Lee’s poise, command show up as Pistons end Summer League on 3-game win streak
Garrett Ellwood (NBAE/Getty)
Isaiah Stewart’s Summer League was over before it began. Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes played three games when the Pistons pulled the plug to prevent minor injuries from derailing their availability for the start of training camp. Saddiq Bey played four games before joining Stewart, Hayes and Cunningham on the sidelines.
And that left Saben Lee, with nearly 800 minutes of NBA playing experience under his belt, as the most prominent remaining member of the Pistons Summer League entourage for the finale. He took the opportunity and ran with it, capping an off-season that saw him re-sign with the Pistons for a reported three years after playing his rookie season on a two-way contract.
Lee scored 19 points, including a critical basket and free throw in the final 40 seconds, to go with eight assists to lead the shorthanded Pistons to a 79-78 win over Orlando. The Pistons finished Summer League at 3-2, winning their final three games.
“The whole week, we’ve talked about ‘next man up,’ ” Summer League coach and Dwane Casey assistant J.D. DuBois said. “I thought Saben’s leadership and the leadership of the guys who weren’t playing – Isaiah Livers, Isaiah Stewart, Chris Smith, add Cade and Saddiq to the group – it showed.”
Beyond the box score, Lee’s poise and command of the game stood out. So did his improved confidence in his perimeter shot, the biggest question mark for the 6-foot-2 bundle of athleticism the Pistons took with the 38th overall pick in 2020. All of those things were on display late in the first half when Lee recognized the opportunity to squeeze two possessions out of the final 30-plus seconds. He came off a pick and shot a 3-pointer off the dribble, draining it to put the Pistons ahead by 10 points.
“It’s pretty natural. I feel like I’m a leader,” Lee said. “I like to communicate and talk. My role as a leader is definitely higher in Summer League. A lot of younger guys are here. I’m considered a vet to them, so just continue to try to do that for them.”
Lee had two worthy wing men who helped him pilot the win, Luka Garza and Jamorko Pickett. Garza, who confirmed that he’d signed a two-way contract earlier in the day, finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds. Pickett, who will come to training camp with the Pistons on an Exhibit 10 contract, added 14 points and six boards and hit 2 of 5 from the 3-point line.
“Especially with the guys we had out, me and Saben really needed to score the ball,” Garza said. “We needed to be the guys the team could lean on for offense, so we did a really good job of that and we also defended really well the whole game.”
Just as the Pistons played without Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick who finished Summer League by averaging 18.7 points and making 50 percent of his 3-point shots, Orlando played without its two lottery picks, Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner. The Pistons started Lee, Garza, Pickett, Spencer Littleson and Anthony Tarke, meaning Lee was out with the 52nd pick plus three undrafted college players.
The Pistons charged Lee with becoming a more confident and efficient perimeter shooter this off-season but also expect him to continue to be a disruptive defender and effective penetrator while honing his playmaking ability. They’ll leave Las Vegas feeling pretty good about Lee’s off-season checklist.
“Any time you see him not think and let ’em fly, those are the examples of him trusting his work,” DuBois said. “We talk to him a lot. You put the time in, you step on the floor, take your time, step into ’em with confidence, and he’s done that. He’s always continuing to break the paint and find his teammates. When he can do both of those as well as being a pest defensively – when he can do both of those on both ends of the floor – I think he’ll continue to grow. I was impressed to see him remain poised and confident to let those threes fly off the catch and off the dribble.”
In the game’s final minute, Lee assessed Orlando’s manic defense, spotted an opening and scored on a difficult floater across his body from the left side.
“They were putting a lot of people in front of me,” Lee said. “I knew we needed to get a bucket late in the game. That’s what happened for me and I knocked down the shot.”
It was exactly what the Pistons wanted to see from Lee, the player Casey cited as the most natural leader of the four rookies drafted in 2020.
“It feels good,” Lee said of finishing off Summer League with a win. “I really just want to go out and lead for the young guys and give any type of wisdom or advice I can give going into their professional careers.”