Since the 2008-09 season, the Detroit Pistons have played 37 rookies. Saben Lee, a 38th overall pick forced to play on a two-way contract, played more minutes than just 12 of those rookies. Not bad for an unheralded rookie who many expected to go undrafted.
Lee has plenty to develop as a young player, but the most impressive thing about his rookie season was that he never really seemed like he didn’t belong on the floor. Lee never shrank from the moment or looked overwhelmed when asked to run the offense. The results were not always great, but Lee showed on tape he is worth investing plenty of time, minutes and a multi-year guaranteed contract in the offseason.
When Lee was drafted, it was a show of faith from Troy Weaver and the development staff that they could mold a point guard from a mound of unformed clay. In three years at Vanderbilt, Lee performed more as an off guard who could share in the ball-handling duties. He used his explosive athletic skills and his instincts to create for himself and for others. But nothing in his statistical profile really jumps out at you.
He averaged a career-high 4.2 assists per game in his junior year, but also a career-high 3.1 turnovers per game. He had middling to bad field goal, free-throw and 3-point percentages. But, man, did he have that athleticism.
And the review of the tape must have shown the Pistons’ brass that there was a point guard somewhere in there. Because it didn’t take long once he saw the floor in Detroit that you saw a guy with quality vision and really good instincts for setting the pace of the game and setting up his teammates for quality looks.
Lee is always looking to penetrate, but unlike you see with a Josh Jackson, Lee rarely forces the issue. He plays with a calm that is rare for an NBA rookie, and especially one playing point guard at level he’s never really been asked to play before.
He can size up the defense and look for points of attack, then he uses his athleticism to get by or draw defenders into him. Look at this pass to Sekou Doumbouya.
And when the pass isn’t there, Lee has a knack for getting to the basket anyway and executing difficult finishes at the rim. He seems to have great awareness for his defender’s positioning and can find the tiniest opening to ensure he gets a quality look.
In that same game against the Magic, we also got a hint of what could be a regular part of Lee’s future. The 6-foot-2 point guard putting a big man on a poster.
The great first move and the extension he gets above the rim that you can see in slow motion is certainly a sight to behold. Lee almost had something like four amazing dunks but could never quite deliver the emphatic statement to get the NBA talking. It only seems like a matter of time, though.
Lee also joined the rest of the rookie class — Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart — in playing really effective defense as a rookie. Even though he is undersized, he wasn’t afraid to get into a player’s shirt on the perimeter, and he used some quick hands to generate deflections and steals.
Lee is certainly a project in the early years of development so it seems a little cruel to talk about shortcomings for a player who delivered so much more than what was expected from him. Still, for Lee, as with many Pistons, it is all about developing a consistent 3-point shot. Lee shot a surprisingly effective 34.8% on the season, but on limited attempts. His shot is also quite slow, so he’ll need to work with the development team to speed up the shot and make it more consistent.
Should He Stay or Should He Go
It’s not a slam dunk that Lee will return to the Pistons next year, but I’m rooting for him. The Pistons have plenty of young players they want to develop and Killian Hayes is higher on the point guard developmental pecking order. The Pistons, assuming they add Cade Cunningham in the draft, would also have a new rookie requiring tons of minutes and another primary ball-handler.
Lee is definitely someone who works best with the ball in his hands so if the Pistons don’t see a way for him to fit this year and/or next as an initiator off the bench maybe they just let him catch on somewhere else.
But there will be plenty of developmental opportunity with the Motor City Cruise and I’m hoping the Pistons give Lee a multi-year deal to continue developing him. He has a lot of raw skill, some amazing athleticism, but more than anything he seems to have an innate understanding of quarterbacking an offense and using the tools at his disposal to get himself and his teammates quality looks.
The more weapons he can add to his game via a reliable shot, added strength, and even better teammates, would make him even more dangerous with the ball in his hands. I’m hoping we get to see it in a Pistons uniform.