Imitating Lillard; the rise of Kody Uyesugi

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Uyesugi uses his off arm to fend off a larger defender on against Santiago Canyon College. Photo by Cammie Lewis.

Freshman guard Kody Uyesugi dominated the court in the 2023 basketball season despite being the smallest player on the team.

Uyesugi stands at 5 feet 10 inches tall. For him, being underestimated is inevitable. 

“I will always be overlooked because of my size and I hope it stays like that. It gives me that extra motivation to get even better. I have worked very hard on specific skills that set me apart from others,” said Uyesugi.

One of these skills is his ability to shoot from deep. He shot 44.5% from three this year, putting him at third overall in the Orange Empire Conference and first on his team. For reference, Stephen Curry, often considered the greatest shooter in NBA history, has a career three point percentage of 42.8.

“I’ve always looked up to Kobe Bryant and how he approached the game. Nowadays, I love watching Damian Lillard and Steph Curry to model my game after,” said Uyesugi .

It’s no surprise that Uyesugi looks up to Kobe Bryant, Damian Lillard, and Steph Curry. His dedication and desire to improve would make Kobe proud. Shades of Lillard are seen in his game through his ability to read and expand the court. These attributes combined with Curry’s shooting ability are something to be feared.

“He is possibly the best shooter I’ve had the opportunity to play with and without a doubt one of the best I’ve competed against as well,” said Uyesugi’s teammate Court Franklin.

Uyesugi averaged 11.7 points per game this season. Only freshman forward Kelvonte Ellis totaled more with 15.2. His success at Santa Ana this year has earned him a roster spot at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, a Division 3 college. He will play there next fall.

The tough reality of basketball is that a player can’t get by with shooting proficiency alone. 

You can be the most accurate shooter in the world, but if a defender seven inches taller than you is right in your face, it’s nearly impossible to get that shot off. 

Personal trainer and fitness coach Keenan Kitajima focuses intently on separation when working with Uyesugi, who he has trained since the first lockdown in early 2020.

“Basketball is a tall man’s game, unfortunately. You have to be able to create space and separation. Players are gonna guard you differently, especially knowing you’re a threat from deep,” said Kitajima.

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Uyesugi and Kitajima have honed in on his strengths in the past three years, working on increasing his shooting range even further. A defender typically won’t guard as tightly if a ball carrier is 30-35 feet from the basket. Uyesugi has learned how to exploit that.

“I’m always doing unorthodox stuff with him because he’s so gifted. I’ll make him shoot from deeper than the volleyball line, damn near the half court line. We progressed over the course of two and a half years and now he’s comfortable shooting from that deep,” said Kitajima.

Uyesugi’s teammates will tell you he’s a special player.

“Kody is one of the most pure shooters I’ve ever seen. He could honestly be the best shooter in the state. It’s clean, quick, smooth, and it looks effortless,” said freshman forward Sam Aryan, who’s been a teammate of Uyesugi since high school. 

Uyesugi hopes to instill his knowledge of the game into the next generation of ballers.

“I obviously really want to play basketball at the highest level possible but I want to make sure my future is also in good hands with a good education and degree,” said Uyesugi. “If I’m satisfied with my career I plan to be in physical therapy, training kids with knowing how their bodies work…also with specific basketball training as well.”

Uyesugi  leads by example with his outstanding work ethic and basketball I.Q. His ability to rise above physical limitations remains inspiring. 

“I’ve seen a lot of top guys who are slated to go to the NBA, guys who are in the league right now, and Division 1 players who are basically the stars of their school, and Kody is probably one of the most skilled players I’ve ever seen,” said Kitajima.

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