How Xaivian Lee overcame doubters to become a star on the court for Princeton

Princeton's Xaivian Lee, right. (Ryan Samson/Sideline Photography)

In March of 2017, when Xaivian Lee was 13 years old, his family made the two-hour drive from his native Toronto to Buffalo, N.Y. to watch his first-ever March Madness game. It turned out to be a thriller between Notre Dame and Princeton, an Ivy League school with a storied basketball program that Lee had his eyes on from a young age. 

After all, Lee grew up in a household that prioritized academics but also valued his love of sport. Lee played baseball and basketball and was a diehard Raptors fan who idolized Fred VanVleet growing up. But he was always short and skinny for his age, measuring only five-foot-seven as a high school freshman so, until that trip at least, it was hard to see himself going far in basketball. 

“That was certainly an eye-opening experience for us,”  his mother, Eun-Kyung Lee, tells Sportsnet. “What (could) be a possibility for him in the future became more tangible, being there, seeing that in person. I think it’s a bit lovely how it came full circle.”

The next time Princeton’s men’s basketball team was in the NCAA tournament was in March of 2023, with a rookie Lee helping the team reach its first Sweet 16 in over 50 years. A year later, Lee is continuing his rapid ascent up the basketball world by leading the Princeton Tigers to its best start in over 100 years, with a 10-1 record. 

Despite still being small compared to his competition at six-foot-three, 170 pounds, the 19-year-old Lee is averaging a team-high 18.1 points, five rebounds and 3.3 assists on 49/40/84 shooting, proving to be one of the best players in the Ivy League and a potential future NBA player — not to mention the best Canadian hooper in college outside of Zach Edey. 

Xaivian Lee at the NCAA Tournament as a child. (Photo courtesy of Eun-Kyung Lee)

It’s something that not even Lee would have imagined a few years ago when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Toronto in March of 2020 and he was faced with one of the harder decisions of his life. He had two choices: take the easy route, staying inside and socializing through video games and social media like most kids his age, or chase his dream of becoming an NCAA basketball player despite the roadblocks in place. Lee, who gravitates to things he considers more fun, chose basketball. 

“He had to be creative. He had to be innovative. But he also had to have the drive and the passion to want to do that in spite of his circumstances,” Eun-Kyung says. “Being an outsider looking in on his drive to want to still get better, even though the circumstances weren’t such that he could necessarily get better, I think that really was eye opening.”

After all, strict COVID regulations in Ontario cancelled Lee’s entire junior season of high school and club sports, discouraged people from socializing with anybody outside of their household and even limited outdoor physical activity at certain times. Canadian kids dropped out of sports and decreased physical activity at an unprecedented rate, while their American counterparts were mostly able to continue playing (perhaps this has to do with why this has been such an underwhelming Canadian freshman class).

Lee and his trainer Filip Music were forced to drive throughout the Greater Toronto Area to find underground gyms often made of converted warehouses with such low ceilings that he couldn’t take a regular three-pointer. The workouts were not ideal, but they kept Lee sane. And, more than that, they helped him fall in love with basketball.

“I kind of felt like as I kept playing, my love for the game just kind of kept growing,” Lee says. “I kind of started to enjoy every aspect of it, you know? Before I really only liked playing games. But then once I started to fall in love with the training, lifting, all those sort of things, and when I saw myself really getting better and maybe pushing past competition that gave me a harder time when I was younger — when I really started to see myself get a lot better — I think that every time that happened, it just kind of motivated me to keep going.”

Still, it turned out passion wasn’t enough. Despite being one of the best players in the CISAA (Conference of Independent Schools Athletic Association) for Crescent High School in Toronto and a standout in the EYBL for CIA Bounce AAU, Lee wasn’t receiving much interest from Division 1 schools by the start of his junior year. He had also never got to play for Canada Basketball until last summer (Lee was once invited to a Team Ontario training camp, but was let go due in part to his lack of size). 

