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Canadian Lee playing with joy at Princeton

Xaivian Lee Xaivian Lee - Princeton

“It’s never been sweeter if you’re a Princeton fan than right now!”

That was Brad Nessler’s call on TNT’s broadcast last March, as the buzzer sounded in Princeton’s 78-63 victory over Missouri in the second round of the NCAA tournament, a win that punched the Tigers’ ticket to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1967.

That may just have been the start.

The Tigers are 14-1 this season, and gearing up for another tournament run, albeit with a new on-court leader – one that’s already asserted himself as one of college basketball’s most improved players.

Canadian sophomore point guard Xaivian Lee has emerged as Princeton’s top scorer, averaging 18.0 points per game, leading a balanced attack that’s seen considerable turnover from last season. Forward Tosan Evbuomwan, the Ivy League Player of the Year in 2023, is now playing pro in the NBA G-League, and guard Ryan Langborg, who carried the scoring load for the Tigers in their three NCAA tournament games, moved to Northwestern as a graduate transfer.

Lee, who’s from Toronto, has flourished with an increased role, improving his scoring average from 4.8 per game as a freshman while shooting 49 per cent from the field and 39 per cent from three-point range.

“Everyone on our team is so capable,” Lee said. “I feel like if other guys got the chance to be in the role I’m in, [they] would succeed as well.”

After scoring double figures in each of Princeton’s first five wins, Lee made a splash on Nov. 25, scoring 30 points in the Tigers’ 80-66 win over Northeastern. He followed that with a handful of stat-stuffing performances, including a 23-point, nine-rebound and six-assist outing in a win over Drexel on Dec. 5.

Lee was just warming up. 

In the Tigers’ Ivy League opener against Harvard on Jan. 6, he scored 33 points in an 89-58 win – the most by a Princeton player in a single game since 2017. 

“I don’t like to quantify in numbers, per se,” Lee said. “We only really care about winning as a team.”

Against Dartmouth on Monday, he deferred while the Tigers raced to a 13-point halftime lead, then scored all 16 of his points after the break in an eventual 76-58 win.

“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised to see us doing this well, but it’s definitely nice,” Lee said. “I was ready to step up into a bigger role and I’m just happy it’s working out so far.”


Xaivian Lee

Lee’s route from Crescent School in Toronto to the Ivy League was far from smooth, due in large part to the COVID pandemic, which left the next level of his basketball career in limbo.

“My recruiting story was unorthodox,” he said. “In Canada, everything shut down with COVID, so I didn’t really play at all during my Grade 10 summer, Grade 11 school year, and I just started playing that Grade 11 AAU season.”

A link to former Princeton guard and fellow Canadian Jaelin Llewellyn ended up paving an unlikely path, helping Lee get on the radar of Tigers head coach Mitch Henderson three summers ago.

“Princeton was kind of the only school that was talking to me,” Lee said. “[Llewellyn and myself] share the same AAU coach, so he connected me there. They saw me play that summer, and that’s how it all went down.”

Lee committed to Princeton in 2021, but his connection to the program began years before he set foot on campus. In 2017, he crossed the border with his family to watch the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in Buffalo, where the Tigers were a 12 seed, and nearly pulled off a first round upset over Notre Dame.

“I think every little kid’s dream is to play Division I basketball, [then] go to the NBA,” Lee said, recalling the trip. “I knew one day I wanted to be at that stage, playing in March Madness. Obviously, that was a far shot away, but it was definitely an inspiring experience. It definitely motivated me from a young age.

“I didn’t really know anything about Princeton at the time,” he admitted, “but it’s just kind of a cool full-circle moment.”

Six years later, the Tigers were back at the tournament for the first time since, this time a 15 seed, and with Lee on the roster as a freshman point guard. He played just a combined 13 minutes but saw the floor in each of Princeton’s three games, including an historic upset of Arizona in the Round of 64 – just the 11th time in NCAA history that two seed had fallen to a 15.


March Madness wasn’t the only opportunity for Lee to get his feet wet in 2023.

Last summer included another first, when Lee represented Canada for the first time at the FIBA U-19 World Cup in Hungary, averaging a team-high 14.1 points in seven games for a team that finished in seventh place.

The experience with Princeton at the NCAA Tournament came in handy for Lee, who was tested in another new environment.

“Playing on that stage really prepared me for the national circuit,” Lee said. “Once you play in front of all those people in that kind of environment, nothing really compares…I think that helped me get ready for playing with Canada, and then playing on another big stage with the World Cup.

“[Prior to the World Cup], I wasn’t a huge fan of FIBA basketball. But once I played it, I developed a new appreciation for different styles of play. There are completely different cultures and dynamics, all those factors clashing on the court, different languages being spoken. It’s crazy.”

Lee was able to appreciate the international game as a fan eight weeks later, when Canada’s senior men’s national team took part in its iteration of the tournament, eventually beating the United States to claim bronze in September.

“I was watching all the games in the morning because of the time difference,” Lee said. “I definitely look up to Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander] and Jamal [Murray] the most…They became my favourite players after playing for Canada. I’d love to be able to do something close to what they’re doing at that high of a level.”

Lee spent the summer watching clips of Gilgeous-Alexander and Murray, and narrowly missed meeting his newest basketball idols before the national team departed for Indonesia in late-August. 

“I was actually super upset,” Lee said. “I was supposed to go home the weekend they left for the World Cup. There was a two-day overlap, so I texted [senior assistant coach Michael Meeks] to see if I could come watch practice. I was supposed to watch their last practice before they left, but they actually left a day early, so I missed it.”

A missed opportunity, but one Lee hopes to get again in the near future.

“I would just love to work out with them. Watch their workout, meet them. I’m definitely looking forward to that.”


Xaivian Lee

Win the Ivy League, and you’re in.

That’s essentially Princeton’s path to its second consecutive berth in college basketball’s big dance, considering the conference has never produced an at-large bid in the 85-year history of the tournament.

The win over Dartmouth on Monday improved the Tigers to 2-0 in conference play, but they are yet to face Cornell (12-3 this season, 2-0 in conference) and Yale (11-6, 2-0) – two of the four teams that qualified for the Ivy League Tournament in 2023, each of whom figure to be there again this year.

For Lee, who deferred to Langborg, Matt Allocco and Blake Peters in Princeton’s deep backcourt last year, it’s an opportunity to step up at the most important time of the season.

“Getting back to the tournament, that’s one of the coolest stages in sports,” he said. “Getting back there is our team goal.”

Lee certainly isn’t in it alone – fellow sophomore Caden Pierce has made a giant leap, nearly doubling his scoring average from 8.2 per game as a freshman to 14.7 this season. Earlier this week, Lee and Pierce were both named to the midseason watch list for both the Lute Olsen and Lou Henson National Player of the Year Awards.

Allocco, who scored 25 points against Dartmouth, is still around, as well as Peters, who has struggled with his shot this season but was instrumental in last March’s wins over Arizona and Missouri. Senior forward Zach Martini has been amongst the nation’s most effective stretch bigs, shooting 47 percent from three-point range.

“In terms of the offence we run, a lot of credit goes to my teammates, but my coaches too,” Lee said. “I think we’re really good at picking apart matchups, and it can be anyone’s day.”

For Princeton, it’s all about sharing the wealth.

And it’s translating into win-after-win.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had playing basketball,” Lee said. “I’m always laughing, having fun on the court.

“I tend to play with joy. I feel like that’s just what makes us play best.”