Hamidou Diallo’s Kobe 9 Nike sneakers are probably the only thing that saved him from the wrong end of a highlight reel.
Diallo flailed his body helplessly, nearly losing his footing, which would have sent him crashing down to the hardwood. Even managing to keep his feet, he looked lost on defense, a mere spectator catching a glimpse of gold whooshing by him. So it goes when trying to guard Saben Lee, Vanderbilt’s breakout freshman point guard.
A three-star recruit coming out of Tempe, Arizona, Lee figured to garner a reserve role in Bryce Drew’s offense, spelling Riley LaChance and learning the system in the process. Instead, he has become a focal point. While LaChance and Jeff Roberson carry the bulk of the scoring responsibilities, it’s often Lee who provides the much needed spark, willing his way to one bucket after another. Credit his unique offensive repertoire for that. In an offense littered with spot-up shooters, Lee has the ability to create off the dribble better than any of his teammates.
In a matchup against Kentucky back in January, Lee found himself one-on-one against Diallo, a surefire first round pick. Diallo starts out in perfect defensive position, but Lee quickly abuses him, changing direction twice in less than two seconds.
Lee’s lightning quick double crossover left his defender off-balanced, providing an easy lane to the bucket for two points.
The strength of Lee’s offense, however, comes off screens that create mismatches. LaChance often defaults to a three-point shot against bigger defenders, but Lee knows he can beat them off the dribble for a layup. This was on display over and over again against Alabama.
Baptiste’s sets a hard screen, one that Dazon Ingram tries to go over and ultimately can’t. That leaves 6’11 center Daniel Giddens with the tough task of stopping the 6’2 point guard. Lee pulls the ball back out to create momentum moving forward, and clutches the ball in his right hand. Giddens expects him to go to that signature crossover, so he doesn’t alter his guarding position at all. Instead, Lee utilizes a quick hesitation move and blows by Giddens for the layup.
The Commodores went to this set over and over again down the stretch in this game, mostly because Alabama had no answer. Lee was simply too quick and too shifty for anyone to be able to put a body on him for long enough to prevent him from getting to the rim. This time John Petty tries his luck on Lee, and Baptiste sprints to the top of the key to set another screen, which Petty tries his best to fight through.
Lee does an excellent job of what basketball coaches call going shoulder-to-shoulder around the screen. He leaves no room between him and Baptiste for Petty to operate, essentially shoving him out of the play entirely. Lee then dips his body low to the ground in order to maneuver through traffic and prevent Braxton Key from poking the ball away from the left side, and comes face to face with 6’9 center Donta Hall. After just watching his teammate get beaten for a layup, Hall opens up to the right side to protect the rim, but Lee quickly crosses back over left. Hall can’t switch his feet fast enough, and is too late to contest at the rim.
The wide array of moves that Saben Lee possesses allows him to alternate and keep defenders guessing. Particularly when he gets a favorable matchup against a big man, he’s able to explode to the rim with sharp crossovers or quick first steps. The Crimson Tide defenders continued to struggle fighting through screens, which allowed Lee to capitalize on these matchups. One might be wondering, why didn’t Alabama’s guards go under the screens and pick up their man on the other side?
Well, Tide coach Avery Johnson is one step ahead. His guys were going under screens throughout the first half, daring a struggling shooter in Lee to beat them from the outside. Lee is by no means a high volume shooter, but his 33% clip from downtown in conference play is enough to keep defenders out on the perimeter when guarding him. When left open, he won’t hesitate to pull the trigger. Johnson tested this out in the first half, and Lee promptly came around a screen and hit a long two on the first possession of the game.
Late in the first half, Braxton Key tried his luck, going under Baptiste’s screen and giving Lee the space to hoist a three-ball, which he wastes no time doing. After Lee hit his third jumper of the first half and second three in as many minutes, Johnson had to change up the game plan at halftime. He flat out had no answer for him.
Lee is special with the ball in his hands, but the aspect of his game that really sets him apart is the way he moves without the ball. In an offense that’s often criticized for being stagnant, Lee is the antithesis. He often flashes to the ball, cuts through the lane, and sets off ball screens. These two plays illustrate his movement best.
Lee hands the ball off, and Wenyen Gabriel points him out, knowing he’s in the corner. Lee knows that by the time the ball is swung to the corner, Kentucky will have rotated its zone, so he sprints baseline and shows off his athleticism at the rim.
He does the same thing against Alabama, this time not even stopping in the corner en route to the basket. His momentum is too much to handle flying toward the rim, and he picks up the and-one.
For Vanderbilt fans, the emergence of Saben Lee has been a bright spot in an otherwise underwhelming season. He’s a high energy combo guard that contributes a unique touch to Drew’s offense. With Darius Garland coming to West End next year, Lee may not draw headlines, but if he continues to play like this, it will be hard to keep him out of the spotlight.