BYU basketball: Kolby Lee opens up about decision to transfer schools

When former BYU forward Kolby Lee decided to enter the NCAA transfer portal after the conclusion of the 2020-21 season, he had two priorities when considering a new school: geography and an opportunity to play.

In that order.

Where he’s going to end up is crucial because his wife, Kayla Belles-Lee, plays basketball for the BYU women’s team and will continue her career next season for the Cougars.

So the 6-foot-9 junior went looking for a program that’s relatively close to Provo. As it turns out, he found one. Lee will play next season for an in-state program and an announcement is expected to come Monday.

Meanwhile, being able to contribute on the floor was also important because he felt he didn’t get that chance last season at BYU.

“For me, personally, it was frustrating. I feel like I’m a veteran and a leader,” Lee said. “I didn’t really get the minutes that I wanted. That happens sometimes. That’s why I’m transferring.”

The decision to leave the Cougars evolved over time, and he had some circumstances beyond basketball to consider in the process — namely his young marriage.

‘I just felt like I kind of got burned a little bit’

During the 2019-20 season, Lee was a pleasant surprise for first-year coach Mark Pope. With star Yoeli Childs forced to miss the first nine games of the season due to an NCAA suspension, Pope turned to Lee — and Lee delivered on a team that lacked depth in the post.

One of his highlights was averaging 12 points and 2.7 rebounds in three games at the Maui Invitational against UCLA, Kansas and Virginia Tech. Lee shot 85% (17 of 20) from the field in those three games.

A couple months later, Lee made 8 of 8 shots from the field and scored a career-high 21 points in a 93-70 win over San Diego. At one point, fans at the Marriott Center started chanting, “Kol-by!” and “MVP!”

When Pope entered the postgame interview room, he exclaimed, “How about that? You didn’t think that was going to happen, did you? Five thousand BYU fans chanting ‘Kol-by!’”

Nicknamed “Big Idaho” (he hails from Meridian) and the “Quickie Monster” because of the quick release on his shot, Lee played a big role throughout the season, including the Cougars’ upset of No. 2 Gonzaga in the regular-season finale at the Marriott Center. He started 28 games on a team that posted a 24-8 record and finished with a No. 18 ranking.

But the 2019-20 season was a different experience for Lee.

While he began the campaign as a starter, after proving himself the previous season, he eventually was relegated to the bench and fluctuated in and out of the starting lineup. Freshman Caleb Lohner and junior college transfer Gideon George received the lion’s share of minutes in his place.

Lee played in 25 games, starting 15. He shot 52% from the floor and averaged 3.7 points per game. Over the final 10 games, he played only 20 minutes and scored eight points.

“I just felt like I kind of got burned a little bit. Last year, I stepped in for Yoeli, who’s a big-time player, and we didn’t really miss a beat. We still played well against top-25 teams,” Lee said. “I felt like I had a really good season last year and my leash was a lot longer.

“This year it was more trying not to make a mistake so I could be out there, which you can’t really do if you’re trying to play Division I basketball. You just have to play ball. It felt like if I made a mistake, I was going to get pulled.”

Thoughts of possibly transferring danced in his mind in early December after he played a total of seven minutes in games against St. John’s, Utah State and Boise State.

“Games kept going and my minutes started to shrink, shrink, shrink,” Lee said. “In the USU game, I only went in for a few minutes. I did well for my time and didn’t see the floor again. I was always trying to get better. What are they seeing that I’m doing wrong? I’ll fix it because I want to play. That was tough.”

Pope put Lee back into the starting lineup against Utah. Lee scored seven points and pulled down four rebounds in 18 minutes as he helped the Cougars beat the Utes, 82-64. But in other games after that, he saw limited action.

When he talked to the coaching staff about why he wasn’t playing, he didn’t receive much feedback.

“Toward the end of the season, coach Pope found his rotation that he liked. I don’t know if it worked or not but that’s what he saw was best,” he said. “I tried to cheer on my team and be the best team player I could be. But in the back of my mind, it was very frustrating because we all play the game because we want to play.

“I’d make one mistake and I was out of there when some of these other guys could make several mistakes and that was OK. That’s how it was for me last year,” Lee continued. “I could do whatever I wanted, and just play ball. That’s why our team was so successful. Everyone could just play. It felt completely different this year.”

