Photo: Beverly Schaefer

Xaivian Lee ’26 has been a revelation for the Princeton men’s basketball team this season, the latest step in his explosive emergence over barely two and a half years.

Lee scored 4.8 points per game in 32 games off the bench last year as Princeton reached the Sweet 16. After 24 starts this season, he was second in Ivy League scoring at 18.3 points per game for a Tigers team that was 21-3 overall, 9-2 in the league.

“The word ‘revelation’ makes sense,” said Princeton coach Mitch Henderson ’98. “He plays in a splendid way, an extraordinary way that’s fun to watch. It stands out to people, it stands out to us.”

Lee’s scoring jump is the greatest by a Princeton player who played significant minutes in back-to-back seasons since Kevin “Moon” Mullin ’84 went from 3.7 in 1982-83 to 17 points per game in 1983-84, from his junior to senior year. Lee is only a sophomore.

“All of these things were present a year ago if anybody was watching,” Henderson said. “We had an NBA-level player in Tosan that really commanded the ball. Tosan and Xaivian are quite different, but they’re very similar in their ability to create.”

Tosan Evbuomwan ’23 is a versatile 6-foot-7 forward who made his NBA debut with the Memphis Grizzlies in early February. Lee is a 6-foot-3 guard, a flash of energy who has beefed up to 171 pounds after playing at 145 in high school.

Lee was long overlooked in high school. He looked tiny on tape, and Division I schools weren’t interested. Princeton was the only school to recruit him, after the father of fellow Canadian Jaelin Llewellyn ’22 alerted coaches to Lee’s potential. COVID restrictions had cost Lee the summer after his sophomore year and his junior year of high school in Canada.

“Because he’s skinny or smaller framed, people think he’s not tough,” said Thomas Baudinet, his coach at the Perkiomen School in Pennsylvania. “But he’s very tough, he’s very competitive. You have to be at that size to do what he’s doing.”

Lee can start in an instant and slice through defenses. He can stop on a spot, too, to pull up for a shot, and he’s crafty with a variety of finishes in the lane. Give him a little space and he’s a confident jump shooter. Lee does it all with a broad smile, his head bopping, tongue occasionally wagging.

“He plays with such joy,” Henderson said. “We want that. That’s what I want to encourage is him to be himself.”

Scoring isn’t the only elevated statistic for Lee. He’s shooting 9% higher from the field and 13% better from 3-point range, his rebounds have tripled (5.7 per game), and his assist-to-turnover ratio stands out, rising from 1:1 last year to 2.5:1 this season (best in the Ivy League).

“This year, I came in with a plan,” Lee said. “I knew I needed to wake up earlier, work out every day — those weren’t really things I was doing every day last year. And then having a bigger role is the biggest thing and being ready to step into it.” Lee transferred to Perkiomen with the intention of playing there two years, but Princeton asked him to reclassify and start college in 2022. Since then, his rise has been meteoric. After playing in every game of his freshman year, he was invited for the first time to try out for Canada Basketball. His 14.1 scoring average in seven games led Canada at the FIBA Under-19 World Cup last summer.

“It’s definitely good to see the world around me start to take notice,” Lee said. “But I don’t think it’s really changed anything that I do personally.”

Lee is pleased with his progress, but said, “I’m not near where I should be, but I’m definitely getting there.” He is adjusting to new challenges, like having opposing teams design their game plans to stop him, and new possibilities, as NBA scouts track his progress.

“We knew he had the ability to be there a few years from now,” Baudinet said. “I just didn’t expect it to be the next year necessarily. It’s been a quicker jump than I expected.”