Those caught by surprise when the Pistons spent the 38th pick in the 2020 draft on Saben Lee saw him for what he wasn’t. The Pistons saw him for what he was. Based on his seven-game resume in the G League, maybe even the Pistons underestimated what that could be.
Maybe. Or maybe not. Dwane Casey didn’t register much surprise that Lee has three 40-point outings and a 30.9 scoring average for his seven games spent with the Motor City Cruise this season.
“Not at all,” Casey said Tuesday when I asked him if the organization is looking at Lee any differently now than before. “That’s what the G League is for, guys to go down there and spread his wings and play. And Saben has done that.”
And done it well enough that when given a chance at a broader role with the Pistons in Sunday’s game with Brooklyn, Lee gave evidence that he’s capable of having his G League success transfer to the NBA. In nearly 28 minutes, Lee scored an efficient 17 points, hitting 7 of 13 shots and 2 of 5 from the 3-point line, to go with six rebounds, six assists and three steals.
He knows that he’s not going to have the ball in his hands as much in the NBA or be put in position to finish plays as often as he is with the Cruise, but the ability to thrive in a broader role in the G League makes all things possible at some point for him with the Pistons.
“I’m just doing whatever the coaches ask me to do,” Lee said. “In the G League, coach (D.J.) Bakker is telling me to be aggressive, make the right reads as a playmaker and when available go ahead and take it. Up here, I know there’s a lot of scorers, a lot of shooters. Whatever coach asks me to do, I’m going to do that. That’s how I navigate that.”
Saddiq Bey was part of the 2020 rookie class along with Lee, Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart and they’ve spent hundreds of hours together in and out of season in the gym. Lee’s G League success hasn’t come as any surprise to Bey.
“We work out during the summertime, training camp, pickups, workouts, whatever,” Bey said. “He scores like that and he’s that aggressive. He has a good feel. Him having that role on (the Cruise), it just heightens it even more. He can do it at any level. It’s great to see that.”
Even if Casey saw the scoring DNA within Lee, it remained to be seen how he might adapt to the NBA and the greater necessity to show the threat of a 3-point shot. In three seasons at Vanderbilt, Lee took just 28 percent of his shots from three and hit them at a 32 percent clip. As an NBA rookie, only 11 percent of his shots were threes, though he made them at a promising 35 percent clip.
Improvement as a perimeter shooter was front and center on Lee’s off-season priority list and the results are promising. In his seven G League games, Lee has taken 40 percent of his shots from the 3-point arc – 7.0 attempts a game – and hit them at an eye-opening 47.2 percent rate. It’s seven games, so it’s a little soon to campaign for Lee to be in the NBA All-Star Weekend’s 3-point contest. But the Pistons are encouraged that he’s no longer passing up open threes and thrilled that he’s been able to translate off-season concentration into game results.
“He’s worked on it and done a good job of developing his 3-point shot,” Casey said. “I don’t think anyone holds their breath any more when he shoots it because now you feel like it’s going in. There’s no limitations for him as a player.”
Lee’s strengths remain his athleticism, speed and quickness that allow him to turn the corner or get into the paint. Combine that with his tenacity and you have the stuff to be a dynamic perimeter defender. He’s got a solid frame and natural strength and a 6-foot-9 wingspan that allows him to play bigger than his listed 6-foot-2. If Lee is something less than an instinctive playmaker, he’s proving capable of growing into a perfectly competent one, at minimum. He averaged 7.4 assists in his G League stint as well as 6.1 rebounds, 2.1 steals and nearly a blocked shot per game.
“I feel like the G League has helped me a lot,” Lee said. “Going out there and being able to play to stay in rhythm.”
“That’s his area of growth, making sure he sees that next play,” Casey said. “He’s got that scoring ability. That’s already in place. Now, as a point guard, what are my reads coming off the pick and roll. He’s improved so much in that area.”