2020-21 Rewind: Saben Lee’s athleticism, toughness, leadership qualities won over the Pistons

Saben Lee
Saben Lee had a number of spectacular near dunks before converting over Willie Cauley-Stein in an April 21 game at Dallas
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)

It would’ve been easy for Saben Lee, a second-round pick, to get lost amid the hubbub with three rookie teammates who were first-rounders soaking up the spotlight – especially when lottery pick Killian Hayes was above him on the depth chart at point guard.

But between Hayes’ injury creating a shot at playing time for Lee and his take-no-prisoners approach to dunking on 7-footers, Lee became a rookie difficult to ignore for the Pistons in a 2020-21 season dedicated to the development of young players and the laying of a foundation for the future of the franchise.

Lee had spectacular near-dunks against Orlando and Nic Vucevic, the Bucks and Brook Lopez and the Lakers and Montrezl Harrell, either rattling the ball hard off the back rim or losing his grip at the peak of his jump in those cases. He finally victimized Dallas 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein on April 21.

Lee’s athleticism and toughness made him an easy favorite of teammates and Pistons coaches and, like the 10 other Pistons 24 or younger who finished the season as part of the roster, it will be a big summer for Lee as he looks to solidify his future with the franchise. Here’s a look at Lee’s 2020-21 season:

PROFILE: 6-foot-2 point guard, 22 years old, 1 NBA season
2020-21 STATS: 5.6 points, 3.6 assists in 16 minutes per game
STATUS: Lee will be a restricted free agent after playing his rookie season on a two-way contract

A LOOK BACK: Saben Lee was a consensus four-star recruit in the high school class of 2017. He committed to Vanderbilt over Florida State, Louisville, Stanford and others in the spring of his junior season after a strong showing on the AAU circuit altered the course of his recruitment. The son of Florida State All-American and longtime NFL running back Amp Lee, Saben Lee became a starter two games into his freshman season and wound up third on the team in minutes per game at 27 while averaging 10.6 points and 3.1 assists. Lee moved off the ball to start his sophomore year after Vanderbilt recruited five-star point guard Darius Garland, who was limited to five games by injury but went on to become the No. 5 pick in the 2019 NBA draft by Cleveland regardless. Lee averaged 12.7 points and 3.8 assists in a team-leading 33 minutes a game in 2018-19. Ex-Pistons guard Jerry Stackhouse took over Vanderbilt’s program for the 2019-20 season and eventually asked Lee to come off the bench to better balance units. Lee started 17 of 32 games as a junior, though again played 33 minutes a game while upping his scoring average to 18.6 points plus 4.2 assists per game. He was named second team All-SEC. The Pistons, using a pick they acquired in trade with Utah, drafted Lee 38th overall in the November 2020 draft.

THE SEASON THAT WAS: The Pistons played Lee sparingly early in the season due to the restrictions on usage for players on two-way contracts. Lee made his debut in the season’s eighth game after fellow rookie point guard Killian Hayes was injured in the seventh game. Lee played in only eight of the season’s first 29 games, but moved into the rotation more or less permanently in late February as two-way restrictions were waived by the NBA at the March All-Star break. Though Lee spent most of his college career as a combo guard, his per 36 minute average of 8.0 assists per game led the Pistons ahead of Cory Joseph (7.5) and Hayes (7.4) and he wasn’t turnover prone, either, averaging 2.5 per 36 minutes. Lee was a 33 percent 3-point shooter in college, so his 34.8 percent as an NBA rookie from the greater distance counted as an encouraging outcome, though Lee took a mere 11 percent of his attempts from the 3-point line. When Lee scored a season-high 22 points in a May 11 loss to Minnesota, he didn’t attempt a 3-point shot but made 7 of 9 from the field and 8 of 8 from the foul line – he shot 68.5 percent from the line for the season – while also registering five assists.

A LOOK AHEAD: Lee’s athleticism, length (a 6-foot-9 wingspan), strength in a compact body and tenacity make him a prime candidate to emerge as a first-rate defensive pest to pressure the ball. Dwane Casey encouraged Lee to maintain that as a core tenet of his game even as his role increased late in the season and Lee began to pile up impressive scoring and assist totals. With Killian Hayes on track to settle in as the team’s long-term answer at point guard, Lee’s immediate role will be as a high-energy backup point guard with a focus on defense and pushing the pace, which plays to his strengths. Developing his 3-point shooting and improving his free-throw shooting will boost Lee’s stock as his athleticism and fearlessness in attacking the paint figure to give him plenty of opportunity at the foul line. The Pistons are also bullish on Lee’s leadership skills, Casey calling him the most vocal and natural leader of the four 2020 draft picks. Like Devidias Sirvydis and Sekou Doumbouya, Lee would have benefited from a G League option in 2020-21 and figures to be in line for minutes with the Motor City Cruise when they debut this fall depending on what other moves the Pistons make to bolster the depth chart at point guard.

MONEY QUOTE: “He’s a leader. He plays with a pure heart. There’s no ‘me’ in his game whatsoever. That’s something that comes out when he’s on the floor. He has that ‘it,’ that leadership.” Dwane Casey on Saben Lee at mid-season

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