Omari Sankofa II | Detroit Free Press
Minnesota Timberwolves rookie guard and 2020 No. 1 draft pick Anthony Edwards might’ve had the best dunk of the season on Friday, when he knocked over Toronto Raptors forward Yuta Watanabe midway through a right-handed tomahawk.
Saben Lee nearly topped it on Sunday. The Detroit Pistons’ rookie guard exploded down the middle of the lane and almost completed a similar right-handed tomahawk on Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic. If Vucevic didn’t extend an arm out and push Lee away from the rim, he might’ve finished the dunk.
After the game, Lee didn’t show much excitement about nearly setting NBA Twitter on fire. The play didn’t produce any points, after all.
“I just saw the lane and tried to go up,” Lee said after the best game of his young career. “That’s a missed attempt, so it wasn’t good for the team.”
Lee on Sunday set career highs in points (12), assists (5), rebounds (4), steals (3) and minutes played (33) during the Pistons’ 105-96 loss to the Magic on Sunday. Dennis Smith Jr. was moved into the starting lineup due to Delon Wright’s injury, but Lee ended up logging more minutes and having a bigger influence on the game.
Lee’s highlight missed dunk, and subsequent maturity about it, was a microcosm of his night. He looked very comfortable driving downhill and either finishing against bigger defenders or delivering accurate passes to his shooters. Despite playing just 70 minutes over the course of eight games to Sunday, the second-round pick showed few signs of rust or unreadiness.
“He’s a true point guard,” Casey said. “He’s a true point. Talking to coach (Jerry) Stackhouse at Vanderbilt, he loved him. He’s a leader. He’s a leader, he plays with pure heart. There’s no ‘me’ in his game whatsoever. That’s something that comes out when he’s out on the floor.
“He has that leadership. He’s learning, he’s young, he’s a rookie. Like a lot of our guys, they’re doing some good things. Just not enough to win in the NBA right now. That’s gonna come, that’s gonna come.”
Casey subbed Smith out of the game near the four-minute mark of the first quarter, after a quiet early showing. Lee, along with fellow rookie Isaiah Stewart, brought a jolt of energy. Lee’s best quarter was the second quarter, in which he scored or assisted 16 of Detroit’s 22 points in the period.
One of the best athletes in the draft, his quickness was his best attribute. He was consistently able to beat his defender and find lanes to the rim, which he often used to create open shot attempts for his teammates. The Pistons left a few of his potential assists on the table by missing clean 3-pointers.
“We didn’t do a good job of knocking down shots but we had some great looks,” Casey said. “That’s how we have to play. I thought he and Jerami (Grant) both did a great job of going in and kicking out and making sure we found the shooters. Some nights we hit them, tonight we didn’t. Tonight we had some great looks. I thought Saddiq (Bey) had some great looks he normally makes and will make. But that’s what I saw in Saben. He’s competitive, he’s tough and the whole complexion of the game changed when he came in.”
Casey said before the game that he’ll continue to assess his point guard rotation with Wright, who suffered a grade two right groin strain Friday against the Memphis Grizzlies, and Killian Hayes, who in January tore his labrum in his right hip, both recovering from their injuries. Smith, despite his struggles Sunday, is still firmly in the mix as the only other healthy point guard on the roster. Detroit’s other two-way guard, Frank Jackson, and Rodney McGruder could also see time at the position.
“Dennis is still among that group that we’re going to evaluate,” Casey said. “We just gotta get a state of stability with that group without injury, just seems like every year it’s been something. It is next man up and Saben’s taking advantage of it, as is Dennis.
“Like to see what Frank can do in there also as a (combo guard) and also Rodney. Rodney has also done a good job with it. We got some people in there that can play it. A little bit out of kilter with all the injuries. That’s what this year is for, find out what we have and compete at a high level.”