Saben Lee was projected to go undrafted, surprise 2nd-round pick, now an NBA starter — this could be the start of something special

Detroit Bad Boys

During his three seasons at Vanderbilt, Saben Lee become famous – well, at least among draft geeks who keep a close enough eye on the NCAA to scout potential undrafted free agents – for attacking the paint at will, slicing defenses into pieces with his athleticism, a stunning dribble and handsome footwork.

His insane, for a player standing at 6-foot-2, junior numbers of 54.8% of shots taken at the rim, converted at a 60.4% clip, and 49.8 FTr weren’t supposed to translate to the next level against defenders who are faster, bigger, and stronger. It looked like he was on his way to being an undrafted free agent, maybe getting a look by a team but not catching a break and then, hey, there is always playing overseas.

But then Detroit Pistons General Manager Troy Weaver, who by wheeling and dealing had already secured what now looks like two steals of that draft, decided to take Lee with the 38th pick.

Even though most called it an overdraft, it looks like Troy has struck gold with Lee, along with higher-profile rookies Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey. The former Vandy guard is currently playing way above his draft slot (it should be noted, Weaver reportedly had a first-round grade on Lee). In his rookie season, Saben is showing that his incredible ability to attack the rim can be his calling card also in the NBA.

Lee is taking 47.8% of his shots in the restricted area. He has a 57.4 FG% there, which is a bit below average but for a player who shoots so often from there, it’s still enough to make him only slightly below league average in TS% of 55.6 TS%. His athleticism (now visibly complemented with additional strength), ball handling abilities and capacity to make good reads and quick reactions make his drives a very tough cover for the league’s top defenders. For them too, the only way to stop him often is to foul him – a 54.9 FTr.

As good as this already is, it can still be even better. As we can see on film, sometimes it’d be better if he could settle for a pull-up jumper instead running into blast radius of rim protectors and being blocked or stacked in no-man’s land.

So when Lee develops a reliable jumper, even if only in the mid-range, he’ll become even more lethal offensive weapon. And at the moment, this is a work in progress. So far, he has one shot — slice to the rim with some occassional encouraging signals from the perimeter.

The sample size is still small, the form probably will have to be changed or at least tweaked some when the offseason arrives, and his FT% of 64.5 might be seen as discouraging, but by making 6-of-11 triples, he shows some potential.

It’d help as well if he could have more reliable floater game. He’s much closer here, as the volume is much bigger (he took 19 floaters from the paint, non-RA) and efficiency (36.8 FG%) isn’t so bad.

Developing those two ingredients (a pull-up and floater) to the point where he could fall back on them when opponents cut off the paint, would open even more driving lanes. He could attack the rack more effectively, force defenders to react, and then even more opportunities preset themselves.

Saben’s ability to attack the basket is only a part of his repertoire.

A noticeable part of his scoring inside comes because he is making good moves off ball. In his last season at Vanderbilt, 23.4 of his makes at the rim were assisted, now it’s 38.7. He looks particularly potent in cuts.

Next, he looks like a natural facilitator.

His AST% of 29.9 is a bit lower than in his last college season (31.9). But to achieve it, he uses only 17.9% of team plays while in his junior year he had 29.4 USG%. And he’s taking better care of the ball – 14.6 in comparison to 16.2 TOV%.

Lee is also exceeding expectations on the defensive end of the floor. At the collegiate level you wouldn’t peg him as a plus defender, but from his first steps in an NBA game, Lee has shown himself to be a very competent defender. His athleticism and skillfulness are of great use on that end of the floor as is his 6-foot-9 wingspan.

His on-ball D looks to be off the charts. Watch how fast he moves on his feet, how well he navigates and fights through screens, and how aggressively he tries to swipe from his opponent the ball.

It’s no surprise that he’s in 80th percentile defending the ball-handler in P&Rs. His adversaries are able to score a scare 0.77 PPP against him in these situations.

His nimbleness and activity make him dangerous in passing lanes.

A 2 STL% (Basketball Reference) looks very feisty against the background of the whole NBA. And his active hands produce 2.5 deflections per 36 minutes.

The young fella is also great at drawing charges.

The 0.4 figure per 36 minutes puts him in narrow elite among best hoopers in the world – he’s 24th to be precise.

Although being a little behind at contesting shots (with 5.6 contested shots per 36 minutes), the ex-Commodore is very good at contesting spot up shooters.

As we can see, his long arms can make it very tough for perimeter shooters, even taller ones. With 0.90 PPP he lets them to score against him, he sits in the 77th percentile in this regard.

From undrafted project to surprise second-rounder, to NBA starting point guard making his mark in various facets of the game, Saben Lee is transitioning smoothly and quickly to the next level. He’s still someone who can drive to the basket in an instant, but he’s also becoming a capable facilitator and defender. Put it all together and you get an impactful NBA player and legitimate young NBA prospect who could carve out a real role and career for himself during Detroit’s rebuild. And if he ever develops a reliable jump shot, watch out.

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