Killian Hayes not the only Pistons rookie guard opening eyes; Saben Lee thriving on speed and toughness

Saben Lee
Saben Lee is making the transition from scoring guard in college to point guard in the NBA
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The Killian Hayes Assists Watch draws plenty of attention these days, which tends to happen when you consort with Hall of Famers. That’s what Hayes has achieved by racking up at least five assists in a dozen straight games, something no Pistons rookie other than Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars has managed.

But Hayes doesn’t have the highest assist rate on the team in his hot stretch. Indeed, he doesn’t have the highest assist rate among rookie point guards during his streak.

That would be Saben Lee, who over his past seven games is averaging 10 assists per 36 minutes. In 18.6 minutes a game over that span, Lee is averaging 5.1 assists and has nearly a 4:1 assists-to-turnovers ratio.

Not bad for anyone, but outstanding for a rookie who wasn’t really a point guard when the Pistons drafted him with the 38th overall pick last November. Wait until he really figures out what being an NBA point guard entails.

Hayes picked up eight assists in a career-high 38 minutes in Sunday’s game with Chicago, spending a good chunk of his night playing alongside Lee with the Pistons shorthanded. Lee racked up seven assists in his 32 minutes and the rookies greatly enjoyed playing in tandem.

“I love it. That’s the second game I played at the same time with Saben and I love it,” said Hayes, who hit three 3-point shots (in six attempts) for the first time in his career as a benefit of playing off of the ball. “Being able to be off the ball makes the game more fun. When you always have the ball in your hands, the defense can kind of read what you’re going to do.”

“I love it,” was also Lee’s first response to playing shoulder to shoulder with his classmate. “If I get it, I can push; if he gets it, he can push. Get in transition and I feel like it’s a lot more upbeat when both of us are out there and can play off of each other.”

Perhaps the biggest reason Hayes draws more attention for his assists – other than the typical scrutiny a lottery pick endures – is the nature of the rookies’ passes. Hayes makes a lot of memorable, highlight-reel passes – remember the bowling ball pass from beyond half-court for a Saddiq Bey layup? – while Lee’s are more routine if no less productive.

“He’s really consistent about making the right pass,” Dwane Casey said. “He doesn’t try to make squeeze-’em-in passes some guys do. He tries to do the right thing. He is making the transition from a shooting guard, scoring guard, to a traditional point guard. He knows what’s going on. He’s a smart young man. He competes at a high level but he knows what’s going on. He knows where everyone is on the court.”

Lee was a scorer in college – he averaged in double figures all three seasons at Vanderbilt and 18.6 points a game in 2019-20 as a junior – without being a shooter. Improving his outside shot will be the heavy focus of his summer as it will be with Hayes. Lee is shooting right around the NBA average from the 3-point arc at 36.4 percent but on exceptionally low volume – 0.5 attempts per game – while Hayes, on 2.5 attempts, is at 29.3 percent.

“You cannot win big time in today’s game if you can’t make a healthy number of threes,” Casey said. “And it starts with your point guards. I think those two guys will (improve). They’re resourceful. They’re smart young men. They’re gym rats, so I expect nothing less than those guys to improve. To what level, I don’t know. But they will be better this time next year.”

But even without the threat of a perimeter shot and while learning how to be a point guard on the job, Lee has put up solid numbers for any backup, never mind a rookie second-rounder playing sporadic minutes. He’s averaged 5.2 points, 3.6 assists and 1.1 turnovers in 16 minutes a game over his 45 appearances while relying on his athleticism – Lee’s near-dunks over an assortment of NBA big men are among the memorable moments of the season – and a football mentality passed down from his father, Amp Lee, a Florida State all-time great who spent nine seasons in the NFL.

“Speed and toughness – and he doesn’t have a fear of contact,” Casey said to explain Lee’s ability to be effective as a rookie while gently reminding Lee that it’s his ability to defend and hound the ball that got his foot in the door to playing time in the first place. “That’s his calling card – defensively, getting into the ball. His toughness – his overall toughness and his basketball IQ. He’s one of those young men that asks questions. They’re great questions, not bullcrap questions. He asks sophisticated basketball questions that lets you know he’s thinking the game.”

And processing it as he goes. Lee has shown steady improvement at one key ingredient of the modern-day NBA point guard – the ability to get into the paint, aided greatly by his speed and strength, and then kick the ball to an open 3-point shooter or to a cutter who’s exploited a defense distracted by Lee’s penetration.

“I definitely feel way more comfortable from early on in the season,” Lee said after Sunday’s outing. “That just goes with getting more reps, being out there and being able to experience those different things. It’s been great.”

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