Even when there aren’t high stakes in play, it feels like Phoenix Suns regular season finales have a knack for memorability. Think back to 36 points from Alec Peters or E’Twaun Moore’s game-winner over the Spurs for reference.
When I see Saben Lee go out there in this season’s finale and put up a career-high 25 points and a Phoenix career-high 10 assists (second-most of his career), it makes me think specifically back to Ish Wainright’s season finale(s) a year ago.
Wainright scored 35 points over his final two regular season games in 2021-22, accounting for nearly a third of his total points from that season (45 games). It became the jumping-off point for spot on the Suns’ playoff team to a summer that included being the unchallenged leader of the Summer Suns squad, solid second NBA season and finally a multi-year NBA contract.
Unless you want to count restricted free agent Darius Bazley, the Suns don’t really have a prospect in line to lead the 2023 Summer Suns. If the opportunity is provided to Lee — a restricted free agent in his own right — I believe it’s one he should take because of all it could mean long-term for him in this organization.
For those following last year’s summer league, it was easy to see how head coach Steve Scalzi appreciated what Wainright brought to the table. Lee makes maybe even more sense in that role, playing as a point guard. In the regular season finale with the big league club, he continued showing all the aspects of his game that make him a valuable prospect.
Playing a career-high 44 minutes (he never played above 35 minutes before in his career, and never 30 or more as a Sun), Lee finished with 25 points (8-21 FG), 10 assists, and two steals. Asked after the game if he expected so many minutes, he said:
“Nah I didn’t. I was cool with whatever time I was going to get. Obviously, I am grateful that I got to play a lot today... it felt really good, being able to play out there with the guys. Just being able to get into a rhythm with the guys and just compete. I love to play, so it was a great experience for sure.”
Coming into the season with a career .413 free throw rate, Lee brought that aggression night in and night out, finishing the Suns portion of his season with a .487 free throw rate, including 8 FTA in the finale. Here’s an example from the game of that tenacious downhill approach:
As for the shooting — which was a real concern when Lee first arrived — we were lucky enough to see real progress, or as real as smaller sample sizes can be. Before this season, he was a career 26.5% three-point shooter on 83 attempts over his first two seasons. During his 23 games played in Phoenix, that number shot up to 11-29 (37.9%).
Then onto his passing, where he made great strides. He still tends to rely on the drive-and-kick game, but becoming one-dimensional that way isn’t really a problem if defenders are struggling to account for every avenue that Lee’s offense provides.
No one (outside of the Suns building) knows what the future holds for Lee, but as someone who cares about having prospects and developing guys in the system and culture that you want them to emulate, I think he’s worth keeping around, especially as the point guard-of-the-future question looms.
“Saben is a guy that I wouldn’t go so far as to say I would throw him out there in a playoff game,” head coach Monty Williams said after Sunday’s regular season finale. “But I wouldn’t be afraid because of his ability to get to the basket and his toughness and those are things that you need this time of the year.”
“Yeah, Mont is a great coach,” Lee said. “He instills confidence in his players. I am grateful to be able to play for him.”
Lee’s two-way contract ended after the game on Sunday. But if the Suns need a point guard in the playoffs — you should really really hope they don’t! — the first place they’ll turn is to Saben Lee.
Update: Sorry for the confusion (all on Dave). Two-ways are not eligible for playoffs, which is how the two-way contract ended after the game on Sunday. If the Suns needed Lee for some reason during the playoffs, they would have to release someone to make a roster spot, and then sign Lee to a standard contract.
The Phoenix Suns host the LA Clippers in Game 1 of the first round of the 2023 NBA Playoffs on Sunday (time to be determined).