November 2, 2021
Stepping into the brightest of spotlights
Kansas State's Ayoka Lee is ready to lead in 2021-22
To see where Ayoka Lee is now, most would not know that her college basketball career began with questions and a challenging year looking on from the sidelines. The 6’6 center arrived at Kansas State from Byron, MN, a small community just outside Rochester, home of the world-famous Mayo Clinic. Her high school career produced many accolades, including being named a 2018 Miss Minnesota Basketball finalist. But the questions were whether her skills from the small school level would translate to compete in the Power 5 game. Her senior season was cut short by an ACL injury. And her journey to Manhattan would be post-surgery and during rehab.
Fast forward to the 2021-22 season and Lee is one of seven women unanimously selected to the preseason All-Big 12 Team, is an All-American candidate and will be in the running for Big 12 Player of the Year. But the road to becoming one of the dominant centers in her league and the country was not easy – even though she has made it look that way many times in her career.
“That redshirt year was probably the best thing that could have happened, even though you never want to have an injury,” Lee told The Next. “That year really helped me get stronger, work on footwork, and all of the things that come along with transitioning from high school to college. You see that it is really hard for a lot of freshmen. It looked different for me because of that redshirt year.”
When she hit the court as a redshirt freshman Lee took the Big 12 and the K-State record books by storm. She recorded the first 20 point/20 rebound game in school history, set a single-season record for double-doubles with 19. And was named the 2020 Big 12 Freshman of the Year. What was evident then was that she had solid footwork, great hands and the ability to catch and score. Any young player will tell you that making the transition to Division 1 basketball means you have to handle the physicality of the game. Lee was ready to hold her own and then some.
After her first season, the secret was out. K-State once again had a formidable post presence. Areas of improvement? There were many, including free throws. She went from a 70% free throw shooter as a redshirt freshman to 81% last season. Her efficiency and ability to finish through contact has been a difference-maker against every defense thrown at her. Making opponents pay at the line is a bonus.
“It was all about reps and shots. We have this machine in the gym called ‘Noah’s Ark’ and when you shoot it calls out the arch of your shot. Using that to break down my free throw form with coaches to get more consistent was a big part of it.”
Lee finished the 2020-21 season with the highest individual field goal percentage in 38 years at K-State (62%), which led the Big 12 and was third in the nation. She was named 2021 WBCA All-America Honorable Mention and first-team All-Big 12. This past summer, she competed with her K-State teammates in the 2021 USA Basketball Red Bull 3×3 Nationals, which complimented her off-season preparation. “I have worked on being more deliberate, being more confident and decisive with double teams,” she said.
With success comes responsibility. After two seasons of putting in the work as an underclassman, Lee steps more into the spotlight, not only as one of the best players in the country. But as a leader on and off the court for the Wildcats. “I am more of a reserved leader, very servant oriented,” reflected Lee. “To get people to care, you have to show them first that you care, and I think that it’s big for me to build those relationships. Once you do that off the court then it transfers on to the court.”
Her teammate, junior guard Emilee Ebert, agrees. “She has a very servant heart and is always going to put the team first before herself. She shows that so you know she’s going to go to battle for you.”
With high expectations to produce another blockbuster season, Lee knows she sets the tone for this Wildcat team as they learn to work together with goals for the postseason. “Having confidence and trust in your teammates is huge – sometimes being a leader you feel like everything is on you but it’s not. I have teammates that support me and lift me up.”
And it’s not just the basketball statistics that have brought Lee accolades. She has received Big 12 and national academic awards and is already a college graduate, holding a degree in psychology. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in couple and family therapy intending to become a sports psychologist.
When her career at K-State does come to an end, Lee will be a name throughout the record books and beyond. “I want my impact off the court to feed into the time on the court. Doing things for the underclassmen and the program is important – I saw that when I came in and want to continue to do that. Culture is something that doesn’t graduate.”
Written by Missy Heidrick
I am a former shooting guard at Kansas State and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!