Ayoka Lee stands under a basket at the Ice Family Basketball Center, roughly half an hour into a Friday afternoon practice in Manhattan. Kansas State is preparing for a road test against Oklahoma, and during this practice period, the Wildcats are working on fast breaks. So Lee, a center, is parked under the hoop, where she’s made a living this season.
K-State head coach Jeff Mittie barks out the instructions for this drill: It’s 4-on-4, and the offense gets a head start, with Lee positioned under the basket. Naturally, an offensive player could feel tempted to kick it ahead to Lee. Why not? Lee may be a redshirt freshman, but she’s 6-foot-5. She could lay it in with ease.
Here’s the catch, according to Mittie’s directions: Until the offense gets into the lane, or passes to a player in the lane, it can’t pass to Lee. The reason is simple, really: Otherwise, things would be too easy.
When the players hear the rule, they smile. Lee does, too, letting her head drop to hide a grin.
She’s used to getting treated differently.
She plays much differently, after all.
“Yeah,” Lee says later, standing in the lobby of the facility. “It’s been that way my whole career.”
Ayoka Lee is barely four months into her redshirt freshman year — an ACL injury shelved her last season — and already, she’s played her way into becoming one of the best players in the Big 12.
She’s averaging 16.2 points per game, good for sixth in the conference. She’s grabbing 11.3 rebounds per game, good for third, including 4.4 offensive boards, which is first place. Her 57% field goal percentage ranks third in the league.
Plus, on Monday, Lee was named the Big 12 Freshman of the Week for the 10th time, setting a single-season conference record.
She isn’t focused on the awards so much as the games themselves — “Really, I try not to think about it,” Lee said — but the sheer number of honors speaks volumes about the dazzling season she’s delivering.
How she’s doing so is really something to behold.
Consider this statistic: She has attempted zero 3-pointers this season. None.
If that sounds rare, it’s because it is. Among Big 12 players who average 15-plus minutes per game, only five have refused to try a long ball, including Lee.
That highlights a few trends, but this one especially: In an era defined by 3-point shooting and run-and-gun basketball, Lee has become one of the best players in one of the best conferences by doing just the opposite.
When other players like to shoot, Lee likes to flip in bank shots. While guards and undersized forwards flare around the perimeter, Lee seals off defenders in the paint. When some players miss shots and get back on defense, Lee sticks around, snares her own rebound and puts it back in.
She’s swimming upstream, in other words.
At the beginning of last decade, the nation’s leader in 3-point attempts per game, Fresno State, fired 9.8 per game.
The leader at the end of last season, Florida Gulf Coast, uncorked 13.3 per game.
Lee — "Yoki" to her coaches and teammates — averages none.
Translation: Lee is a basketball purist’s dream. Always has been.
“She’s got a great, great touch around the basket, which is really extraordinary,” said K-State associate head coach Brian Ostermann, who led the charge in recruiting Lee out of her hometown of Byron, Minnesota. “For a big player, if they’re making everything 6 and 8 feet in, any time you miss, you kind of shake your head, because you usually expect it to go in, because she’s got such a great touch.”
That’s the other thing that so many of Lee's teammates and coaches gush about. Her feel for the game sets her apart.
K-State forward Jasauen Beard said Lee has a package; she isn’t “just size.” Lee’s high school coach at Byron, Darren Nelson, said part of the reason he felt Lee could go far is because of her footwork. Same goes for Jacie Hoyt, a former K-State assistant who said Lee’s coordination stood out most when she recruited her.
Thing is, what gave Lee time to continue developing these kinds of skills was an injury that has derailed many athletes’ careers.
Lee tore her ACL in March 2018, in Byron’s Class AA state tournament consolation game. Lee had led the Bears to their first state tournament in school history, but after they dropped a first-round decision to unbeaten Sauk Center, her teammates couldn’t pick up the slack when Lee went down in the following contest. The team finished sixth at the tournament.
