Saben Lee’s dad spent nine seasons in the NFL on his ability to slither through the narrowest of cracks. Amp Lee’s son showed on basketball’s most historic stage that he’s poised to squeeze through whatever opening injuries to a few of his more ballyhooed teammates allows him.
With Cade Cunningham and Killian Hayes missing at Madison Square Garden, Lee got the start against the Knicks on Wednesday and helped put the Pistons in position to win. With Saddiq Bey also sitting out and Dwane Casey more focused on finding playing time for young players than Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, New York overcame an eight-point deficit late in the third quarter to finish with a 108-100 win.
But the Pistons left New York feeling a lot better about themselves than following their Monday loss at Memphis and Lee was a big part of that. He finished a perfect 4 of 4 from the 3-point arc and while that’s a wonderful beacon of things to come for his career, Lee’s carrying tools are his ability to harness his speed and athleticism to set the pace Casey wants on offense and being a disruptive influence on defense.
“I just wanted to pick up full court, be active on defense and then offensively just making sure I get the ball where it needs to be,” Lee said after his 14-point, five-assist performance that included two steals and a single turnover in 28 minutes against a typically abrasive Knicks defense. “Set the table, organize the offense and make sure the pace is a fast pace.”
“That’s exactly what he did,” Casey said. “He handled their pressure. That was one thing I was impressed with – the approach against their physicality. I thought he took what the game gave him with the threes. He got us into our plays and into sets we needed to have. He also had five assists and one turnover, which was huge.”
The game turned when Casey pulled Jerami Grant, who led the Pistons with 18 points, with four minutes left in the third quarter, freeing Knicks star Julius Randle – who finished first to Grant’s second in Most Improved Player balloting last season – to explode for 11 points before the quarter ended and turn an eight-point Pistons lead into a five-point deficit.
“That’s when the game kind of got away from us,” Casey said. “They kept their starters in. We kind of approached it as an exhibition game. Wanted to make sure we got everybody some burn. I liked our disposition. No substitute for winning, but totally different disposition than the way we presented in Memphis. That’s what we’re looking for.”
Josh Jackson and Frank Jackson stepped into the starting spots Cunningham and Bey are ticketed to fill and both showed why they’re strong candidates to carve out roles off Casey’s bench. Josh Jackson finished with 10 points, five rebounds and four assists though his 1 of 7 from the 3-point line was par for the course on a night the Pistons hit just 30 percent with Lee accounting for four of their 11 makes. Frank Jackson, a 41 percent 3-point shooter last season, missed his first four before hitting two late, though he chipped in 15 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
And undrafted rookie Jamorko Pickett continued to validate the Pistons’ decision to lock him up on a two-way contract, flashing with seven points and five rebounds in 10 active first-half minutes.
“I definitely feel like I belong here,” said Pickett, who played many times on Madison Square Garden’s court over his four years at Georgetown. “I’m here now and every single day, every single game, I’m going to prove I belong here.”
He’ll have to follow the same path as Lee, who spent his rookie season on a two-way deal with the Pistons and now is poised for a bigger role – perhaps even after Cunningham and Hayes get back from the injured list. The Pistons love Lee’s makeup, Casey often saying last season he exuded the most in the way of leadership qualities among the four 2020-21 rookies. He’s as serious a student of the game as they have on the roster and, typically, he was down to earth about his showing at MSG.
“Personally, I feel there were a couple of decisions I could’ve made better, just finishing at the rim and seeing kickouts,” Lee said. “Other than that, I’m going to try to get my teammates involved and make the right play.”