Omari Sankofa II | Detroit Free Press
It was primed to be Dennis Smith Jr.’s night. The former 2017 lottery pick started his first game in nearly a year Sunday, with Detroit Pistons guard Delon Wright missing his first of what will be several games with a right groin sprain.
Instead, Smith’s backup stole the show. Two-way guard Saben Lee played more minutes and put together the best performance of his career in a 105-96 loss to the Orlando Magic. Lee finished with career highs in points (12), rebounds (4) and assists (5), and brought the Pistons back into the game after checking in toward the end of the first quarter.
Jerami Grant led the Pistons with 24 points, and Josh Jackson added 17 points and 10 rebounds off of the bench. Nicola Vucevic led the Magic with 37 points.
Saben Lee takes over in second quarter, delivers career night
Lee entered the game shortly after the four-minute mark of the first quarter, after a quiet early showing by Smith. Lee had appeared in just eight games going into Sunday and hadn’t played since he logged garbage time minutes Feb. 9 against the Brooklyn Nets. He was immediately involved as a playmaker, finding Jackson and Saddiq Bey open for drive-and-kick 3-pointers that didn’t fall. His efforts were eventually rewarded, though.
He took over the game in the next quarter, scoring or assisting 16 of Detroit’s 22 points scored in the second period. Lee’s passing looked sharper than it has all season, as he consistently located shooters and delivered accurate passes after getting downhill. He leveraged his athleticism well, beating defenders and keeping his hand up to reward his shooters.
Lee did a good job using his body to finish at the rim, too. It was his most-involved game as a scorer, and he scored efficiently by making four of his seven attempts. He nearly had the dunk of the season coming close to flushing a dunk on Vucevic in the second quarter. His head was at the rim. It didn’t fall, but it seems likely he’ll get one eventually.
Before the game, head coach Dwane Casey said that while Smith would start, the Pistons will fill their point guard position with a by-committee approach. The Pistons have to be cognizant of Lee’s allotment of days, since he’s limited to 50 for the season as a two-way player. But Friday he outplayed Smith and could force Casey to make additional lineup decisions depending on how Smith responds.
Dennis Smith has shaky first start
Sunday marked the beginning of Smith’s second-full week with the Pistons. He’s shown some flashes of being a positive contributor, but is still finding his rhythm after missing more than a week of practice prior to the trade.
His first start showed he still has a way to go. He finished with six points, two assists and two steals in 15 minutes, and logged less than half the minutes that Lee did. Casey stuck with Lee during the entire second quarter after Smith subbed out after eight first-quarter minutes, and Lee also logged significant minutes after halftime.
Smith found some momentum in the third quarter, knocking down back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the deficit to six. But it wasn’t the step forward he needed to maintain his spot in the rotation. He should still receive ample time to bounce back, as he’s one of just two healthy point guards on the roster with Wright’s injury, Killian Hayes’ injury and the trade of Derrick Rose.
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