Saben Lee was like most basketball players on their freshman and JV basketball teams - relatively unknown. Not tall, strong, or a great shooter. Lee's college basketball future seemed non-existent.
Then, as he started to grow and his varsity playing time increased, he was able to show off how athletic he truly is. All of this has culminated in one of the hottest recruiting processes in the country with the Arizona Wildcats, Louisville Cardinals, and many other schools across the nation giving Lee a serious look few would have envisioned just a year earlier. Sean Miller and Arizona haven’t offered him a scholarship, but they did watch Lee in an open gym at the end of April. The Wildcats are late to the party, but certainly have interest.
Arizona Desert Swarm spoke to his AAU Coach John Ortega, who is also the Director of Basketball Operations for the Powerhouse Hoops team and Saben Lee himself to get the latest recruiting developments of the young guard.
"His emergence really came this [past] year," Ortega said. "This was his first varsity experience. He’s grown to 6’1" now and you’re talking about a kid who really couldn’t dunk as a sophomore and you could argue he may be the best dunker in the state."
Side note, you really want to watch his most recent dunk tape:
In addition to getting a chance to start at the varsity level (where he averaged 18 points, five rebounds, and three assists per game), a spot also opened up on the Powerhouse 17U team, which allowed Lee to continue playing against high competition. Ortega recalled the conversation he had with Amp Lee, Saben’s father:
"I think he’s really come a long way. I’d love to have him come on," Ortega said to the elder Lee. "It’d be a good chance to play with some better players and just see where he was at. After July he had 12 offers. They were all low mid-major guys."
Lee, though, was hindered by a below average jump shot that allowed defenders to play off of the guard which limited his dribble penetration ability. Knowing this very obvious weakness, Saben started to put in serious work to become a competent shooter.
"This year, he’s really worked on that a lot," Ortega explained. "You can see his struggles up and down. But where he made his big change was he started working with a strength coach and getting his body right as he was growing and putting the muscle on as he grows. But more of anything else was the development of his jump shot."
Saben could have jumped ship to any of the circuits (Nike, Under Armour, Adidas), but "He chose to stay loyal to our program rather than having to travel around playing for these out-of-state teams."
It has allowed him to spend more time in the gym, bettering himself as well as getting more time with his team, making them better in the process. On the personal side, Lee has made a goal to make 1,500 three-pointers a week and become a knockdown shooter that can influence the game both inside and outside.
"It’s really all on him," Ortega said of Lee's development. "From a coaching staff we push him hard. From a training staff, I know his strength coach and his dad as far as getting shots up and drill work pushes him hard. But he wants to be there. He calls me and says ‘Coach, how soon can I get into the gym’ and asks his dad 'can you rebound tonight?'."
It’s obvious the basketball work ethic is there and this is all while being an excellent student.
With a 3.8 weighted GPA, an ACT score of 29, and a regular in the school’s honors classes, Lee shows the true meaning of a student athlete and an individual with great character.
"I never have to worry about Saben," Ortega explained. "There’s absolutely no baggage on the kid. Wherever he decides to go, you won’t need to baby sit him. You can count on him making the right decisions. He’s just that type of kid."
"I don’t think a kid works this hard to keep his academics where they are at and score that kind of test score to have it not matter," continued Ortega. "At the same time, he’s a basketball player first. He loves the game of basketball. We’ve had the discussions obviously. Stanford is very high on his list. He’s been to their elite camp before. The fact that he can even get into Stanford is an honor itself."
When I asked Saben what it’s like to balance everything he said, "It’s a pretty hard task to make your grades and have basketball and travel, but I feel my academic standpoint has opened up some more schools to me just having really good grades."
On the recruiting side, "He’s at 21 offers with six being from high major conferences," Ortega said.
It all started at the West Coast Elite Spring Classic in Las Vegas where Joel Francisco of ESPN said that Lee was the "most dominant player of the entire event." After the classic, his coach noted that "on Monday, FSU (Florida State) offered. Tuesday, Utah Offered. Wednesday, Stanford offered and Thursday, Louisville." In addition to those four, Nebraska has also offered along with Pepperdine, San Diego State, Pacific, and Weber State, amongst others.
