clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Saben Lee is Vanderbilt’s best returning player, which is less problematic than it sounds

The plans to bring Lee along slowly last year did not last very long.

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

When Bryce Drew took the Vanderbilt job in April 2016, the Commodores didn’t really have a point guard. Wade Baldwin IV was leaving for the NBA, Riley LaChance was more of a two, and incoming freshman Payton Willis was a combo guard (but really a two.)

Unsurprisingly, the first two players that he added were point guards, though neither played in 2016-17. That year, Vanderbilt got by with LaChance as the point guard, but transfer Larry Austin Jr. was going to be eligible in 2017-18; and in June, Drew picked up a commitment from a rising point guard from Arizona named Saben Lee.

Going into last season, we thought that Austin would be the starter at the point, with Lee being brought along slowly. That was the way the team came out for the season opener against Austin Peay — but on that night, it was also obvious that the arrangement would not last very long. Austin and Lee each played 20 minutes, and Lee (6 points, 7 assists) was clearly a more productive player than Austin (2 points on 1-of-4 shooting, 2 assists.) In the second game of the season, Lee scored 19 points off the bench in a loss at Belmont, and that was that. Lee started every game but one the rest of the season; Austin ended up going to Central Michigan as a graduate transfer.

The bad news about Austin being such a flop was that Vanderbilt had to live with Lee’s ups and downs as a freshman more than they would have with another viable option at the point. Austin briefly made a comeback in a November game against USC, when Lee played just 13 minutes with two points and two turnovers. Lee had a dreadful game against Virginia (0-for-7 from the floor in 20 minutes) and briefly lost his starting job afterwards, though only for a game.

But his real breakout game came on December 17, and it happened in his hometown. Playing in Tempe, Arizona, where he went to high school, Lee scored 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting and also had 6 assists and 4 steals against an Arizona State team that was ranked in the top 5 at the time. And Lee would top the 20-point mark twice in early January, scoring 23 in a win over Alabama and 21 in a loss to Tennessee. He scored in double figures in 11 of 18 SEC games. His jump shot, an utter weakness early in the season, improved to the point that he shot 39.1 percent from three in SEC play, complementing his driving ability.

Overall, it was a strong debut for Lee, though his disappearance in a handful of SEC games — scoreless in a loss at Tennessee, one point in a home win over Florida — was notable. So, too, were his turnovers. Lee coughed it up 43 times in 18 SEC games and five times in the SEC Tournament loss to Georgia. But it was hard not to look at Lee — a guy who ranked outside the top 100 of recruiting rankings, if barely — and not get excited about what Bryce Drew could do once he had a team full of his own recruits. Lee’s athleticism was a notable departure from the Kevin Stallings era, when Vanderbilt would frequently deploy bigger, somewhat less quick guards who were better shooters than Lee was coming out of high school. (I even wrote about this exact thing back when Lee committed in June 2016.)

Going into 2018-19, Lee is — by a considerable margin — Vanderbilt’s best returning player. Of course, “best returning player” is not the same thing as “best player on the team,” and here’s where the questions come in. Getting a performance as good as we got from Lee as a freshman would be fine; getting an improved Lee would be even better. But he won’t be the team’s starting point guard. Oh sure, he’ll start, but not at point guard — that’s going to be Darius Garland’s job.

This presents both opportunities and problems for Vanderbilt. Having two quick, athletic guards on the floor at the same time in Garland and Lee will help improve Vanderbilt’s defense — which often struggled to get ball pressure in 2017-18 — and having two creators on the offensive end will make the offense run like Drew would like it to. On the other hand, that’s two 6’2” players on the floor at the same time, which could present some matchup problems against teams with bigger guards. And can Lee handle playing off the ball? How Garland and Lee coexist in Vanderbilt’s backcourt might determine how far the Commodores can go in 2018-19.