SEOUL (Korea) – Korean basketball fans can expect a different Yeo Jun Seok when he returns to the senior national team later this summer for continental play – namely someone with the confidence that he can help his country in their fight for the podium.
The 19-year-old Yeo went through a whirlwind June and July that will go a long way in preparing him for the future. He first made his Korean senior debut at the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers in mid-June and then followed that with traveling to Lithuania for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament Kaunas.
Yeo played two games at the OQT – against Venezuela and Lithuania – and then took a short trip from Kaunas to Riga to play at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2021 with his 2002-born generation in Latvia.
Yeo was Korea’s uber-star at the U19 World Cup, leading the team scoring (25.6 ppg), rebounds (10.6 rpg), steals (2.1 spg) and blocks (1.4 bpg) and finishing third in assists (1.7 apg). Yeo led the entire tournament in scoring and efficiency (24.7 effpg) and was second in rebounds.
Korea struggled with wins, though, as Yeo did not have a lot of help; the team lost their first six games before squeaking out a victory over Japan to finish 15th out of 16 teams.
“I feel kind of sorry for the team,” Yeo said. “I think I could have done a better job as a leader of the team.”
He knew there were high expectations on him in Latvia since he is one of the faces of Korean basketball’s future.
“It’s an inevitable situation,” Yeo said. “But I received a lot of support and high expectations from the team. This is the thing I have to face.”
While Yeo could not lead Korea to many victories, the 6’8″ (2.03m) forward did get the opportunity to face some great competition, starting with the opening game against France, which turned out to be a 117-48 loss.
“My most memorable matchup was against France. We didn’t have a good game because we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, but I think if we had to face them again we would have done better,” said Yeo, who had his worst game of the tournament against the eventual second-place finishers with just 12 points and 8 rebounds for an efficiency score of 5 – the only time that stat was below 14.
Korea also faced Argentina and Spain in the Group Phase and then Yeo was able to test his game against the mighty United States in the Round of 16.
“It was a very big lesson for me. My biggest goal is to play in the United States. So playing against players from my same age was a very good experience for me,” said Yeo, who picked up 21 points and 3 rebounds against the eventual champions.
Yeo ended up with the highest single scoring game of the tournament – 36 points against Japan – as well as three of the top eight single-game efficiency scores – 40 versus Japan, 37 against Puerto Rico and 35 against Argentina. As the only real weapon for Korea – Kim Taehun had the second-best efficiency at 6.7 – Yeo was forced to take over the offense.
“I faced a lot of pressure to take and make shots, but over time I learned to overcome that fear or pressure,” said Yeo, who attempted the most field goal attempts in the tournament at 151 – or 21.6 shots a game.
It is clear that Yeo’s immediate role within the Korean senior squad will not require him to take so much responsibility. But the two competitions before the U19 World Cup were very advantageous.
First off, he made his debut: scoring 12 points with 4 rebounds against Indonesia in the Asian Cup Qualifiers. Yeo then poured in 23 points on 12 shots to go with 6 rebounds in 26 minutes versus Thailand before picking up 2 points and 2 offensive rebounds in 7 minutes in the big showdown with the Philippines.
“Definitely it was a huge feeling to make the senior national team, and it was a big stepping stone for me and my career to learn about facing senior players,” he said.
While Yeo is a major hope in the future for Korea, both of his experiences with the senior national team saw him play with the 20-year-old Lee Hyunjung – something which Yeo really valued.
“Lee had some more playing time. So watching him play on the court was really great to see and how he played with the others,” Yeo said. “I learned a lot. I have played with him for a long time. It was great watching him play and also learn from his attitude and demeanor.”
Put together all three of the events of Yeo wearing Korea on his chest and he is ready to give more to the senior national team in continental and international FIBA competitions.
“After the Asia Cup Qualifiers, OQT and now (U19 World Cup) I have more gained more confidence to help the team,” he said.
Korea have finished third in three of the last four Asia Cup, and Yeo said the team knows what it can and cannot do.
“We feel that we have a disadvantage from a physical standpoint,” Yeo said. “But if we can play good defense then we can maybe have a chance to do well there.”
Now that he’s made his debut and seen what is needed of a team leader, Yeo could be Korea’s X-factor in international play.