‘Whoever gets him is going to be a lucky program’

Assistant coach Chris Burgess, who works with post players in the program, said Lee was a key component for the Cougars.

“Kolby did everything he was asked during the two years we got to coach him. You could always count on him, especially on the offensive side of the ball. There were times this year when he wasn’t playing as much. He’d come in and he would do some really good things,” Burgess said.

“Toward the end of the season, we kind of found that the rotation tightened a little bit. The guys that were playing were doing the best that they could. The guys that weren’t playing still had a super important role, whether it was in practice or bringing the energy with no fans. Kolb was a huge part of the success that we had,” Burgess continued. “Sometimes, it’s the way things work out. We have nothing but love for Kolby and we wish him the best.

“We hope he finds exactly what he’s looking for. I told him this straight up, ‘Kolb, you have a chance to play this game after college. Whatever you decide to do, make sure you find the right place.’ He’s a good player. Whoever gets him is going to be a lucky program. He’s got a big future ahead of him — the rest of his college career and potentially afterwards.”

Lee may never figure out what went wrong for him at BYU.

“It was kind of confusing. As the season went on, there were games where I played and games where I didn’t. Towards the very end of the year, it was like, nothing. I decided that I didn’t want to play here anymore,” Lee said. “I know I can play. I’ve proven that last year that I can be a good player at this level. I can compete against the top teams in the country and play well. I know what I’m capable of.

“I guess I wasn’t valued this year. I know Pope loves me. He’s a great coach and he’s going to do what he needs to do to win. I felt like I was underappreciated this year and not used to the full potential. I think we could have won some bigger games if I were out there. I’m just a competitor and I want to play. That’s why we all play the game. Not playing at all made me realize I could make a difference somewhere else, and play the game I love.”

Entering the portal: ‘I felt appreciated and wanted’

Not long after the 2020-21 season ended with a first-round loss to UCLA in the NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis, Lee entered the transfer portal.

There was some initial apprehension because he knew that more than 1,000 players were also looking for a new home.

“I thought, ‘Maybe there’s so many guys in the portal I may not get recruited,’” Lee said. “Those are some of the worries and doubts that creep into your mind.”

But he had no reason to fear. The response was overwhelming and positive. More than 25 programs reached out to him.

“As soon as I entered, my phone blew up. So many schools were calling — teams in the (West Coast Conference), teams close by,” Lee recalled. “There were a ton of schools reaching out to see if they could get me because of my situation.”

BYU forward Kolby Lee and Pepperdine forward Kendall Munson fight for the ball at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.
Annie Barker, Deseret News

Overall, it was both a stressful and gratifying experience for Lee.

“It was cool because I felt loved. The schools I was really interested in, they called and wanted me,” he said. “I got to pick where I wanted to go. It was kind of like high school all over again. I was a four-star recruit and I held offers I wanted. I just had to decide.

“It was good to feel wanted after this long season. I felt kind of neglected. There were a ton of coaches that reached out to me. I had all the options I wanted and more. I felt appreciated and wanted in the portal, which was good.”

Among the schools that reached out, some were in the East, which Lee had to eliminate almost immediately because of the distance.

“Some schools wondered if I could do a long-distance situation. I was like, ‘No, that’s too far. I can’t do that.’ There were a few schools that I had to look up and do research on. I’m a transparent guy. They’d call me the first time and I’d say, ‘Nah, that’s too far for me and my wife.’ I deleted a lot of the voicemails because there were so many. I called back the ones I was interested in.”

One program that showed interest was Wisconsin. While that was flattering to Lee, Madison is a long way from Provo. Besides, “I’d probably have to fight for minutes and you never know, it could be a similar situation to BYU this past year. It could be great to play in the Big Ten, but I could be another bench guy.”

A logical landing spot could have been Utah Valley University, which has become a place to go for several former Cougar players over the years, including Connor Harding, who was signed by the Wolverines earlier this month.

Like Lee, Harding’s wife, Paisley, plays for the BYU women’s basketball team.

However, UVU didn’t have a scholarship available for Lee.

“That got stressful,” Lee said. “How far is too far? We had to figure that out and pray about the situation. It was a cool experience but with my particular situation, it was stressful. I started turning coaches down and saying no because my phone kept ringing and people were talking to me all the time. At the start, it was cool. Now it’s, I’ve got finals. Leave me alone. It goes both ways.”

