Detroit Pistons rookie Saben Lee is a lion on the court: He’ll ‘dunk on anybody’

Detroit Free Press

Omari Sankofa II
| Detroit Free Press

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Saben Lee was a model citizen at Vanderbilt — polite, a little quiet, open to coaching and fun to be around, according to his former coaches. 

On the court, his personality is different. 

“A lot of times, you’ll meet someone as polite as Saben and you’ll think that he’s going to be soft,” Bryce Drew, who recruited Lee to Vanderbilt and coached him during his first two seasons, told the Free Press. “In the basketball world, I’ve coached quite a few players and he’s probably tried to dunk on more people than anyone I’ve ever coached. Even though you’re polite off the court, you can be a lion on the court. At his size, he’s not scared to go try to dunk on anybody.”

In three years, Lee stood out as one of most athletic guards in college basketball. The 6-foot-2 combo guard was a threat to dunk on defenders of any size. 

READ MORE: Pistons take Saben Lee at No. 38: What ESPN analysts say about the pick

Lee, the son of former NFL running back Amp Lee, lived in the paint. His athleticism and long wingspan helped him excel as a driver and finisher. He’s one of the best scorers to come out of Vanderbilt, ranking 23rd on its all-time scoring list. As a junior last season, he averaged 18.6 points and 4.2 assists per game. 

Even though he didn’t appear on many mock drafts, he drew attention from NBA teams. The Detroit Pistons made it a priority to draft him, selecting him 38th overall in the 2020 draft in November, after a trade with the Utah Jazz to acquire the pick. They signed him to a two-way contract, meaning he can be shuttled from the G League to the Pistons’ roster all season.

Lee had a strong interview with the Pistons during the predraft process, and as a long, athletic guard with defensive upside, he fit the mold Troy Weaver has been looking for in his first year as general manager.

Drew, Lee’s coach as a freshman and sophomore and is now the head coach at Grand Canyon, said he was near tears after watching Lee get drafted and accomplish his dream of making the NBA. And former Pistons star Jerry Stackhouse, who was hired as Vanderbilt’s head coach in 2019 and coached Lee during his junior season, is confident Detroit is the perfect place for him to realize his potential. 

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‘He’s extremely disciplined in his lifestyle’

After a standout career at Florida State, Amp Lee was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the second round of the 1992 NFL draft. He played in the NFL for nine seasons and stood out as a pass-catcher. Saben was born in July of 1999, toward the end of his dad’s career. 

Saben’s approach to the game of basketball reflects his upbringing, Drew said. gave him a four-star grade coming out of Corona Del Sol High School in Tempe, Arizona in 2017. His speed and athleticism stood out, as well as his work ethic. He would get extra reps and drills in before and after practices. 

“He’s extremely disciplined in his lifestyle, just how he lives, how he sleeps, how he eats, how he trains,” Drew said. “That discipline was passed from his parents, so he’s been around. Obviously his dad being a professional, he’s been around that world and he understands it just from growing up with his dad.

“He has an element of toughness to him with his dad playing in the NFL. His dad passed that onto him that toughness. So he’s not afraid of contact, he’s not afraid of confrontation at the rim.”

It helped Lee start 29 of the 32 games he played as a freshman. He had improvements to make as a shooter and needed to add muscle and weight, but was adept at beating defenders off-the-dribble and creating looks for teammates. He averaged 10.6 points and shot 53.6% inside the arc, with many of his shots coming at the rim. 

Lee’s role shifted at the beginning of his sophomore season, when eventual 2019 Cleveland Cavaliers lottery pick Darius Garland settled into the starting point guard position. Lee was initially tasked with figuring out how to impact the game offensively without the ball. 

That experiment didn’t last long, as a knee injury ended Garland’s season after five games. Lee started all 32 games and was a better player in key areas, improving as a 3-point shooter (36.2% on 2.2 attempts per game, up from 30.7% as a freshman) and increasing his free throws per game from 3.7 to 6.1 — one of the highest marks in college basketball for a point guard

Drew wasn’t surprised to hear Lee’s name called during the draft. He recalled all of the conversations he had with him, pointing out the plays he made and missed, and working with him in the gym to put on weight and add strength. 

