Did you know that the 2019-20 basketball season begins in 57 days? You’ve probably done all that you can to forget about last season (Vanderbilt’s next win in calendar year 2019 will be its first), and believe me, I have as well. But we have a new coach, and with a new coach brings something resembling excitement.
But not too much excitement. After all, there was a reason why last year’s team went 9-23, and 0-18 in the SEC (officially 0-17, as Mississippi State has since vacated a win over us as a result of using an ineligible player.) Some of those reasons are no longer here; on the other hand, some of the issues that plagued last year’s team are not going to be fixed in an offseason.
So we’ll take the bye week from football to take a look at Vanderbilt’s roster for the 2019-20 season. There are ten scholarship players who will be eligible to play for Vanderbilt this season (not including two transfers, D.J. Harvey from Notre Dame and Quentin Millora-Brown from Rice, whom I have no reason to believe will get waivers to play immediately.) I’m going to divide them up into the five traditional positions on the floor — point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center — but that’s mostly for the sake of organization, so I don’t want to get into any arguments about whether x player is really a power forward or a center.
With one exception.
Is Saben Lee really a point guard?
You knew this question was coming, didn’t you? Because it’s the question that everybody has been asking this offseason, and I’ll answer it in two ways. One, if Saben Lee is not a point guard, then what is he? And two, does this actually matter?
As far as the first answer goes, here are some relevant numbers. In 2018-19, Saben Lee had an assist rate of 25.9 and a turnover rate of 21.5. For comparison, Darius Garland had an assist rate of 25.7 and a turnover rate of 23.2. Those numbers are practically identical, and if you only considered those numbers and removed any sort of context, Saben Lee actually fared better at the position than Darius Garland did.
On the other hand, Lee shot 36.2 percent from three-point range and 67.5 percent at the free throw line. If your argument is that Saben Lee is really a shooting guard, well, he’s not much of a shooter. His main skills are driving to the basket and either creating for his teammates or drawing contact and getting a trip to the foul line out of it. He’s not a scorer like Garland, and I suspect this is what people really mean when they say Lee isn’t a point guard: that he’s not Darius Garland. Which, duh.
Of course, if you require a Darius Garland to have an effective offense, chances are you’re either a hell of a recruiter or your offense sucks. Because think back to the national championship game last season. Who was Texas Tech’s point guard? Ken Pomeroy’s algorithm identified Matt Mooney as the Red Raiders’ primary point guard, and if Saben Lee isn’t a point guard, Matt Mooney really isn’t a point guard. When Mooney wasn’t on the floor, his algorithm said Jarrett Culver was Texas Tech’s point guard. Jarrett Culver is not a point guard. That’s not really a debate.
Meanwhile, Virginia won the national championship with Kihei Clark — definitely a point guard, but not a particularly good one. Now, Chris Beard and Tony Bennett are probably two of the best in-game coaches in the business, but that’s kind of the point. There are some teams that can cover up the lack of a “true” point guard, and while Saben Lee is probably a point guard, Vanderbilt in 2018-19 certainly was not a team that was going to cover that up. (The other problem with the “Saben’s not a point guard” argument is that it relies on the belief that the previous coaching staff was making the best use of Saben Lee’s abilities, which is a hell of an assumption to make.)
As far as Lee’s 2019-20 goes, his second year on campus was basically as good as his first one; the problem was that Vanderbilt post-Garland needed him to be better than that. Improving his jump shot to the point that opposing defenders have to respect his ability to pull up is the biggest improvement he needs to make, and he could stand to make more of his free throws if he’s going to be spending that much time at the line. Unless one of the freshmen is far better than expected or somebody else makes a big leap, he’s probably the second-best player on the team, and he’s going to be a starter.
What will Scotty Pippen Jr.’s impact be in 2019-20?
The final recruit that Bryce Drew landed might end up being a key player for the Commodores in a couple of years, but it would be great if he were ahead of schedule.
Scotty Pippen Jr. — yes, the son of Scottie Pippen — comes to Vanderbilt by way of high school superpower Sierra Canyon in California, where he teamed with KJ Martin (who was also coming to Vanderbilt at one point, but got sidetracked and decided to go pro before switching to take a postgraduate year at IMG Academy.) The younger Pippen also played for the Oakland Soldiers on the Nike EYBL circuit and averaged 15.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg, and 2.6 apg in the EYBL. Those are pretty good numbers.
If you do believe that Saben Lee needs to be playing off the ball, then Pippen needs to be ready to go from day one. Pippen had good handles and vision at the high school level, but it’s a big jump to play the point for an SEC team.