Lee had always been a crafty guard who could shoot from distance and blow by his defenders, but the skeptics saw a short, skinny, semi-athletic combo-guard who lacked physicality on the defensive end and who only started taking basketball seriously during the pandemic, when recruiters were unable to see him hit a growth spurt and put on muscle.

“In terms of the recruiting circuit, you have an Asian kid who’s 170 pounds. So he gets judged differently in that little bubble,” Cordell Lewellyn, a Canadian former basketball player who ultimately helped Lee get to Princeton, says. “It’s all the negatives about basketball that sometimes people don’t look at or challenge. You can be small or undersized. Sometimes when you get caught up in just who’s who and if you’re not six-foot-seven, 210, 215 (pounds), if you’re not banging on people, dunking on people, sometimes you fly under the radar. And he flew under the radar.”

Lewellyn is the father of Jaelin Llewellyn, another undersized guard who played with Lee at CIA Bounce before going on to have a successful four-year career at Princeton. Cordell Lewellyn developed a strong relationship with the Princeton coaching staff and, at the behest of Lee and CIA Bounce coach Nicky Davis, he reached out to recruiting coordinator and associate head coach, Brett MacConnell, to tell him that there was a kid from Toronto that he had to watch. 

“He was tiny,” MacConnell says about the film he received from Lee’s sophomore year. “He was really small and if you just looked at his size, you’d be like, ‘what are we doing here? Am I even looking at the right kid?’

“But when you looked at his skill set and his feel for the game, kind of how smooth he was, the way he could move, the way he could handle the ball, the way he could shoot, the way he could pass, you realize: man there might be something here that could be really good.”

When the pandemic slowed down in the summer of 2021, in between Lee’s junior and senior years of high school, Lee went to the United States with his high school and AAU teams, and Princeton rushed to see Lee play.

“I remember texting Brett after the game and I was like, ‘Oh my God. We need him right now,’” Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson says. “He had all the stuff — everything you see now was there: the way he would flow through the game and his ability to make things look simple and easy. The passing, the shooting, it was all there.

“And I remember looking around the gym being like: ‘Oh my God, I hope I’m the only one here.'”

By August of that same summer, Lee had committed to Princeton — one of the few schools that offered him a scholarship, and the one he had wanted to go to since he saw them play live in 2017.

But the transition to life as an Ivy League student-athlete wasn’t easy. Despite spending his senior year of high school at Perkiomen Prep School outside of Philadelphia (where he was an NHSCA Academic All-American), the combination of moving to the United States, playing against kids several years older and stronger than him, learning a new system, and majoring in economics was overwhelming for Lee. 

“It’s kind of annoying sometimes when I have a game or practice and sometimes you’re stressed out about what you got to do in terms of school,” Lee says. “I know last year, I was a little overwhelmed by that, you know, if I had an exam or something and we also had a game — It’s kind of hard to lock in on either thing.”

“In my household, (academics have) been something that’s always been a priority. I feel like doing well in school is kind of the first thing and then extracurriculars and doing well in sports is second,” Lee adds. “My mom always says: ‘Good person, good student, good athlete.’ So I mean… if you’re looking for a school to play basketball at, why not get the best of both worlds?”

Despite some of the obstacles Lee faced in his rookie season, he was a regular in the Tigers rotation from Day 1, playing in all 32 games and averaging 4.8 points, 1.8 rebounds and 0.9 assists on 38/23/80 shooting splits, hitting a few big shots in their surprising run to the Sweet 16. But he averaged just 13 minutes a game and struggled on the defensive end of the floor, where the physicality of bigger players was a challenge for the smaller Lee. Fortunately, by the end of his rookie year, Lee knew exactly what he had to work on, improving his time management and consistency on and off the court.

In the summer, Lee honed his strength in the workout room and his jump shot through countless hours in the gym. Plus, he played international basketball for the first time as a member of Team Canada at the Under-19 World Cup in Turkey, which started out the same way everything in Lee’s basketball career has, with doubt. Considering he had never been invited to a Team Canada training camp before, Lee had no idea if he would be good enough to play.

