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Sweet 16: Damion Lee, Drexel

There were plenty of "ups and downs" during Damion Lee's first season at Drexel. "That's what freshman year is really about," the Calvert Hall graduate said.

But most freshmen don’t average 12 points and 4.4 rebounds. Most freshmen don’t play crunch-time minutes for a 29-win team. And most freshmen don’t win Rookie of the Year honors in their highly competitive mid-major-plus conferences.

It’s probably not a stretch to say that most first-year players would love to go through an “up-and-down” season if it fit Lee’s definition of the term. The 6-foot-6, 200-pound shooting guard was a factor on the Dragons’ roster from the very beginning of the 2011-12 season, and a relatively clear-cut choice as the Colonial Athletic Association’s top newcomer.

“I feel that was surprising for me, but I’m a very confident player in my game,” Lee said of his freshman-year success. And winning is what I can do. Going into it, [I thought] that I could make an impact. [But] I didn’t think I would have that type of season that I had as a freshman.”

Lee, an Owings Mills native, had a solid varsity career with Calvert Hall. He teamed up with Jonathan Graham (Penn State) and Donya Jackson (Navy) to lead the Cardinals to the 2010 Baltimore Catholic League tournament championship. A second-team Baltimore Sun All-Metro selection, Lee had planned to play for Towson after graduating from Calvert Hall.

But Lee eventually decided against joining the Tigers, opting instead to do a post-grad year at St. Thomas More. At the Connecticut prep-school powerhouse, Lee teamed up with future Detroit Pistons lottery pick Andre Drummond, and still managed to average 17 points, six rebounds and five assists. Lee earned first-team New England Preparatory School Athletic Council honors and helped St. Thomas More to a 30-7 record and the National Prep School championship.

Lee also learned a valuable lesson that he took to heart last season at Drexel (29-7).

“I remember one game when … we played Notre Dame Prep,” he said. “We were down three with probably five seconds to go. We had a chance to tie it. I was open, but I passed up the shot. I swung it again. Coach Jere Quinn said, ‘If you want to be a big-time player, you have to take that shot. It doesn’t matter if you make it or miss it. You have to take that shot.’ Really, ever since then, I’ve always been the guy to take the last shot, or at least try to step up into the big spotlight.”

Right from the start, Lee did that and more for the Dragons. Among the many highlights of his freshmen year were a 21-point performance against George Mason; 24 points (including six 3-pointers) in Drexel’s CAA regular-season title-clinching win over Old Dominion; 20 points and 10 rebounds in the CAA tournament title-game loss to VCU; four CAA Rookie of the Week selections; and a spot on the All-CAA Tournament team.

As a sophomore, Lee won’t be sneaking up on anybody. He’ll be on opposing teams’ scouting reports, and will be a target in almost every game he plays. To prepare for that, Lee spent his offseason working on his conditioning and improving his ball-handling.

“This year, it’s going to be the same thing as last year,” Lee said. “We just need to focus. Just stay ready for every single game. We were so close to actually making the NCAA tournament last year, but we didn’t and now we control our own destiny. We have 13 players back. We control our own destiny.”

Lee’s freshman season ended with Drexel’s 72-70 loss to UMass in the quarterfinal round of the NIT. The loss still bothers him, but he knows there’s plenty of time left for him to get the Dragons back to the NCAA tournament. But knowing Lee’s disposition, there will be no settling when it comes to individual or team success.

“I’m always going to have a chip on my shoulder because of what I was told back when I was a sophomore [in high school at Mount St. Joseph],” Lee said. “I was told I’m nothing but a Division II prospect. I’m here now. I’ve been proving people wrong this whole time, so why not keep doing it?”

mbracken@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mattbracken

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The Sweet 16 is an occasional series profiling the best Division I college basketball players from the Baltimore area. Players were selected based on prior accomplishments and projections for the upcoming season.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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