Damion Lee’s Patience and Persistence Pays Off
Damion Lee and the Golden State Warriors signed a deal that would keep the 27-year-old guard with the team for multiple seasons after reaching the 45-day limit on his two-way contract.
Lee is in the middle of his second season with the Golden State Warriors. Just like last season, he joined the Dubs on a two-way contract, which meant Lee would split his time between Golden State and their G League affiliate Santa Cruz Warriors. Such contracts come with a stipulation that the player can spend no more than 45 days with their NBA team.
The difference between this season and last: Lee hit that limit in early January during the 2019-20 campaign. But as of Jan. 15, Lee will move forward with the Golden State Warriors on a new contract and as a more permanent member of the team.
On Jan. 8 after practice, Lee said of himself: “I’m 27. Most people got or are in their prime. But I feel like I’m just starting to figure out who I am and what I can bring to a team.”
“I was a late bloomer starting the game anyway. Probably should have listened to my mom more when I was younger… But everyone has their own story and has their own way of going about life. Some people get it early and some people get it late. But it’s just a matter of when you get it, what you do with it,” he said.
And Lee did listen to his mother as she helped him discover himself: “My mom always taught me no matter what happens in this world, know who you are and know yourself and know your worth. I’ve always been a risk taker and always believed in myself and believed in those who believe in me.”
One could say the Warriors took a risk on Lee when they signed him to his first two-way contract with the club in 2018 after playing for the Santa Cruz Warriors for the 2017-18 season. Despite being a top scorer through his college career with Drexel (2011-15) and Louisville (2015-16) and first season in the G League (2016-17), Lee had suffered two separate ACL tears and a broken hand through his career. But the Dubs would find out what Lee was capable of while he spent time with the Santa Cruz Warriors.
During his time with the Golden State G League affiliate, play-by-play commentator Kevin Dana watched Lee’s development closely from his first appearance with the team in 2017 and on. When asked for comment on what he saw in Lee, he said: “I love Damion Lee… Big, big fan of him.”
“I was definitely happy to see him get a two-way with us last season, and now that he was coming in 100 percent, you could tell that he was legit.”
Lee was. Though he posted averages of 4.9 points and 2.0 rebounds in limited time with Golden State in the 2018-19 season, Lee was clutch in Santa Cruz. In 24 games in the G League, two years removed from his second major knee injury, he led the team with 20.3 points with 6.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.3 steals.
But Dana noted that Lee’s break-out game did not come with Santa Cruz, but rather in a game with Golden State last March, towards the end of his first season with the Dubs: “Where I really thought ‘hey now, Damion Lee is a legit rotation NBA player’ is the game at Philly last year on ABC Primetime when he scored 12 points and hit four-of-five three-pointers in a big, big win. I knew he was deserving of a two-way contract, but that game made me say ‘he's good enough to be on a standard deal and get meaningful NBA minutes.’”
The success Lee had through his career, from prep school through his 2018-19 campaign could have been rewarded with an opportunity to play with another NBA team this past summer. Lee was a free agent and able to sign with any club. However, nothing came to fruition.
Dana said of Lee’s offseason free agency: “The fact that nobody gave him a standard NBA deal last offseason was one of the biggest injustices of the NBA offseason. He had played well in enough games last year for Golden State for someone to give him a veteran's minimum.”
Without a guaranteed NBA contract, Lee returned to Golden State on another two-way deal for the 2019-20 season.
But the determined Lee would not let his contract situation get him down. As he said in a Warriors interview this season: “The main thing about being a two-way [player] is never losing confidence. If you are on a two-way, even though it says ‘two-way contract,’ you’re in that position for a reason. Never lose sight of what your ultimate goal is. You don’t have to run away if things seem difficult or things seem hard because at the end of the day, this thing we do for a job, this thing we do for a living is hard.”
Despite Santa Cruz’s close proximity to Chase Center in San Francisco’s Mission Bay, the time spent traveling between the two clubs and their games takes its toll. Lee said of his time on two-way contracts: “The life of a two-way player — going a couple games up here with Golden State then having to drive down to Santa Cruz, playing in Santa Cruz, and then maybe catching a flight out of San Jose to meet the team in Indiana — it’s more mentally taxing than it is physically. You just take those bumps and bruises as it is and just know that that’s going to make for a better testimonial and a better story in the backend.”
Now, Lee’s story will continue with the Golden State Warriors and Dub Nation on his new NBA contract.
“I’m just excited for the opportunity to go out there, play five-on-five, play at Chase Center, play in front of these fans, have this jersey on and be an NBA player,” said Lee earlier this season while still on the two-way contract.
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Despite success at the prep and high school levels, he chose to attend Drexel University, a Division I school in the Colonial Athletic Association starting with the 2011-12 academic year. He stood out in the smaller conference, earning the CAA Rookie of the Year award and Second-Team All-CAA honors over his first two collegiate seasons.
But his third year took a turn when a torn ACL ended his season early. Then in his fourth year at Drexel, while averaging 21.4 points per game which ranked fourth in the nation, Lee suffered a fractured hand to end his season early once again.
Unfazed by the hardships, Lee transfered to perennial powerhouse Louisville for his final year of eligibility. He would become the team’s top scorer that season with 15.9 points per game and land on the watchlist for the Naismith Trophy, an award given annually to the college player of the year.
And yet, Lee wasn’t selected in the 2016 NBA Draft. After playing with the Miami Heat through Summer League and then joining the Boston Celtics for the 2016-17 preseason, he found himself with the Maine Red Claws of the NBA G League. He averaged a solid 17.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.1 steals, but would once again suffer a season-ending ACL tear.
While recovering from his second major knee injury, he would be dealt away from Maine as part of a three-team trade. His destination for the 2017-2018 season: Santa Cruz, Golden State’s G League affiliate. Despite coming off of the torn ACL, Lee averaged 29.7 minutes over 38 games while averaging 15.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals.
His success did not go unnoticed as the Atlanta Hawks signed Lee to a 10-day contract on Mar. 13. After another 10-day contract, the Hawks went on to sign Lee for the remainder of the 2017-18 season. In Lee’s rookie year, he finished with a respectable 10.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals in his 15 NBA games, 11 of which were starts. That included a start against the Golden State Warriors on Mar. 23 when he posted 10 points and eight rebounds.
However, that would not be enough to earn an NBA contract elsewhere the following summer. Lee would return to a team he knew when he signed his first two-way contract with the Warriors in 2018. He split time between both teams, notably averaging 20.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.3 steals with Santa Cruz.
Lee returned to the Warriors on another two-way contract for the 2019-20 season, and injuries to the team’s All-Star backcourt granted him more minutes and 13 starting assignments with Golden State.
After averaging 10 points through his first 11 games of the current season, Lee would have deja vu all over again as he suffered a broken hand on Nov. 11 against the Utah Jazz, forcing him to miss the Warriors’ next 14 games while rehabbing the injury.
But as has been the story of Lee’s career, he rebounded from the injury. In the 15 games after his return to the hardwood on Dec. 11, Lee averaged 14.1 points, 1.6 treys, and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 37 percent on 3-pointers. In that span, Lee recorded his first and second career double-doubles and four games with 20-or-more points.
Now on Jan. 15, he joins the Warriors on a multi-year NBA contract.
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