Coming into the season, the biggest question for Louisville on the floor was how mid-major transfers Damion Lee (Drexel) and Trey Lewis (Cleveland State) would adjust to playing at the high-major level.
Lewis has been solid for the Cardinals, averaging 15 points per game on solid shooting. He deserves mention for succeeding as a small school player transitioning to a bigger environment. However, it’s Lee who has been the Cardinals’ star to this point.
Lee is averaging 18.1 points and four rebounds per game on 49 percent shooting from the field, 38 percent shooting from 3 and 89 percent shooting from the line. In the past 20 seasons of college hoops, only four players have pulled off a 50/40/90 season while averaging 18 points. That’s the kind of company Lee is flirting with right now as the Cardinals head into ACC play.
But even more important, Lee has come up big in Louisville’s two biggest games of the season. On the road against Michigan State, Lee scored 23 and added three rebounds and five steals to push the Cardinals to the brink of defeating the No. 1 Spartans. Then on Saturday against hated rival Kentucky, Lee brought his best game in a Cardinals uniform. He scored 27 points while playing all 40 minutes as the Cardinals just came up one bucket short against the Wildcats.
Not only has Lee’s play this season put him in position to potentially be an All-American if he can continue it through conference play, but it has also put him in contention to be drafted into the NBA.
Coming into the season, I noted Lee as a potential draft sleeper to watch as he transitioned from Drexel to Louisville. The questions I had simply revolved around whether the defense would translate and whether the ball-handling skills were quite up to par for a higher level. Answering those questions has been the biggest key to his success thus far, and it seems likely he will get his chance in the NBA because of it.
Lee has always been a guy who can put the ball on the floor after catching off of screens, but this season he looks even more comfortable than he did at Drexel in doing so in other situations. The opposing defense now has to constantly be set back on its heels because of the better diversification in Lee’s game. With the ball, he now has the ability to just straight up blow by defenders, like he did here against Jamal Murray.
And that allows him to get more space for his jump shot on pull ups. Here’s an example of basically the exact same situation on the right wing, but because of the earlier blow by, Murray sags farther off of Lee initially. Instead of driving against Murray, he just crosses over and pulls up from deep.
This season, Lee has knocked down a high percentage of his shots off the dribble, as he’s currently in the 81st percentile nationally averaging one point per shot in those situations, according to Synergy. Lee has also shown the ability to run side pick-and-rolls this season to create shots for both himself and teammates. Here are couple of examples from Saturday.
In the first play, Lee is able to create a nice floater in the lane that ended up being tipped in by Matz Stockman. In the second one, he does a perfect job of drawing the defense toward him by pulling up for a jumper, but then spotting Stockman and dishing off to him for what is seemingly a wide open lane to the basket before Alex Poythress somehow erased it out of nowhere.
While Lee has answered questions about his on-ball skill, it’s the terrific work that he does off-ball that is most important to his NBA chances. There are few players in the country who are better at navigating screens and creating shots from them. Here’s an example from the first half where Lee receives a down screen from one of his teammates.
This is a down screen where Lee has an option to either flare to the wing if the lane is covered or curl if Anas Mahmoud has successfully pulled his man away (which in this case was Skal Labissiere). Lee and Trey Lewis recognize that Labissiere has vacated the paint, leaving it wide open. Lewis guides Lee into the paint with his bounce pass, and Lee curls through for the easy layup. By running directly off of the screener’s shoulder, Lee creates the necessary space to get a free lane to the basket.
Here’s another example of Lee navigating a different type of screen in the first half.
Here, Lee gets a screen set for him at the elbow. He runs to the screen like he’s going to dive through the paint and run through the play toward the backside. However, he instead then fades behind the screen and gets his defender, Derek Willis, caught up in it. That leads to an open 3 that he knocks down.
In this one, Lee runs off of two screens on the backside of the play and curls to the top of the key before receiving the pass.
Here, Lee curls to the top of the 3-point line, where he’ll either have the option to catch and shoot if he has the space, hit the rolling second screener (Onuaku, who ends up being open) after his man has to cut off the lane to stop Lee, or simply take it himself. Lee opts to take it himself here after blowing by the helping Poythress, where he makes a tough lay-in. The movement off-ball to get open is what sets this play up, then Lee does the rest by finishing. It’s worth noting that Lee has been rather efficient this year around the basket, finishing 64.3 percent of his attempts there in halfcourt settings according to Synergy.
Weaknesses and Overall Outlook
Lee’s far from a perfect NBA prospect. First and foremost, he’ll be 24 before he ever suits up for a professional game. That limits the upside considerably, and makes you wonder if he’s simply further along in his development than the college players he’s beating. Second, despite solid height for the NBA at 6-feet-6, his length and athleticism are pretty average. Third, there is a bit of a concern that a high portion of his offense (27 percent) comes in transition. It’s not egregiously high, but it’s enough to where his counting numbers could be slightly inflated by games against poor competition.
Finally, it’s tough to tell what exactly you’re going to get from him defensively in the NBA. He was an all-conference defender in the CAA, but at Louisville he largely defends on the backline of their matchup zone where he doesn’t get a ton of opportunity one-on-one. He’s a willing defender that gets into passing lanes, but it’ll be incumbent upon him to show in workouts that he can stay in front of some of the more athletic players in the draft.
He’s at best a late first-rounder but more likely a second-round pick due to the questions raised in the previous paragraph (especially the age). But having said all of that, this is still a player that seems to have a high IQ offensively as well as shoot and score. There are a lot of places in the NBA for guys who can do those things well, and Lee will certainly get his chance to prove that this offseason.
Given that this was a kid who was initially committed to Towson and then switched to attend Drexel for the first four years of his collegiate career, that’s a pretty surprising development. Ultimately though, his play at Louisville has proven that he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the NBA.