“But I knew she would work as hard as ever, just because that’s the way she is,” Nelson said. “She’ll do whatever it takes. She was probably one of the most coachable kids I ever had a chance to coach, too.”
So much so that Lee broke Byron records that Nelson said he doesn’t expect to see broken — ever. To wit, they are:
- 2,287 career points. The previous record was 1,299.
- 1,448 career rebounds. The previous record was 878.
- 461 career blocks. The previous record was 207.
Lee also finished her high school career shooting 71% from the field. Shot 78% her senior year, when she recorded a 54-point game in Byron’s sectional win over Winona Cotter. In that game, she recorded all but six of her team’s field goals.
Not bad for somebody who started playing basketball in seventh grade.
That’s especially true when you consider the way Mittie coached Lee last January, when she was cleared to return to practice.
“I did not get a sub. He made that a point,” Lee said, laughing. “Yeah, he didn’t really give me room to be fearful of coming back and playing hard, which is great, because I think that’s what I needed. It was a pretty smooth transition back.”
The time it took her to recover from the ACL tear and return to action, roughly 10 months, may have been normal. What Lee has accomplished since has been anything but.
“She’s a player,” Nelson said, “that comes along once in a lifetime.”
At K-State, Lee has shown why on several occasions.
For example, on Jan. 23, Lee logged the first 20-20 game in program history with 23 points and 20 rebounds. She shot 10-for-13 from the field, 3-for-4 at the free throw line and, of course, 0-for-0 from deep. Swatted five shots, too.
About two weeks later, early on in K-State’s 84-70 win over Texas Tech, Williams fed Lee on the block. Facing 6-foot-5 Tech forward Brittany Brewer, Lee turned to her right and faced the basket. A double team came, like they tend to. No matter. Lee raised up, hit the shot and drew the foul.
There are lots of these instances to choose from, but finally, let’s spotlight one of Lee’s more recent ones. It came in K-State’s road win over West Virginia on Feb. 11.
In the fourth quarter, the Wildcats were in the final stages of completing what turned into an 18-point comeback. Less than 30 seconds remained, and down two, K-State needed a bucket.
Williams lobbed a pass inside, Lee caught it, took a couple steps to reposition herself inside, and finished through contact.
And-one. Tie game. When Lee made the free throw, the Wildcats seized a one-point lead, and they held on for a crucial road win.
Here’s the weird part, though: In that game, Lee went just 3-for-7 at the free throw line. For the season, she shoots 71% from the foul line, so the four misses surprised just about everybody on the Wildcats’ bench.
“I don’t think anybody thought she wasn’t going to make the free throw,” Mittie said. “That’s a rarity. It’s more rare for her to miss. We were like, ‘What’s wrong with Yoki? She always hits them.’ So that, to me, is rare.”
What’s even more rare is that outside of free throws, Lee seldom shoots from that 15-foot range. Even from 10 feet away. K-State coaches rave about her natural touch, her ability to hit short jumpers in practice, but she rarely — if ever — attempts them during games.
There are a couple ways to explain that.
For one, Lee stands 6-foot-5. That makes her one of the tallest players in the conference, so Mittie likes to take advantage and play to Lee’s strengths. “By design, we’re not taking her out there,” Mittie said, and for such a simple strategy, it keeps paying dividends.
The other part combines that approach with Lee’s mentality. Across her four years in high school, she said, she only faced about four players who matched her size. So really, because of her frame, Lee’s coaches always have planted her underneath.
That pattern has produced a few results, but mostly, it’s made Lee most comfortable on the block.
“Yeah, I think it would be great to extend my game, but it’s also about knowing what I’m good at, being good at that and then also trying to extend it,” said Lee, who has used her low-post game to score 1.08 points per play, which lands her in the 98th percentile nationally. “So maybe like some mid-range first and then maybe we’ll get all the way out.”
Lee laughs when she says that last part. Her teammates say she knocks down triples in practice, even during the occasional shooting competition. Game settings are just, well, different.