He knew Lee had the tools to do it. Now, Lee has the opportunity. 

“When his name got called, you always want good people and people who do it the right way, work extremely hard to see their dreams come true,” Drew said. “For him, he’s at the top of that list because he lives the right way. He prepares for basketball games and prepares the right way. He’s just a terrific young man. It was near tears just knowing all of the three years, how we had talked about that dream. It was all him and his camp, his parents, how much they invested in him growing up and instilled in him, man. It was a great night all-around.”

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Diamond in the rough

When Jerry Stackhouse was hired as Vanderbilt’s head coach in April of 2019, he inherited a team that went 0-18 in SEC play a season prior. Stackhouse entered with an open mind and paid attention to how his players approached the game in the gym. 

One of his biggest rotation decisions was figuring out how to handle his guard rotation. Aaron Nesmith, drafted 14th overall by the Boston Celtics this past draft, was ready for a larger role after starting 19 games as a freshman the previous season. Incoming freshman Scotty Pippen Jr., son of former Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen, was also in the mix for a featured role. 

Stackhouse decided to make Lee his sixth man, with Pippen starting alongside Nesmith. Stackhouse’s rationale was he would be able to run Lee for longer stretches in the second half, when his experience and proven shotmaking would be key. Pippen, two years younger and the future of the point guard position, benefitted from the starting role. 

“He probably wasn’t the happiest about it, because he had been the starter up to this point,” Stackhouse said. “But he accepted the role that I felt was best suited for us in the long term of the program and where we needed to go. That was nice to know that no matter what role is asked of him, that’s he’s willing to accept it just to try to have success for the team. That speaks volumes for who he is as a person.”

An injury forced the coaching staff to alter Lee’s role. Nesmith had surgery Jan. 28, ending his season. Lee was inserted back into the starting lineup, and had one of the best-scoring seasons in school history despite coming off of the bench during the first 15 games. He averaged career-highs in points (18.2) and shots (12.9), and had his most efficient season with a 58% true shooting mark. 

It solidified him as an NBA prospect, and the Pistons were one of several teams that eyed him. 

Stackhouse has had a good relationship with Pistons coach Dwane Casey since 2015, when Stackhouse was hired as an assistant coach to Casey’s staff with the Toronto Raptors. A year later, Stackhouse became the coach of Raptors 905 in the G League.

The Pistons and Raptors both showed interest in Lee last season, so Stackhouse had a good feeling he was going to end draft night on an NBA roster. Detroit had in-person interviews with both Lee and Nesmith, and Lee’s interview with the Pistons was especially strong, Stackhouse said.

It helped that Stackhouse and Casey use a lot of the same basketball terminology, due to Stackhouse bringing much of what he learned during his time in Toronto to Vanderbilt.

“Playing under coach Stackhouse definitely allowed me to experience a lot of pro sets, pro ways of going about things in college,” Lee said during his introductory news conference. “It was definitely a blessing to be able to play under him. Coach Stackhouse was with coach Casey with his previous team and I was able to learn some similarities in coaching styles and drills. There’s definitely some benefits in that for sure.” 

Stackhouse made two All-Star teams with the Pistons in 2000-01, so he takes pride in seeing Lee get an opportunity with his former team. He knows Casey has a great track record for developing young players, and the Pistons have been vocal in their belief that Lee, along with the rest of the young players, have the talent and character to put Detroit back on a championship path. 

Similar to how Toronto has had great success developing young players, Stackhouse believes Lee can turn into a key player for the Pistons in time. 

“He’s with a coach that believes in development and a coach that has a soft spot for the underdog,” Stackhouse said. “You look at the Fred VanVleet’s and those types of guys, those are guys that Casey gravitated to and you see how those guys turned out. I think Saben can be another one of those diamonds in the rough that didn’t go in the first round, but could wind up being one of the jewels of this 2020 draft.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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