Detroit Pistons: The point guard spot is in good hands

Saben Lee #38 of the Detroit Pistons (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
Saben Lee #38 of the Detroit Pistons (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images) /

There was a time just a few short months ago that the Detroit Pistons were mocked as the dumping ground for centers.

There was truth behind the joke. Shortly after free agency began, Detroit signed Mason Plumlee and Jahlil Okafor, made trades for Dewayne Dedmon and Tony Bradley, and used a first-round pick on Isaiah Stewart.

Sure enough, the ‘5’ spot has been a point of clarity on a roster devoid of top-notch talent. Plumlee has provided high-level awareness in the starting role. Stewart has been a lightning rod in the second unit.

Related Story. The most disappointing Piston is not who you think it is. light

While the Detroit Pistons have found a comfortable rotation in the frontcourt, uncertainty has muddied the prospects of the backcourt.

Killian Hayes was drafted No. 7 overall to be the point guard of the future. Even with such lofty aspirations, Hayes was still a rookie looking to earn his keep. In his first seven contests, he looked physically overmatched and struggled to find a shooting rhythm. A lackluster commencement to his career was unceremoniously cut short with a lengthy hip injury.

Derrick Rose stepped in as the lead ball-handler, but his departure as part of the rebuild was inevitable. Rose was traded for Dennis Smith Jr. and a second round pick on February 8.

Delon Wright, listed as a shooting guard on ESPN, was thrust into the ‘1’ role and brought much-needed stabilization to a floundering offense. That is, until a groin strain that has sidelined him for at least two weeks.

Detroit Pistons: The young point guards are stepping up

Despite the perilous fate of Detroit’s point guards, an unlikely tandem has surfaced that has inspired confidence.

Smith and rookie Saben Lee have shared the court for just the past two games — both against the Orlando Magic — but have performed as capable generators on both ends fit for the highest level of basketball.

Smith was brought in as another reclamation project, a bouncy scorer who lost his touch since he first entered the NBA. The former No. 9 pick has taken a few games to get acclimated to a new environment in Detroit, but has demonstrated noticeable improvement in each game. His efforts culminated in a steady 14-point outing in Tuesday’s win over the Magic.

Smith has only shot 37.8 percent since joining the Pistons, but he has been most impressive on the defensive end. According to Cleaning the Glass, Smith has block or steal rates in the 95th percentile or above in four of his last five games.

Considering Smith has been with the team just two weeks and is now in the starting lineup, his contributions have been admirable, if not game-changing.

Lee, the 38th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft who also dons the No. 38 jersey, has acquitted himself much earlier than anticipated. In his first two games since being a legitimate element of the Pistons’ rotation, he has notched 34 points, nine assists, and five steals.

Pistons Draft: 4 players to watch heading into March. light. Related Story

The two-way rookie out of Vanderbilt was the afterthought in a class featuring three first-rounders. Lee was given a first-round grade by Detroit, but other teams hadn’t charted him at all. Given his recent performances, perhaps that was an oversight.

Lee’s athleticism is off the charts, most memorably displayed on a missed dunk over Nikola Vucevic that could have been cited as attempted murder. He can contort his body to weave around defenders into the paint or simply charge in at hyper speed.

This ferocity translates to the defensive end as well with his ability to pester opposing ball-handlers and disrupt drivers. In the best sense of the word, he is a nuisance.

At full strength, it is likely that Smith and Lee will get buried on the depth chart or be playing in the G-League, even if they sustain this level of play. With the veteran Wright’s $9 million contract and the investment of a lottery selection in Hayes, that is neither unreasonable or unwarranted.

As a fourth-year player, Smith’s impact needs to be pronounced sooner rather than later. The Detroit Pistons could very well draft Cade Cunningham or Jalen Suggs as a replacement guard if Smith can’t prove his worth by next season.

Yes, it has only been a few games of Smith and Lee paired together. But their stout play has hardly looked like an aberration for the Detroit Pistons. Time will tell if that remains true.

Next. 10 Random Pistons from the 2010s. dark