In advance of the 2020 NBA Draft, Peachtree Hoops is evaluating prospects with a look at what the Atlanta Hawks might be considering from now until the selection process occurs. Dozens of prospects will be profiled in this space and, in this space, we glance at Vanderbilt guard Saben Lee.
For a player not always projected to be selected in mock draft settings, some aspects of Saben Lee’s game seem largely ready to be useful in an NBA environment.
Lee was one of the most productive offensive players in college basketball this season, putting up 18.6 points and 4.2 assists per game on a field goal mark of 48.3 percent, especially impressive for a 6’2 guard. On top of that, he managed to generate 206 free throw attempts. In his three years of play at Vanderbilt, Lee amassed over 500 shots at the free throw line on fewer than 700 shot attempts inside of the three-point line, a fairly ridiculous mark for a young player.
In fact, Lee might have been the best pure isolation player in the country during the 2019-20 season. He has an advanced set of tools he puts to use attacking his defender in one-on-one situations. His footwork is superb in the mid-range, as is his ability in change-of-pace situations.
Also encouraging is that Lee produced last season’s output in one of the more pro-style offensive setups in the nation playing under first year head coach Jerry Stackhouse. The motion and spacing of the Commodores was quite reminiscent of modern NBA offenses.
So, why is Lee not showing up higher on projected draft boards?
The biggest question is whether or not he will ever be good enough at enough things at the NBA level to ever get to consistently function in isolation and, thus, maximize his strengths.
Statistically, Lee was very good in the pick and roll both as a scorer and passer. But in observing his play in those areas, his pace was pretty often just barely quick enough to be successful in the college game. Without some fairly stark improvement, it’s hard to see his pick and roll skills translate to the next level.
He is a smart, cerebral player, so there is some room for optimism that, as a professional, Lee will prioritize the right things to help his team. Still, he simply looks so comfortable setting up his defender with his dribble such that it’s hard to imagine him eventually finding a rhythm in situations that might not allow for him to dribble very often.
Lee was one of the very best pull-up shooters in the country last year. But if professional defenders aren’t going to fret over his ability to attack them with his dribble, then it’s hard to envision him doing a ton of that in the NBA.
Let’s take a look at some of his work on the offensive end of the court.
On this possession, Lee uses an “Iverson cut” to set up the pick and roll action (right out of an NBA playbook).
Despite the fact that he connects on this field goal attempt, it is clearly a forced shot. His advanced feel and body control set him apart at the collegiate level, but plays like this will not earn him similar opportunities in the NBA.
This is a look at Lee doing what he does best. The separation he is able to generate with the aggressive left-handed dribble and the use of a wonderful jab and step back is intriguing.
In this area, he evokes comparison to players such as Tyreke Evans, a former No. 4 overall pick and the 2009-2010 NBA rookie of the year.
Evans played at 6’6, though, and could often shoot over his defenders, a luxury Lee will never have. Additionally, Evans was able to consistently use his size to get to his preferred spots, something else Lee will not be able to do.
The above possession offers a look at a number of interesting parts of his game.
Lee is patient operating in the pick and roll maintaining his dribble until the defense eventually commits to how they will attempt to cover the action. He sees the pass to the right corner open up but the pass is a tick late and not very precise.
To get trusted with opportunities like this at the professional level, he will have to demonstrate that he can set up shooters in the corners.
After resetting the play, he attacks the paint with his dribble and use his strength, athleticism and craft to convert a lay-up. It’s hard to imagine he will be equally successful scoring at the rim, despite his impressive free throw rate, when working against NBA athletes.
As he is on offense, Lee is a team-oriented player on the defensive end of the court. He willingly takes tough assignments and invests in contributing as a help defender. When defending away from the play, he finds subtle ways to be productive even when well out of the primary action.
He sees and diagnosis plays with consistency, but Lee is slow to put his instincts into action. He maintains awareness of what his responsibility is, but most of his reactions are about a step behind the pace of the play.
The issue shows up most obviously when he is one player away from the ball handler and the action calls for him to help with a “dig” technique. He sees the play ten out of ten times, but the dig is persistently too late to impact the play.
The modified pre-draft activities to which teams are having adjust could uniquely impact prospects like Lee. A lot of his game, such as his ability to create his own shot, could project to be useful in an NBA setting.
Lee is the exact type of young player that teams would want to evaluate in pre-draft workouts, specifically putting him into drills and three-on-three action that would require him to play quickly as to assess his ability to adjust the faster professional game. Absent the opportunity to test him in a team’s own facility, there could be just enough to Lee’s skill set to cause him to move up draft boards as the draft eventually nears.
It only takes one team to believe in how the strengths of his game might be able to translate at the next level, and the next few months will be intriguing.