Frank Jackson understands the G League grind.
The Detroit Pistons‘ sharpshooter spent brief time with Texas Legends in 2018-19. He experienced the long bus rides, smaller crowds and preparation level necessary to bring that experience up to the NBA.
Saben Lee is experiencing that life now. The second-year guard has been a superstar with the Motor City Cruise this season, leading the G League with 30.6 points per game. His efficiency has been elite, shooting 50.8% from the field and 47.2% on 3-pointers. Lee is also averaging 7.7 assists, six rebounds and three combined blocks and steals with the Cruise.
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The Pistons are deep at the guard positions, so Lee has had to wait for his opportunities with the parent club. He had only appeared in 10 games with the Pistons before Sunday, and most of his minutes had come in garbage time.
Injuries opened the door for him to re-join the Pistons on Sunday, and he delivered his best performance of the season in a competitive game against the Brooklyn Nets, an Eastern Conference contender. Lee finished the night with 17 points, six rebounds and six assists, and helped Detroit take control of the game by scoring 10 points in the third quarter before the team faltered in the fourth and fell, 116-104.
Jerami Grant will miss six weeks with an injured right thumb, and Dwane Casey made several rotation adjustments on Sunday. Lee was one of the biggest beneficiaries of Casey’s rotation changes, supplanting Cory Joseph as the primary backup point guard.
“He’s one of the hardest workers on our team,” Jackson said. “He’s continuing to get his reps in, bouncing from the G League isn’t easy and he’s been able to really step up and grow. I think he’s just continuing to get better and better. That’s how you stick in this league. I think he’s on a good trajectory and is a good kid, does all of the little things.”
Lee’s athleticism and physicality provides a contrast from Detroit’s other two young point guards, Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes. Neither players possess quick first steps or above-average leaping ability. Those things were on display for Lee, particularly during the third quarter. He shot 4-for-8, had three assists and two steals during the period.
He entered the game early in the third after Hayes re-tweaked his sprained left thumb, which caused him to miss four games late in November as the coaching staff opted to give it a chance to rest. The Pistons couldn’t maintain their momentum, as Brooklyn opened the fourth quarter with a 19-1 run to take over the game.
“I thought Saben came in and steadied the ship and did a good job of making plays for everybody else and himself,” Casey said. “He was just in the G League last week, now he’s out there going against Kevin Durant. It’s a big jump, but it’s all a learning experience for all of our guys.
“His speed, his ability to go around people,” Casey continued. “I thought that was something that helped us. Probably a little bit of a surprise for them too, seeing him come in. I thought he did an excellent job of righting the ship, of making plays, making the right decisions. At the same time, all of our guys have to grow when it becomes winning time.”
It isn’t yet clear if Lee will now be a permanent fixture in the rotation. Sunday was Joseph’s first “Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision” of the season, and only the second game he’s missed. Lee’s energy in the third helped the Pistons win the quarter by a 34-26 margin. If Hayes ends up missing more time, it’ll position Lee to receive more minutes.
Lee said his time with the Cruise has helped him, and he’s willing to do whatever the coaching staff asks of him.
“Obviously in the G League, coach (DJ) Bakker is telling me to be aggressive, make the right reads and play-make and when it’s available for me, go ahead and take it,” Lee said. “I know up here there’s a lot of scorers, a lot of shooters and just whatever coach asks me to do, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s how I navigate that.”
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