Then, referencing her comfort level in shooting from mid-range, she adds this: “It’s definitely something we’ve been working on more. But I also think with our offense, it just depends on where I am in the offense and that kind of stuff. I think it’s something that still needs more work.”
It may be one of the few parts of her game that does.
Part of what makes Lee such an interesting figure is the personality she shows off the court.
Start with a story Beard loves to tell.
Most every day, when Beard walks into the locker room before practice, she finds Lee waiting for her. Not on her phone, not tying her shoes, not chatting with teammates.
She’s smiling at Beard.
“I’m like, ‘What, Yoki?’” Beard said. “She’s like, ‘Nothing, I’m glad to see you.’ And I’m just like, ‘I’m glad to see you, too.’”
Relayed this story, Lee erupts in hearty laughter. What makes her want to smile at teammates?
“I don’t know. Sometimes I just like smiling,” Lee says, chuckling. “Just to get a smile back, gauge her mood sometimes I guess. And just to get her to laugh sometimes.”
That’s the kind of story that K-State coaches and players say captures Lee: Friendly, mild-mannered, kind, caring, sweet. Beard said Lee is “literally one of the best people I’ve ever met.” Hoyt, now the head coach at UMKC, mentioned that Lee has a “soft and gentle demeanor about her.”
Lee’s frontcourt teammate, senior Peyton Williams, said Lee emphasizes asking how her teammates’ days are going.
“She’s one of those easy people to get to know,” Williams said, “and to become friends with, and a teammate to develop a connection with. She’s actually one of the only people on our team who has the strength of empathy, randomly. It’s so her.”
All commendable qualities, and rare in some instances. Sometimes, it’s easy to identify people who don’t share them.
But Hoyt made an important distinction.
“I mean, she’s just the sweetest thing,” Hoyt said. “She doesn’t play like it.”
That much is obvious, in large part because it seems difficult to play “sweet” and set the school record for double-doubles and blocked shots in a freshman season, lead all conference freshmen in scoring and rebounds and blocks and become a USBWA National Freshman of the Week — twice.
So how does Lee do it? How does she, as Hoyt and others put it, “flip the switch?”
To those closest to her, the answer involves a combination of her work ethic, personality and values.
“I just think (it’s) the switch on the court, where she’s determined to be a great basketball player,” Ostermann said. “Off the court, I think she’s determined to be a great person. She’s got her priorities in line, and I think that’s another thing that you really love to see about a young woman: The fact that she’s able to excel both on and off the court.”
Added Nelson: “I am not at all surprised by the success she’s having. I am not, because her work ethic is second-to-none.”
It probably doesn’t hurt that Lee’s mother, Kolloh Nimley, lives in St. George, about 25 minutes away from Manhattan.
For that reason, Nimley has become a “mother” to Beard and a “grandma” to Beard’s toddler son, Josiah. When K-State plays games and Beard can’t care for Josiah, Nimley often does so. When K-State traveled to Ames, Iowa, to play Iowa State this season, Nimley watched Josiah.
“That’s another way that me and 'Yoki' are really close,” Beard said. “I feel like 'Yoki' is a person that I can confide in quite a bit with just with her being genuine, being the genuine person that she is. Someone that’s a good shoulder for everyone. She’s one of the sweetest souls that I’ve ever met.”
Just not on the basketball court.
Back at practice, about an hour has passed since Lee smiled and that fast break work began. Since, the Wildcats have drilled closeouts — their opponent, Oklahoma, loves to rain triples — practiced half-court sets and broken out into short shooting sessions.
In the final practice block of the day, the team is running a full-court scrimmage against the male practice players, all K-State students.
On one possession, while point guard Angela Harris is bringing the ball up the floor, one practice player, standing next to Lee, pipes up.
“She’s a knockdown shooter,” he says, smiling.
To be sure: It was meant as a joke.
As Lee continues to develop her skills and extend her range, in a year or two, it may not be.
“I try to stay in the moment more,” Lee says. “I think there’s always room for improvement, and like the coaches tell me, the sky’s the limit, really. I think it’s about working hard and continuing to do what I’m doing.”