SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Damion Lee scores more points (16.6) and plays more minutes (31.4) per game than any other Louisville player. He ranks second in the ACC in win shares and sixth in offensive rating (among players who use more than 20% of their team’s possessions). He is the centerpiece of the Cardinals offense, a potent scorer who can puncture the defense with drives to the basket and sink jumpers from behind the three-point line. His arrival in April was heralded as one of the most significant transfer additions of the off-season, and Lee has backed up the hype by leading a Louisville team voted to finish seventh in the ACC in the preseason to a 15–3 record and a No. 17 ranking in the AP top 25.
For Cardinals fans, the dismaying subtext to Lee’s success is that he will be gone next season. What should cheer them up, if only a little bit, is that Louisville’s replacement for him is more promising than almost any other it could have plucked from the high school ranks. V.J. King is a 6'7", 190-pound senior who attends Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, Va. A five-star small forward rated No. 21 in the latest version of the Scout 100, King committed to Louisville over Connecticut in June via a picture posted to his Instagram account that did not require a description.
But a few months after he revealed his college choice, Louisville became embroiled in its now infamous escort scandal, which the NCAA is actively investigating. King elected to sign with the Cardinals anyway, even as the possibility of sanctions loomed in the distance. “I tried not to get into it,” King told SI.com of the scandal at the Hoophall Classic. “I didn’t really know the full story, personally, of what happened, but my support system around me just—you know, I never wavered from my decision.”
King added, “The coaches, my parents—they did their research, just giving me comfort that everything was going to be fine.” (The other prospect in the class of 2016 whom Louisville signed in November, three-star shooting guard Frankie Hughes, committed to the program hours after ESPN’s Outside the Lines released a report that lent legitimacy to the allegations.)
King is a top-flight perimeter scorer who can convert from the mid-range, slither around defenders in the lane and excels on basket-attacks. He offer favorable size and, with his athletic tools, could develop into a solid multiple-position defender. King’s long-range shooting is still coming around—he connected on only 26% of his threes with his grassroots program, Team Takeover, in the EYBL last year—but he said he plans to work on “staying consistent with my jumper” in addition to his ball handling and “being more aggressive and more assertive.”
Scout.com recruiting analyst Evan Daniels pointed to an improvement in the “overall maturity” in King’s game. “He’s taking better shots, he’s playing a tougher brand of basketball,” Daniels said. “He’s a pretty good shooter from mid-range and in right now. I think as time goes on, he’s going to become a better and better three-point shooter, because he has good shot mechanics. He just needs to put more time into it, and I think, as a scorer, he’s really improved and matured.”
Louisville coaches have instructed King to monitor Lee this season, King said, because he will be asked to play his position. “They just tell me to watch what he does, how he plays.” Reprising Lee’s combination of shot volume and efficiency won’t be easy, but King has the potential to thrive at Louisville. The Cardinals will need him to get up to speed quickly, too, because they’re also set to lose another key contributor in their backcourt this offseason, fellow graduate transfer Trey Lewis.