In each of the games in the past week or two, the rookies each have had a positive outing and something to make the coaching staff and fans nod their heads and file away for later.
On Tuesday night, it was Saben Lee’s run. He had his best scoring game of his rookie season and looked to be more comfortable in finding his shot and getting others involved in the offense. With 22 points on 7-of-9 shooting, he was efficient and effective without having to score from beyond the 3-point arc.
Lee’s eight free throws were a season high and provided a capper to a season that looked from the outset to be mostly closing minutes of games and sporadic or inconsequential playing time. It’s been anything but.
He’s found a spot where he fits in the rotation as a solid backup point guard, but there are pieces of his game that Lee will work on this summer. That will enable him to be a more solid contributor next season as a setup man and potentially a better scorer off the bench.
With Killian Hayes’ return, Lee has had fluctuating playing time, but in a new wrinkle, he’s playing alongside Hayes, who is more of a combo guard and additional facilitator. So far, the results are good, but there’s more work to do.
“When you’re out and watching, you can learn from a different perspective,” Lee said. “It was beneficial seeing from a different perspective, being able to watch and analyze the game, watch a lot of film and see how different point guards operate around the league.”
Coach Dwane Casey and the coaching staff will provide specific target areas for improvement, but Lee’s will include having more confidence in his jump shot and making defenders pay for lagging off him on the perimeter. They’ll also push him to get stronger to be able to absorb more contact and to finish through that contact.
The season’s not over yet, and just as he did Tuesday, there is still more opportunity to show what’s in his bag.
“Just finish out this season strong and continue to improve in all aspects and improve on my shooting,” Lee said. “Watch a lot of film to see what I can improve on, like pick-and-roll, playmaking for others and continuing to make the right reads.
“I’ll talk to the coaching staff to see what they saw and what I need to improve on. That’s my mindset going into the offseason.”
Doumbouya hitting stride
Sekou Doumbouya also has had a quiet resurgence toward the end of the season. While there were higher expectations for Doumbouya’s second season, he’s had to contend for playing time behind Blake Griffin earlier in the season, and then Jerami Grant and Saddiq Bey at the forward spots.
He’s been patient and now that more minutes are available, he’s showing the skill set that has impressed the coaching staff and what helped make him into a first-round pick last year. It’s taken some maturing and personal growth, but Doumbouya is rounding into form.
“The key with Sekou is consistency, being on time, doing what he’s supposed to, when he’s supposed to do it,” Casey said. “Running the floor as hard as he’s capable of — he’s one of the best in the league, or if he’s cutting consistently the way he can. That’s the key words for him, consistency, and he’s done that.
“Every once in a while, he’ll slide back and forth, but growing up, that’s part of it, the maturity. I see a big difference in his personality and his approach to the game, his work ethic versus last year.”
The inconsistency has been the hallmark of the end of last season and into his second season but if Doumbouya can string some of those strong efforts together, he can carve out a niche for himself as one of the key reserves next season on a team that could look very much the same, with another year of experience.
“Last year, he had a great couple of weeks and then he went down a little bit,” Casey said. “This year, he’s been consistent and what hasn’t been consistent is his opportunity to play. We didn’t have the G League for him to go and play so he didn’t get a lot of minutes in games where Jerami and Saddiq were playing.”
NUGGETS AT PISTONS
Tipoff: 8 Friday
Outlook: The Pistons (20-50) will be even more shorthanded with Isaiah Stewart (personal) sitting out and only eight or nine players active. The Nuggets (45-24) are in the hunt for the No. 3 seed in the West with three games remaining.