentlessly every time he’s out on the floor and works his tail off on both ends of the court.
Coach Spiker’s philosophy has also benefitted senior Rodney Williams. The big man went three-straight games with at least 20 points after Drexel’s season opening loss against Monmouth, where he just missed out on a double-double with 9 points and 10 boards. His contribution on the defensive end should not go unnoticed as Rodney Williams is tied with forward Austin Williams for most team blocks at 11. He also has shown the ability to cover perimeter players, showing his versatility to play defense inside and out.
Even more, Rodney Williams is Drexel's team-captain. On a night where Drexel was outrebounded by 27 and overmatched in the paint against Rutgers, the St. Christopher's School alum continued to grind on both ends of the court, modeling for his teammates what it means to be all in. He showed true leadership by not giving up and exemplified all the traits of a team-captain.
In Lee and Rodney Williams, Spiker found out early who he could rely on to lead his team moving forward. Lee showed the former Army coach that he could be a dynamic ball handler, who could make plays for teammates, while Rodney Williams displayed his offensive/defensive prowess and leadership skills.
As good as Drexel's leading duo of Lee and Rodney Williams have been, freshman guard Kari Jonsson has stepped up to become the team's most potent three-point threat.
Jonsson is shooting 48% from three and has hit a team-high 22 threes. The Iceland native drained 5 three-pointers when the Dragons defeated North Texas in their first appearance in the Lone Star State since the 1987-88 season and nailed a career-high 7 threes against High Point. Jonsson has taken advantage of additional playing time as his lethal shooting performance versus the Panthers came in a career-high 35 minutes of action.
Though Drexel has been playing at a high tempo, scoring more baskets and picking others teams’ pockets, the Dragons have struggled to consistently defend shots from beyond the arc and limit their own turnovers. Opposing teams are shooting 43% from the three, which gives Drexel the 348th ranking in the nation according to Sports-Reference.com.
The Dragons allowed a below .500 Niagara squad to shoot 83% (10-12 3PM-A) from three as sophomore forward Marvin Prochet and freshman guard James Towns combined for 8 threes to help the Purple Eagles win. Four days later, La Salle came into the Daskalakis Athletic Center and shot almost 62% (13-21 3PM-A) from three as senior swingman Cleon Roberts went 6-7 from deep.
Turnovers have also been a problem for Drexel. They have committed 13 or more turnovers in 7 out of their 8 games. Though High Point forced the Dragons into a season-high 21 turnovers last weekend, Drexel came away with the win but that contest was an outlier. Monmouth and La Salle stole the ball away from Drexel 16 and 17 times, respectively, and both teams won by double-digits.
If Drexel wants to remain competitive throughout non-conference play and into CAA play, they have to close out on three-point shooters quicker and limit their turnovers. They cannot expect to continue to win close games giving up almost 9 three-pointers and 15 turnovers per game. They have gotten away with it thus far but as the season progresses they may not be so fortunate.
All in all, through 8 games the team has exceed expectations. Coach Spiker has began to implement his system, found the players to lead his team, and has Drexel at a .500 winning percentage. After a disappointing 2015-16 season, Spiker has reenergized the Dragons, who are currently on a 2-game winning streak. There is still a lot for the Dragons to improve on but they are better off now than they were a year ago.
Photo: Benjamin Simon/ Philly Empire
-Drexel loses to Charleston in the quarterfinal of the CAA tournament