Ultimately, he found a program that felt comfortable to him and his wife.

“I’m super excited. I’m going to a good program that’s up-and-coming. I’m excited for it to be all over,” he said. “They’re recruiting me hard because they need me and they want me. That’s also nice to hear. When I finally made the decision, I felt good about it. My wife and I prayed about it and we both feel great. It feels like a huge burden lifted off our shoulders.”

Lee declined to disclose where his next stop will be, explaining that it will be publicly announced Monday. Could it be USU? His mother, Jill, played for the Aggies.

“It’s a Utah school that’s somewhat close. My wife and I will still have to do long-distance, but it’s a lot closer than going to a school in California or back East,” Lee said. “At least it’s in the state and I’ll be able to drive down on the weekends and we’ll see each other.”

They have plenty of experience when it comes to a long-distance relationship.

“We asked ourselves, ‘Are we going to do this again?’” he said. “We’ve done it before.”

An unusual introduction and an unusual first year of marriage

The Lees’ courtship kind of sounds like the plot of a 2020 rom-com on Netflix.

Kolby Lee and his wife Kayla Belles-Lee pose for a picture. The two basketball-playing Lees (Kayla plays for BYU, while Kolby played for the Cougars but will be transferring to another in-state school) will continue their college careers in the same state but for different teams.
Lee family

Kolby and Kayla met on Instagram. At the time, Kolby was playing at BYU and Kayla Belles, who stands 6-foot-3, was playing at Michigan State.

“She followed me on Instagram. I was like, ‘OK, cool.’ I didn’t think much of it,” he said. “Then I checked out her profile and I thought she was pretty cute. Then I saw that she was an athlete. I had a prompting to message her. I was like, ‘Why? This isn’t going to add up to anything. She lives all the way across the country.’ Then I messaged her and we started talking every day over the phone. We FaceTimed every day for countless hours.”

Later, Lee said he “got up the courage” to travel to Michigan to meet Kayla’s family. Then they started dating and had “a whole yearlong distance relationship.”

Kayla, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, like Kolby, hails from Ithaca, Michigan. She had attended BYU camps and women’s coach Jeff Judkins recruited her before she signed with Michigan State.

As the couple’s relationship got more serious, Lee talked to Cougar women’s team coaches behind the scenes, hoping Kayla would have a basketball scholarship at BYU. When Kayla decided to leave East Lansing, BYU indeed had a scholarship waiting for her, enabling Kolby and Kayla to live in the same city, and attend the same school, for the first time — and to complete their courtship.

The Lees were married Aug. 9, 2020. Guess who officiated the wedding? None other than coach Mark Pope. A month later, the couple was sealed in a Latter-day Saints temple.

“We were able to get married and move on with our lives and see what the next step is,” Kolby said. “That was a blessing.”

While marriage was wonderful for the Lees, juggling two basketball seasons at the same time was a challenge. Especially during a pandemic.

“COVID definitely made it a little more interesting,” Kolby said.

BYU Cougars forward Kayla Belles-Lee (42) gets a rebound from San Francisco Dons forward Lucija Kostic (24) as BYU and San Francisco play in semifinal West Coast Conference tournament basketball action at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Monday, March 8, 2021. BYU won 85-55 to advance to the finals against Gonzaga.

BYU forward Kayla Belles-Lee (42) gets a rebound during game against San Francisco on Monday, March 8, 2021. BYU won 85-55 to advance to the finals against Gonzaga.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

There were times, because of the teams’ schedules and road trips, that they would go a week or so without seeing each other.

While Kolby played less than he would have liked, Kayla got into just eight games as she dealt with injuries.

Even when they were together, they had to be extra cautious.

“We have two bedrooms at our place. One of us was in one room and one was in the other,” Kolby said. “We were trying to stay apart the best we could because we didn’t want to be the cause of the season shutting down for two weeks. That was really hard. I wouldn’t want to do that again.”

For their second year of marriage, Kolby and Kayla will soon embark on a new adventure together as he leaves BYU and she remains. Kolby said they’re “pretty bummed” that they won’t both be playing for the Cougars. But they’re optimistic about what the future holds.

“We’ve been praying a lot and trying to figure everything out,” he said. “It’s not ideal but we’ll make it work.”