People will travel great distances in hopes of accomplishing their goals. For recent Excel Christian graduate Evan Lee, that means a roughly 1,400-mile journey to realize his dream of playing college basketball.
Later this summer, the 6-foot-4 knockdown shooter will make the trip to Thief River Falls, Minnesota, to join the basketball program at Northland Community and Technical College.
“It’s just something I’ve always wanted,” Lee said. “I’ve always wanted to have the opportunity to play college basketball at whatever level. Just whatever opportunity was given to me, I’ve been waiting my whole life to be able to seek that opportunity.”
Lee is so certain that he wants to play at the next level that he accepted head coach Rick Nikunen’s offer to join the two-year program without having visited the campus.
“It’s a 21-hour drive and plane tickets aren’t the cheapest thing in the world,” Lee said. “I’ve done the virtual tour online. … I’ll be going up there for the first time, when I move in.”
With the kind of roster turnover that junior college programs go through, Lee believes there should be an opening for him to be able to make his mark. At Excel, he was known for being a lights-out shooter.
In conversations he’s had with Nikunen, Lee believes he’ll bring a different dimension to the Pioneers. Although, he understands that improved consistency with his shot will likely dictate his playing time.
“You can’t really get into [player roles] until you see what you’ve got, because he’s got a whole new team,” Lee said. “We talked about it a little bit. Last year, he said they had a lot of athletic guys, but a place they very much struggled in was shooting.
“That’s definitely what I plan to bring to the table is shooting and being consistent with that — not like hitting four or five [3s] one night and not being able to hit the next night. I want to be able to consistently be hitting three or four 3s every single night, play hard and leave every single thing I’ve got out there.”
Despite being blessed with good size, Lee found a home on the perimeter. Playing against kids who were more athletic forced him to find a niche, and since spending his final two high school seasons at Excel for head coach Shannon Boatfield, he’s been able to hone that skill.
“I’ve never been a freakish athlete, so you have to find at least one thing you’re good at,” Lee said. “… I had to work harder on my shot, working on it every single day. Coach Boatfield gave me the chance to shoot basically wherever and whenever I wanted to. I appreciate that a lot, and it’s led to the position I’m in.”
While Boatfield agreed that Excel’s system allowed Lee to showcase his abilities, he credited his no-former player with continually striving to improve during his time with the Eagles.
“It comes down to the hard work that he’s put in,” Boatfield said of Lee. “We’ve simply given him an opportunity to work and to pursue a dream he said he had, which was to play college basketball. I felt like the only thing we did was put him in a position where we could help him fine-tune some things. He had to put in the work, and he’s done that. I could not be more proud.”
One of the things that Boatfield found intriguing about Northland is the parallels between the school’s basketball program and that of Excel. When Lee joined the Eagles for the 2017-18 season, Excel had to go through a junior varsity campaign before returning to varsity action this past year.
A tough pill to swallow for everyone associated with the program, Boatfield believes Lee will be able to make the most of a potentially tough situation at Northland.
“It’s a program that’s had some pretty good roster turnover, so he’s going to get an opportunity,” Boatfield said. “What’s really crazy is that it’s basically the exact same situation when he came to Excel. …
"He came here my first year, and we had about three kids on the roster. He came into a program that was kind of an unknown and really helped set our program on a certain trajectory. He’s been a part of building our foundation, and it sounds like he’ll get a chance to go to Northland and continue that.”
That being said, there are still some things Boatfield knows Lee can improve upon. As someone who Boatfield said has begun to fill into his frame, Lee, for one thing, will be asked to contribute on the boards more at the collegiate level.
“As he continues to improve his tenacity and mental aspect of his game, I think he’s going to go up there and prove himself to get even more opportunities to continue his career even beyond Northland,” Boatfield said. “I’m excited for him. I think it’s a great fit and a great opportunity for him to continue playing the game he loves.”
Perhaps, increased growth and even better shot-making will lead to Lee earning a spot as a junior college transfer at a four-year program down the line. Maybe, he’ll even be given the right set of circumstances to move back closer to home after two years in Minnesota.
Even if that doesn’t happen, Lee is certainly grateful the Pioneers will provide an opening to continue playing basketball.
“They started looking at me in December, watching a lot of my film and talking to coach [Boatfield] about me,” Lee said. “When they actually offered me, it was like late March, early April. I’m lucky for them to do that.”
He added, “When I first read the text, I thought it was for some tryout. … But no, it was for a spot on the team and an offer to come play for them.”
Now even though he hasn’t met anybody from the program in person, Lee did say he’s gotten to know a few of his future teammates after coming into contact with them on Instagram. While that should ease the transition somewhat, it will still be quite the change, moving from the Atlanta metro area to within an hour of the Canadian border.
But that just shows how much Lee truly desired this moment. Some players, no matter how dedicated to the sport, would have been put off by being asked to move halfway across the country to continue their career.
Lee isn’t one of them.
“Words can’t describe how excited I am,” he said. “I’ve wanted to do this my whole life. This [school] is literally almost in Canada. With no hesitation, I made the decision to do this. I’m very excited.”