A Lee & D win for the Pistons: Rookie sparkles again, defense clamps down on Magic magicians

Saben Lee
Rookie Saben Lee followed up an eye-opening game on Sunday with an even better one in Tuesday’s win in Orlando, scoring a game-high 21 points off the bench
Alex Menendez (NBAE via Getty Images)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

When the Pistons lost to Orlando on Sunday, the Magic got 83 points from Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Terrance Ross. They had to scramble to get that many from their entire team 48 hours later, not doing so until there were less than four minutes left and the Pistons led by 19.

“We had a little bit more in mind of what to expect from those guys,” Josh Jackson said after the Pistons split the two-game set with the Magic with a 105-93 win. “The other day, we knew we had to worry about Fournier, Vucevic, of course, Terrance Ross. But I feel like it was a surprise to everybody how good those guys actually were and how little space they need to get their shot off.”

So, yes, tip your cap to a Pistons defense that held Orlando to 37.5 percent shooting and clamped down on the three magical scorers, holding them to 33 through three quarters and 47 for the game. But if we’re talking about surprises from three days in Orlando, let’s start with the biggest one: Saben Lee.

The No. 38 pick in the November draft has been used sparingly by the Pistons so far, mostly because they had other players ahead of him in the point guard pecking order – starting with lottery pick Killian Hayes before he got hurt and former MVP Derrick Rose before he got traded.

But Lee had played in only eight games before the Pistons arrived in Orlando mostly because of his status as a player on a two-way contract, limited to 50 games by that condition. Based on what he put on display since then, it’s probably time to throw caution to the wind.

“We gave him the game ball tonight,” Dwane Casey said after Lee’s 21-point, four-assist, two-steal outing in 29 minutes off the bench. “For a rookie to come into this place against a good defensive team, he did a good job all around.”

“It was a great feeling, just having my teammates there congratulating me,” Lee said. “Coach Casey gave me the game ball. It was definitely a moment I’m going to remember and I’m just happy I got that experience.”

Even though Lee was the last of the four Pistons 2020 draft choices, he still went higher than the consensus of mock drafts. The book on Lee was that he was a hyperathletic backcourt player who might not have a niche in the NBA given questions over his 3-point shot and playmaking instincts. But so far, the greater spacing of NBA offenses has unleashed Lee’s athleticism to attack the paint, where he’s made shrewd decisions and shown finishing ability. The eye-opener from Tuesday’s win was Lee’s 3-for-3 shooting from the 3-point arc.

“I think I can knock down the 3-point shot,” Lee said. “A lot of my veterans and my teammates, they were just giving me a lot of confidence and telling me to take those looks.”

Lee’s athleticism and attacking mentality – his father, Amp Lee, was a nine-year NFL veteran running back after starring at Florida State – makes him an equally intriguing prospect at the defensive end.

“He’s so quick,” Casey said. “A lot of rookies get sped up and he didn’t tonight. He didn’t the other night. He doesn’t get sped up and lose his concentration or get overwhelmed. He’s under control. He’s got command of the ball. The big part with him, he’s a ballhawk – probably a little too much tonight. He’s a ballhawk – excellent defensive hands.”

“For me, a lot of it is pressuring the ball and then helping out where I need to,” Lee said. “A lot of the defensive emphasis for me is impacting the ball and applying pressure on other point guards.”

Lee’s dazzling performance overshadowed the game turned in by the guy who started at point guard, Dennis Smith Jr. Smith also played a strong game defensively and hit 6 of 9 shots, including 2 of 3 from the 3-point arc, in a 14-point game.

“I thought Dennis did an excellent job of passing ahead, letting the game come to him,” Casey said. “He wasn’t forcing things and did an excellent job with his defensive hands. I think a lot of his good play got lost with the play of Saben. He set the tone as far as the speed of the game. Kudos to him.”

The win snapped a three-game Pistons losing streak – and a three-game Orlando winning streak. And, no doubt, was enough to have NBA advance scouts scrambling to make sure Saben Lee is featured prominently in their reports home.

“I got to go through training camp with him and practices with him up until now,” Jackson said of his young teammate. “I’ve seen nothing but amazing things from him up to this point. I’ve got a lot of respect for his game. I know he’s a really good player and he’s going to be in this league for a long time. He just played really, really good. Didn’t shy away from any shot, made the right passes when they were there and played tremendous defense today. I’m really happy for him.”

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