“I wasn’t sure I was actually going to travel with them and make the team until a couple of weeks before we left,” Lee says. “So when they told me I had a spot, I was ecstatic.”

Lee didn’t just make the team, he went on to become their leading scorer and assist-getter for a seventh-place Canadian team that included highly-touted prospects like Miami University’s Michael Nwoko, Tarleton State’s Babu Benjamin, and DePaul University’s Elijah Fisher. Lee turned a lot of heads in Turkey after averaging 14.1 points and 3.1 assists on 48/36/78 shooting, showcasing his creativity and bucket-getting ability against international competition with way more experience.

“Obviously, in terms of basketball goals, playing for your country is always towards the top of my list,” Lee says. “So, it was a really great experience being able to do that and then just playing at the highest level — that’s probably the best competition I could have had during the summer. Being able to play against different styles of play, different types of people, just all of that I think kind of made me more of a well-rounded player.”

Lee learned a lot from the international guards he faced off against from countries like Argentina, Spain, France, and Slovenia, who he describes as “super crafty” and who did stuff he had “never seen before,” including some of the reads they made out of ball screens and the creative angles and dribble-combinations they used to get free. “They played really unorthodox, at least compared to what I’ve been used to playing here in North America,” Lee says.

Lee has taken tricks from those international players and the increased confidence from his successful summer and put them into his own game, playing with more freedom, looseness, and creativity than ever before, “kind of being able to get into that rhythm, like a flow state,” Lee says. “I kind of never really know what I’m gonna do next, which sometimes might not be the best thing but when it works out I think it’s good and helps us win a lot.”

Whether he has a plan or not, it’s that ability to disguise his actions that makes Lee so special. As one of the smoothest guards in college, Lee glides through games with underrated speed and athleticism, using crafty change-of-pace moves to get to where he wants on the court and a finishing package inspired by VanVleet to score around the trees at the rim.

Lee is a well-rounded offensive player who can thrive on or off the ball, which helps his NBA stock tremendously. And it is in large part due to his ability to shoot the ball from all three levels of the floor, including improving his three-point rate from 23.2 per cent on 1.8 attempts per game as a rookie to 40 per cent on five attempts per game this season. 

The Tigers were relatively late to discover Lee, but better late than never. He is putting his stamp on the Princeton program, growing into a leader, and bringing other guys along for the ride through his natural charisma. For a program that hasn’t had an NBA draft pick since 1984, Lee is helping bring the program back into the national spotlight.

Still, there will always be doubters. The same people who wondered whether Lee was big or skilled enough to play in America, and then wondered whether he could thrive in the NCAA, are now wondering if he can excel outside of the relatively weak Ivy League. But that’s the nature of the beast, especially when you don’t come from a place known for developing NBA players (until recently, at least) and you don’t look the part of one.  

“Being doubted has kind of been like a common thing my entire life,” Lee says. “Every single level I’ve gone to, there’s always been doubts if I could play at that level and if (I) can get to the next level.

“So I mean, for me, I just control what I can control and just do my best at the situation,” Lee adds. “I always have confidence in myself, no matter who I’m playing against or where I’m playing. And I just kind of… believe in yourself until you make it, like kind of fake it ‘till you make it, and then it just kind of all works out.”

Lee’s dream is to one day go to the NBA. And despite not showing up on any mock drafts just yet, he could have a chance to do that as soon as 2024 if he keeps up this level of play. But don’t expect Lee to take the most simple or easy path there. After all, this is someone who has had to overcome everything from his size to his citizenship to a pandemic to make it this far, taking it all in stride as he puts one foot in front of the other and works to become the best basketball player he can be. 

“For him to be able to stay his course, understand that his path may be different from the next person’s path, and just continue to work day in and day out — I think that’s in and of itself a tremendous achievement,” his mother Eun-Kyung says. 

“We are continually counting our blessings and realizing that what’s happening is special, and that we need to remember to be grateful for where we’ve come from and the path that he’s taking forward.”

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