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2024 WNBA Draft watch: Ayoka Lee has returned strong for the Kansas State Wildcats

Not much can stop Kansas State center Ayoka Lee—not even knee surgery. The NCAA’s record holder for points scored in a game, Lee has returned to lead the Wildcats in 2023-24, and she’s playing as well as ever.

Kansas State v Washington State
Kansas State Wildcats center Ayoka Lee has just about every attribute needed for a low-post player to be successful, and it’s reflected in her individual statistics.
Photo by Scott Taetsch/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

It’s been a rollercoaster of a year for Kansas State Wildcats star Ayoka Lee.

The 6-foot-6 center, whose individual exploits have become synonymous with the rise of the Wildcats program since her arrival in 2019, had recently broken the NCAA record for points scored in a game (61) and had earned All-American honors when the decision was made for her to undergo knee surgery to address a lingering injury. Lee would be forced to sit out the entirety of her senior season as she recovered.

Lee is back for the 2023-24 campaign, however, and she’s led Kansas State (9-1) to a terrific start. The Wildcats already have wins over the Iowa Hawkeyes and North Carolina Tar Heels to their name, and they’re currently ranked No. 13 in the country by the Associated Press—a ranking that may very well improve in the coming days.

During the Wildcats’ hot start, Lee has been as big of a factor as expected. And every win only adds to her off-court allure, too. One of the most beloved players in program history, Lee—affectionately known as “Yokie”—even has her own dedicated page on the Kansas State athletics website that includes video highlights, news snippets from various outlets, a photo gallery and, most recently, a mini-documentary detailing her journey back after surgery.

That love has been well-earned, but it’s not just local. Lee has accumulated quite the resume on a national level, too. And the more the Wildcats win, the better their star center is going to look, both come NCAA Tournament time and when the WNBA Draft rolls around. Let’s go over what makes Lee such a special player for Kansas State.

Honors and statistics

Though Lee sat out her freshman season due to injury (she suffered a torn ACL as a senior in high school), she made an immediate impact when she was cleared to play. Lee averaged 15.7 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game in her first healthy season at Kansas State, earning Big 12 Freshman of the Year and All-Big 12 First Team honors.

Lee’s next two seasons as a Wildcat yielded more of the same. She averaged 19.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game as a sophomore and 22 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.9 blocks as a junior, racking up two more All-Big 12 selections and a slew of All-American honors from Sports Illustrated, The Athletic, the Associated Press and the USBWA.

Entering the 2023-24 season, Lee was named to the All-Big 12 Preseason Team. She was also named to preseason watch lists for the Naismith Trophy and Wooden Award, as well as the Lisa Leslie Award, which is given annually to the best center in the nation.

Lee dominates the paint for the Wildcats on both ends of the court

Wisconsin v Kansas State
At 6-foot-6, Lee is nearly unstoppable when she gets the ball near the rim.
Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

A high-usage, back-to-the-basket player, Lee is at the center (literally) of just about everything Kansas State does. In her last full healthy season, Lee led all starting centers in usage rate at 32.3 percent (Her Hoop Stats) and attempted 15.9 shots per game.

There’s good reason for that. Lee is a highly efficient offensive player, and some of her advanced metrics border on video-game territory. She’s shot above 56 percent from the field in each of her four seasons, and her player efficiency rating (PER) has risen from “great” to “ridiculous” over the years: 30.6 as a freshman, 39.9 as a sophomore and 40.8 as a junior.

During her comeback season, Lee has been better than ever. She’s currently posting a 45.8 PER and shooting a career-high 65.3 percent from the floor while averaging 19.1 points per game, and that’s in relatively limited playing time (25.1 minutes). This is understandable, given both Lee’s injury history and the manner in which Kansas State is defeating opponents (35.9 points per 100 possessions; No. 13 in Division I).

Granted, stats like field goal percentage and PER tend to benefit taller players and players who take the majority of their shots close to the basket. But it’s not statistical smoke and mirrors with Lee; she has just about every attribute needed for a low-post player to be successful, including soft hands, a powerful base and the ability to turn over either shoulder and finish at the rim with either hand. She also excels at the “little things,” such as keeping the ball high and having the court awareness to avoid the numerous double teams she faces.

It was all on display against the Oklahoma Sooners, when Lee scored her record-breaking 61 points—and made it look easy.

Wildcats head coach Jeff Mittie doesn’t want people to overlook Lee’s contributions on the other end of the court, however. “Everyone puts the focus on her offense because she scored the 61 and she’s been so good there, but this is one of the top defenders in the country,” Mittie told the media prior to the season. “She’s the anchor for us.”

That’s a good term for it. Lee’s size makes her an imposing shot-blocker; she ranked in the top 10 in blocks per game twice (as a freshman and as a junior). For her career, Lee has recorded a block rate of at least 7.4 percent in every season. According to Synergy Sports, she allowed just 0.54 points per possession while defending shots at the rim as a junior, ranking in the 94th percentile.

Of course, the WNBA is a different game for centers, particularly those used to defending primarily in drop coverages. You can’t teach size, though. Given Lee’s undeniable offensive acumen, she’ll surely be getting several looks from pro teams in need of a center in the 2024 WNBA Draft.

Watch her play

Though the Wildcats have made it through the hard part of their non-conference schedule, it won’t be long until Big 12 play begins. Kansas State will face Oklahoma on Jan. 10, 2024 and then the No. 5 Texas Longhorns on Jan. 13 in a pair of games televised on ESPNU.

Later, Lee and the Wildcats will take on the No. 10 Baylor Bears on Jan. 22, and then get another shot at Texas on Feb. 4. Both of these games will be televised on FS1. Kansas State will take on in-state rival Kansas on Feb. 25 in its final nationally-televised game of the season (ESPN2).

All statistics and team records for the 2023-24 NCAA season are current through Dec. 10, 2023.