Saben Lee proving Weaver, Casey right for tabbing the Pistons rookies a ‘Core Four’
Jonathan Bachman (NBAE/Getty)
Losing a big chunk of Killian Hayes’ rookie season stands as the most disappointing inflection point of the Pistons season. But it’s no longer as bleak as it appeared in the moment on Jan. 4 when Hayes hit the floor clutching his upper right leg or a day later when an MRI confirmed it was something a little more than a muscle pull.
The Pistons know Hayes is coming back, perhaps as soon as a month or so if his rehabilitation continues on pace. And what seemed unimaginable at the time has now crystallized: A positive has emerged from a circumstance that seemed nothing but dire at the time.
The injury to Hayes and a lesser one suffered by Delon Wright have within the past week opened the door of opportunity to Dennis Smith Jr. and Saben Lee. And if the sample size of the last few games withstands a test of greater duration, then by the time the season ends in mid-May the Pistons could very well be feeling 180 degrees differently about their future at point guard than they did that night in Milwaukee when the Hayes news hit home.
The Pistons took a flier on Smith in the Derrick Rose trade, getting a second-round draft pick in addition to the No. 9 choice in the 2017 lottery. At 23 and with the same physical gifts that made him a no-doubt one-and-done star at North Carolina State and an All-Rookie selection, the Pistons get the rest of the season to decide what to do with Smith, who becomes a restricted free agent in the off-season if the Pistons extend a qualifying offer to him.
Based on his last two games, in which Smith has averaged 12.5 points and 4.0 assists while making better than half his shots and 3 of 7 from the 3-point arc with six rebounds, four steals, a blocked shot and a single turnover, he’s giving them something to think about.
The only thing they have to wonder about with Lee is how big to dream. It’s been clear from day one in the way general manager Troy Weaver and Dwane Casey talk about Lee that he’s considered by them every bit as much a part of the Pistons future as the three players taken ahead of him in the 2020 draft – Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey. Weaver called them the “Core Four,” after all, not a “Big Three” of first-rounders and then Lee as the add-on.
“He’s a leader,” Casey said of Lee after playing him 33 minutes off the bench at Orlando on Sunday to start an eye-opening three-game run. “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.”
Now it’s becoming clear to outsiders why Weaver and Casey have held that stance all along.
Saben Lee Recent Highlights
Lee has been nothing short of dynamic in his past three games, his minutes in each exceeding his previous high of 13 in a mid-January game. Over those three games, Lee is averaging 15.3 points, 4.3 assists and 2.7 steals against 1.3 turnovers on 65 percent shooting. He’s even hit 4 of 5 from the 3-point arc.
That’s impressive enough as a standalone item, but put it in context. He hadn’t played since Feb. 9, not a minute. He’d played in eight games total to that point spread across two months. Like all rookies, he didn’t have a Summer League, anything approaching a normal predraft process or any orientation with his NBA team until he showed up for training camp in early December.
In normal circumstances, Lee probably would have 20 G League games under his belt by this point to adjust to the role he’s being asked to fill. Lee’s calling card is his upper-end athleticism – take a look at him rising to dunk on Nikola Vucevic, thwarted only because Vucevic stuck an arm in Lee’s chest mid-flight – but he lasted to the 38th pick because the NBA at large wasn’t sure how he would harness it and whether he’d shoot well enough to turn it to his advantage.
Those were going to be the tools Lee would polish in the G League, not in the glare of NBA games. That he’s figured out how to do it in practices limited by the rigor of the NBA schedule and individual workouts speaks to his diligence and aptitude. He studied Rose and Wright, he said, and from them saw how he could change gears to play at a pace the moment demands.
“The biggest challenge was just knowing pace and knowing it’s a fast-paced league and knowing how to slow things down,” Lee said this week of the powers of observation. “Also, mentally looking at things. In workouts, it’s important to go game speed. We get a lot of live reps in workouts. That helps me personally. I was there to watch D-Rose when he was there and watch how he plays with his poise and then Delon. Having two great veteran point guards I can watch, day in and day out, and try to mimic some things they do, I feel like that helped me a lot.”
“He stayed ready,” the 19-year-old Stewart said of his teammate. There’s a readily evident bond the four Pistons rookies share already and Stewart – who is as uncomfortable talking about himself as his rookie teammates are – visibly brightened when asked about Lee for seizing his opportunity with both hands. “Not playing a few games and come right in and make that impact. I know he has that in him. Wasn’t expecting different.”
Those rookies are all rooting hard for Hayes to make the “Core Four” whole again by season’s end. The guy drafted 31 spots after Hayes went in the lottery is proving the general manager who picked him and the coach who extols his character right for considering Saben Lee as much a part of the Pistons future as the three first-rounders picked ahead of him.