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Gonzaga Basketball

‘Very happy in his skin.’ Gonzaga’s Jun Seok Yeo following lightly-treaded path of South Koreans to play Division I

It may happen Friday in Gonzaga’s home opener against Yale, it may happen Tuesday when the Bulldogs host an overmatched Eastern Oregon team from the NAIA, but at some point in the early stages of the 2023-24 college basketball season, Mark Few will signal to his bench and summon a 6-foot-8, 215-pound sophomore forward to the scorers table.

Jun Seok Yeo, like anyone else making their college basketball debut, will probably confront a range of emotions and feelings – in some order: nerves, excitement, anxiety – as he makes the short walk, from bench to scorers table to court.

And that’s to say nothing of the external pressure the gifted 21-year-old from Seoul, South Korea, will face as he prepares to check in to his first Division I game – a moment that will be consequential not only for Yeo, but tens of thousands who are following 5,300 miles away in his home country.

Yeo, who enrolled in classes at Gonzaga in January, practiced with the Bulldogs for three months and watched GU’s Elite Eight run from the end of the bench, is eligible to help Few’s program in a larger capacity and is on track to become the third men’s player from South Korea in NCAA history to play Division I basketball.

Prior to Yeo, the last player to take that pathway was Hyunjung Lee, who became the second male and fourth South Korean player to accept a Division I scholarship when he signed with Davidson University in 2019, choosing the Wildcats over Washington State.

South Korea has sent just three players to the United States and the list of NBA players from the nation of 51 million people is even smaller. The only one, Ha Seung-jin, was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers with the 46th pick of the 2004 NBA draft. Seung-jin played 46 NBA games over two seasons before making two G League stops and finishing his career in the Korean Basketball League.

Any South Korean player who makes it to the U.S. on a scholarship is viewed as someone else who can put the country on the map. Lee felt the weight of that as soon as he arrived on Davidson’s campus in 2019, but spun it into a positive, averaging 12.7 points over three seasons and scoring 15.8 points to go with 6.0 rebounds as a senior, earning All-Atlantic 10 first-team honors in 2021-22.

“When I was (at Davidson), there was no Koreans in NCAA so basketball fans in Korea were looking at me,” Lee, who plays for the Illawara Hawks of the Australian National Basketball League, told The Spokesman-Review in July while representing the Philadelphia 76ers at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. “I was getting really pressured, but also that pressure can be motivation because all the people are looking at you, you’ve got to work hard to show your best performance.”

The third and fourth South Korean players to accept Division I scholarships have a relationship that goes all the way back to their early teenage years, competing in various leagues and tournaments since they were “15 or 16 years old,” Lee estimated.

“He was always the toughest to guard,” Lee said of Yeo.

Both were invited to join the NBA Global Academy, after being scouted at NBA Asian Pacific Team Camps by Eugene Park, a Korean-born talent identifier who works for the Canberra, Australia-based Global Academy.

“The two of them really stood out as high-level prospects with very different games,” said Chris Ebersole, an NBA Associate Vice President who serves as the Head of Elite Basketball. “Jun was more well-rounded and more of a physical player.”

After spending a year at the NBA Global Academy, Yeo emerged during a 2019 Basketball Without Borders event in Tokyo, where he was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

“That one year you could absolutely see physical changes in his body,” Ebersole said. “He was already a really physically imposing player once we saw him at our Asian team camp, but you could really see it over the course of that year at the Global Academy, the development he showed and when we saw him kind of midway through that year … all of us were looking at each other like, ‘Jun is huge.’ He really filled out.”

Yeo made his biggest breakthrough two years later at the 2021 FIBA U-19 World Cup where he scored a tournament-high 25.6 points per game and 10.6 rebounds. Other notable names at the event included recent No. 1 NBA draft pick Victor Wembanyama, former Gonzaga standout Chet Holmgren, reigning national college player of the year Zach Edey, Indiana Pacers star Bennedict Mathurin and Yeo’s GU teammate, Ryan Nembhard.

“First, he’s got talent and athleticism and the one thing about him, he’s really passionate about his basketball skills and if he need something to work on, he’ll put work into it right now,” Lee said of Yeo. “I know he has a great work ethic and he became a great shooter, too. Very physical player, so I feel like he can compete at a high, high level like Gonzaga.”

Yeo was considering three tracks after leaving Korea University in Seoul. He mulled staying home in South Korea, where he could have entertained any number of offers from the Korean Basketball League. He also contemplated an opportunity with the G League Ignite, which has sent a number of international prospects to the NBA.

Yeo selected the U.S. college route, signing with Gonzaga and arriving in January without the type of buzz and fanfare – almost none, actually – that normally follows high-level domestic and international prospects to Spokane.

By modern standards, Yeo’s recruitment was quiet. No top-five lists, no hat ceremonies, no social media clues that might have linked the South Korean to Gonzaga. Other than light message board chatter a week before his arrival, it would’ve been practically impossible to know the Bulldogs were preparing to bring one of the top prospects in South Korean history to Spokane.

“I think a good thing a place like Gonzaga has is an understanding how the international system works,” said Greg Collucci, the NBA’s Elite Basketball Coaching & Player Pathways Lead. “They kind of just stayed with it. They stayed in touch with him. It was difficult to know exactly where Jun’s stock was going and their understanding he could still be a player and prospect who’d be involved kind of kept that involved and they just stayed with it.”

Yeo’s role at Gonzaga this season is still to be determined, but it’s possible he’s pushed into the Bulldogs’ rotation with a season-ending knee injury to Eastern Washington transfer Steele Venters, who was projected to start at small forward. Yeo was the 10th scholarship player to get on the court during last Friday’s exhibition game against Lewis-Clark State, but it’s conceivable that he could carve out a spot in the rotation behind Dusty Stromer if the freshman replaces Venters in Gonzaga’s starting lineup.

“Jun’s been fighting a little bit like Rui (Hachimura) was, like a language barrier a little bit,” Few said. “But he’s been giving great effort and we’ve been kind of moving him around from 3 to 4 or 4 to 3. Kind of back and forth, which I know has been a little bit difficult just because we’ve had a myriad of injuries and things like that.

“But he’s starting to kind of understand what we expect out of him on defense and offensively, I think hopefully, he can give us something where he can kind of stretch the floor a little bit. Big, strong guy going downhill he can finish some plays at the rim.”

Hachimura, who arrived at Gonzaga as Japan’s next great basketball hope before being selected by the Washington Wizards with the ninth overall pick of the 2019 draft, admittedly faced a degree of pressure and attention to which Yeo probably won’t relate.

Still, he’s attracted a level of popularity to which few other South Korean athletes can relate, regardless of age. That could be measured by his 39,300 Instagram followers – more than every Zags teammate, with the exception of Stromer (150,000). Or the 25,500 “likes” GU’s official basketball account received when it announced Yeo’s addition – more than the same page received when it announced the signing of Holmgren, the top-ranked recruit in school history.

“Jun is just, my experience with him he’s just been so grateful for the opportunities he’s gotten through the game,” Ebersole said. “Grateful for the staff, he’s always expressing that. Just seemed very happy in his skin and just happy to be where he is.”

Basketball fans in South Korea will be anxious to see where he goes. Lee included.

“100%,” he said. “All the Gonzaga games, I’ll try to watch.”

Theo Lawson can be reached at (509) 939-5928 or theol@spokesman.com.