It’s a season where the Pistons are compelled to find a silver lining to every dark cloud. It wasn’t tough to identify in Sunday’s 105-96 loss at Orlando.
First, the dark cloud: Delon Wright, who’d struck the right balance over the past few weeks as the point guard in the wake of Derrick Rose’s trade to New York, will miss at least the next six games as he recovers from a strained right groin suffered in Friday’s loss to Memphis.
Dennis Smith Jr., part of the return from New York for Rose, got first crack. But it was a game the Pistons hope to be able to look back on a few years down the road as the night Saben Lee declared himself a bona fide NBA point guard.
“He’s competitive, he’s tough, he just sets the tone,” Dwane Casey said of Lee after the 21-year-old blew past his previous career high of 13 minutes – he did that in the first half alone – and finished with 12 points, four rebounds, five assists and three steals in nearly 33 minutes. “The whole complexion of the game changed when he came in.”
Lee brought Casey on with four minutes left in the first quarter and Smith didn’t get back in the game until the start of the second half. The same thing would’ve happened in the second half but Lee – who hadn’t played since Feb. 9 – finally got winded and sat the last minute. The Pistons must be judicious with Lee’s appearances due to his status as a two-way player with limited games available to him.
That made Lee’s immediate comfort level all the more impressive. It can’t be easy to stay close to sharp after long bouts of inactivity even for a veteran, never mind a rookie who didn’t have the benefit of typical rookie orientations like Summer League or prolonged off-season workout programs overseen by Pistons staffers.
“I felt pretty comfortable,” Lee said. “My vets and the rest of the team was very supportive and were telling me to be aggressive. They helped get me in that comfortable state.”
Casey glows when he talks about Lee, son of longtime NFL running back Amp Lee. Here’s a window into why: Asked to describe a breathtaking dunk attempt by Lee over 7-footer Nic Vucevic, who led Orlando with 37 points and 12 rebounds, Lee – who clearly took a Vucevic extended arm to the middle of his chest as the tomahawk banged off the back rim – downplayed the incident.
“I just saw a lane and tried to go and finish,” he said. “That’s a missed attempt, so it wasn’t good for the team. It was a tough loss for us, so I’m not too worried about personal plays, I guess.”
But in that play was also a glimpse into why Pistons general manager Troy Weaver and Casey are so high on Lee – not only the elite athleticism that gets Lee into the paint so often but the know-how to turn the penetration to his advantage.
“He’s a true point guard,” Casey said. “In talking to coach (Jerry) Stackhouse at Vanderbilt, he loved him. 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.”
To be sure, Lee could have doubled his five assists if the Pistons had shot it at a more typical rate from the 3-point arc than their 27.5 percent (11 of 40). There were at least a handful of times Lee made textbook passes to open 3-point shooters that yielded nothing for the Pistons.
“I thought he did everything we asked him to do,” Casey said. “Distribute the basketball. Defended his butt off. Hungry. Kept the pace where we needed it to be. Found people on kickouts. We didn’t do a good job of knocking down shots, but we had some great looks.”
Orlando got the bulk of its scoring from just three people: Vucevic with his 37, Evan Fournier with 29 and Terrence Ross off the bench with 17. The seven other Magic players combined for 22 points. The Pistons got 24 from Jerami Grant and 17 from Josh Jackson, who got up 23 shots in his 32 minutes.
But if Saben Lee’s career winds up going where the Pistons think it’s headed, all of those things are going to be footnotes to his emergence on a night the Pistons found a silver lining to the loss of their starting point guard.