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After dominating in G League, Saben Lee back with Pistons

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Detroit — The numbers are somewhat outrageous: 113 points in 116 minutes and 37.7 points per game. It’s 51% on field goals and 52% on 3-pointers, plus 82% from the free-throw line.

Of course, it’s a small sample size, but Saben Lee has dominated in his short time with the Motor City Cruise this season. He opened with a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Charge and followed with 31 and 40 points against the Wisconsin Herd.

Pistons guard Saben Lee (38) drives between Grizzlies forwards Brandon Clarke, left, and Jaren Jackson Jr. (13).

Lee, a second-round pick in the 2020 draft, is making his mark in the G League, but he’s still waiting to get the same opportunity in the NBA. The problem? There’s already a logjam of point guards with the Pistons, making it difficult to find playing time behind Killian Hayes, Cade Cunningham and veteran Cory Joseph.

The kneejerk reaction is to think that Lee should immediately join the Pistons’ rotation to see whether he can replicate that same production. Lee was recalled from the Cruise for Monday’s matchup with the Sacramento Kings, but that doesn’t mean it’s a quick pathway to playing time — at least not yet. 

“He's here, and we are here. I am really proud of the way Saben and those guys are playing with the G League team and everything like that — but there are only so many minutes that you can have,” coach Dwane Casey said before Monday’s game. “Now, the opportunity will be there if someone takes a dip. If Cade takes a dip, if Killian takes a dip or if Cory takes a dip or whatever, but we want those guys to be going (up).

“(Recalling Lee) is just an opportunity to be with us, and that's a great thing with having our G League team here — is that they can go up and down.”

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Lee has played in four games for the Pistons this season, with more typical numbers: 1.5 points and 25% on field goals. He’s played mostly in end-of-game situations, after playing a bigger role last season.

Having the opportunity to get playing time with the Cruise isn’t a bad thing. After COVID-19 wiped out their season last year, getting a chance to play more regularly — whether it’s with the Pistons or the Cruise — is a welcome option.

Casey said in Saturday’s game, he wanted to use Joseph as the primary ballhandler to take some of the pressure off of the young guards, and Casey has a comfort level with Joseph from their time together in Toronto.

Joseph, 30, has had a tough start to the season, with just 6.8 points and 3.3 assists in 12 games, compared to 12 points and 5.5 assists last season. The Pistons are in the midst of a rebuild, so there’s a case for wanting to play Lee more to help develop him, but the comfort level that Casey has with the veteran looks to be a more valuable asset.

Stewart adjusts

The Pistons are still adjusting to playing without Kelly Olynyk, who will miss at least six weeks because of a knee injury. That leaves them with Isaiah Stewart and Trey Lyles as the primary options, with rookie Luka Garza able to fill in for certain matchups.

Stewart has been hampered by foul trouble in several games this season, but Casey said those issues aren’t impacting the way that Stewart is playing, nor his aggressiveness in going after the ball. The focus is more on not getting cheap fouls and making sure to stay disciplined.

“Where he gets in trouble is with that last reach or the (hands) coming over. He does a great job of verticality, but that last pull-in or pull-over gets him in trouble,” Casey said. “So, it’s making sure to keep our hands back, and not get the cheap foul. You can never tell him to (be less aggressive), because that is his gift, his energy and how hard he plays.

“You don't want to get fouls down the court, just the cheap fouls, is what he wants to lie back from.”


Cunningham's development 

Though it wasn’t one of his best stretches, Cunningham had a good finish to the fourth quarter to help seal the win in Toronto. He didn’t have the ball in his hands the entire time, but he managed the offense and was able to create driving opportunities and to finish at the rim.

Through the first three quarters, he had struggled offensively, but in the fourth, he was in his element. Coming through in those pressure situations was Cunningham’s calling card in college, and there’s confidence that he’ll pick up where he left off.

"It just says who he is,” Casey said. “Once he gets more experience, you'll see the consistency through four quarters."