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Saben Lee cruisin’ to deliver bruisins

Saben has to jump a level to be a factor this year— fortunately, he’s an EXCELLENT leaper

Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Saben Lee is a really intriguing player at this stage of his career. Drafted with the 38th pick in the 2020 NBA draft, he signed a three-year, $5 million deal this offseason, making him a fully ensconced part of the plan in Detroit. That plan, for 2021 at least, probably won’t really factor him in for the Pistons, though. Unless he’s WAY ahead of schedule. Which he could be! It’s preseason, let’s get that dose of optimism in!

Know Your Role

There are a lot of words you’d use to describe Saben Lee: Fast. Twitchy. Jumpy. Saben’s athleticism has always been what he’s known for, but I have always been very impressed with the ways in which he leverages the threat of that athleticism to play arrhythmically, and the ways in which he leverages the threat of him dunking on you to crowbar open passing angles.

But make no mistake, Saben WILL threaten to dunk on you. Just ask Nikola Vucevic:

Or Willie Cauley-Stein:

But beyond threatening vertical pop there is craft. That’s a great combination. There are a lot of short, fast guys out there, but Saben’s ability to play off-speed this early in his career bodes well for his ability to be more than JUST a short fast guy.

You see this craft in his good games: The Orlando game that was his coming-out party, the Minnesota game, the Toronto game. That ability to snake a pick-and-roll, get the defender in jail, then jet forward, forcing the big to make a very tough decision (or just foul him). The ability to get out of trouble with the Chris Paul / Steve Nash memorial fake-dribble-out-into-reverse-layup. The speed with which he CAN get to the rim forcing early stunts or early rotations, which lets him kick the ball out to shooters on the perimeter.

What you don’t really see, even in his good games, though, is the thing that’s still limiting his potential - the threat of an off-the-dribble jumper. The lack of a consistent shot means teams can sag off Saben and make a lot of those driving and passing windows smaller. He’s athletic enough to force his way through those windows, but it’d be better for him in the long term if he could win simple more often. And winning simple starts with compelling defenders to go over on screens by being able to take off-the-dribble threes.

The team knows this, and he knows this; it was a big part of what he was doing in summer league. He really made it work in the game against the Lakers:

Noticeably, this is also the game where he had the floor to himself; Cade Cunnigham and Killian Hayes did not play, and he had Second-Team All-Summer-League center Luka Garza acting as a pick-and-pop threat to open up space for him. But the extra time helped Saben get into a rhythm, he made a couple of those off-the-dribble threes, and really opened some eyes.

Saben needs to practice one vital element of his game consistently. It’s going to be hard to do that against NBA competition, because of the presence of Killian Hayes, Cory Joseph, and Cade Cunningham as “point guards” (yeah Cade and Killian are going to start together and only one guy is TECHNICALLY the “point guard” but let’s not be pedantic this early in the season).

This train of thought goes down one unpopular track: Saben Lee is going to be with the Motor City Cruise a lot this year.

But that’s not a bad thing!

He gets to work on the thing that will open up the rest of his game (the off-the-dribble jumper) in a low-stakes, high-opportunity environment. I think seeing how defenses react to the threat of Saben being willing (and instructed) to take threes in real time, in a competitive environment, will be really good for him. With the level of craft he already possess, he’ll be able to develop counters to the different coverages he sees as he develops as a shooter.

Operating consistently with the floor spaced is pretty much the goal for all of the Pistons ballhandlers this season; it’s why Kelly Olynyk is here instead of Mason Plumlee. In the first preseason game of the season for the Pistons, having bigs forced to come out of the paint was very noticeable:

There’s no reason we can’t see Saben Lee and Luka Garza playing the roles of Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk in this screenshot in the G-League this season.

After a season of working on the off-the-dribble-shooting and another offseason of work, I fully expect Saben to make Cory Joseph and his $5 million dollar player option (still rubbing my temples over that one) extremely expendable in 2022. But that’s a year away.

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