With his 3-pointer on Michigan’s first possession Tuesday against Indiana, which gave the Wolverines their only lead, redshirt junior C. J. Lee made a rare immediate impact.
Lee went from a bench player in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference to a Big Ten starter, transferring from Manhattan and sitting out last year.
“He came out of nowhere,” said K’Len Morris, a redshirt freshman guard who left the team last month for personal reasons. “I walked out of the locker room and saw some kid. I was like ‘Maybe that’s (former Michigan) coach (Tommy) Amaker’s nephew or something like that.’ “
Listed generously at 6-foot, 180 pounds, Lee doesn’t have the intimidating stature of many college basketball players.
But he’s proving that he belongs. Lee has earned more consistent minutes as the season has progressed. He started the Wolverines’ last two games, replacing freshman Kelvin Grady.
His smart play, good on-the-ball defense and ability to hit open 3-pointers have meshed well with the skills of freshman Manny Harris and sophomore DeShawn Sims, starters who benefit from having the ball in their hands.
“One of the things we’re struggling with right now is people being vocal on the floor,” Michigan coach John Beilein said after Lee’s first start career start at Purdue Saturday.
“If you’ve ever met and talked with C.J., he’s very vocal. That was part of the reason -just to get somebody out there talking, to lead the others a little bit.”
Lee was born in Saginaw and lived in Lansing for 12 years before moving to Rochester, N.Y. Despite being recruited as a cornerback by Penn State and Syracuse, he took an offer to play basketball for Manhattan.
He doesn’t offer much of an explanation for leaving the Jaspers, just saying he wanted a change.
He has family all over Michigan, where he calls home, and knew he wanted to come to Ann Arbor. It wasn’t until he was accepted at the school that he decided to try out for the basketball team.
When Lee joined the team as a walk-on, Morris and Zack Gibson, both in their first year in Ann Arbor, took the transfer under their wing, and the trio quickly became close friends.
“Last year, we were all kind of like a real quiet team,” Morris said. “So Zack and I went out there and were like ‘If you want, you can hang out with us. We know you’re new around here, don’t really know anybody.”
It didn’t take long for Lee to fill that leadership void. Respected by his teammates, he often takes them one-on-one to help them in various ways – like telling senior forward Ron Coleman to shoot more, discussing academics with Grady or driving Morris 20 minutes to take his car to the shop.
“If I was a coach and I had a scholarship to give out, I would give it to C.J,” Morris said earlier this year.
After giving so much to the program, Lee is finally getting something back. He’s on scholarship this semester.