"It’s starting to pick up some," Lee said of his recruitment. "Talking to a lot of different schools and coaches. It’s only overwhelming if you’re not prepared. I feel that I have my time management on what I need to focus on. I’m happy the recruitment process is picking up more."
Saben added that Boise State, Florida State, Utah, and Stanford are recruiting him the hardest. He also said that while "Vanderbilt hasn’t offered, they talk to me a lot."
I also asked the 6-foot-1 guard about his attraction with Florida State, considering that’s where his father played collegiate football. Though he didn’t say it would affect his commitment, he said "I do think about it and it would be cool, but it won’t be a deciding factor."
When choosing a school and coaching staff, Saben noted that he’s looking for one that offers an up-tempo attack and lets you play while still being structured.
University of Arizona
Both coach and player also talked about the University of Arizona.
"Arizona is very high on his list," Coach Ortega stated. "Every kid growing up in Arizona, you look at and you’d love to play in Tucson and play for the University of Arizona and Sean Miller. And Arizona was very honest when they came down, they said ‘hey we’re late to the party, but hopefully we’re not too late.’ No one saw [Saben’s recruitment blowing up] happening. They knew who Saben was, but they were recruiting Alex Borcello (his teammate). With the gap between him and Alex as a sophomore, you don’t expect a kid in a year to become a four-star ESPN recruit, grow three inches, become a freak athlete and take elite offers."
"Arizona said, ‘We’ve been there, we didn’t pay enough attention to you, but neither did anyone else so don’t hold it against us."
For Saben, the U of A history is also a big factor about why he likes the school.
"Coach Miller has got a lot of good guards to the next level and I feel he’s definitely a good coach," Lee explained. "Growing up, you see a lot of really good guards from that school that he’s developed over time. That’s definitely intriguing."
He also added that Coach Mark Phelps has been the lead recruiter so far and the communication between the two has increased as of late.
I also asked if Arizona was close to offering, and while it doesn’t seem imminent, it definitely could happen if Miller is able to see Saben play this summer.
"It’s tough for them (Arizona) having him sneaking up as fast as he did," Ortega said. "For U of A, I explained to Saben, they’ve been recruiting a guy in your position for two years and now all of a sudden you pop in and you’re leaving a lot of guys scratching their heads. Other than seeing him in open gym Arizona hasn’t had a chance, outside of film, to lay their eyes on him. Sean hasn’t been in yet."
"I’m hearing some rumbling he may get some invites to some All-American camps," Ortega continued. "If that comes true and he spends his June playing at All-American camps, Sean will obviously make it a priority to put eyes on him. If you watched him play for a few minutes, I think he’s a kid Arizona may go towards."
Breaking It Down
"I feel I can get in the paint whenever I want to or get anywhere on the court when I want to," Lee said. "My athleticism and length. I feel I can score if need be or do whatever in order to win. And defend the best player. Give my teammates the ball when they need it and where I need it."
He has a natural feel for the game which includes:
- Seeing the court and making the right pass
- First step/blow by
- Coming off ball screens and knowing when to split the double, when to shoot, and when to pass
- Doesn’t make a lot of mistakes
- Knowing when to use his athleticism and when to back off the ball
- Wingspan and defensive potential
- Getting into the paint
Area’s he’s working on:
"I’ve been getting a lot of shots up," Lee continued. "I’m working on my handles a lot to make sure they stay crisp. Most people who are point guards don’t really continue to work on that asset because they think that since they are point guards they can dribble…so I’ve been really working on making my dribble tight and really shifty."
- Shooting consistency
- Keeping ball handler from getting on his hip
- Size and Strength
The Bottom Line
As for his next steps, all his schools are open right now but that could soon change.
"I don’t’ have a certain deadline for that yet," Saben said, "but I’ll probably be cutting down my list pretty soon."