NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A season-ending injury to freshman Darius Garland caused many outsiders to write the early obituary for Vanderbilt basketball’s 2018-19 season.
Commodores’ guard Saben Lee simply ignored that noise.
"People like to talk," Lee said. "It’s just kind of just their own opinions. I don’t really care about what a lot of people say."
If Lee has anything to do with it, Vanderbilt is just getting started. Garland’s injury has thrusted the sophomore Lee back into the spotlight as a major piece to the Commodores’ puzzle, just ahead of their SEC opener against Ole Miss on Saturday (7:30 p.m. CT on SEC Network). That was a role he embraced as a freshman last season, but Lee’s play will again be key for the Dores in conference play.
Lee, a Phoenix, Ariz. native, returned for his second season as Vanderbilt’s leading returning scorer (10.6 points per game). He started 29 of his 32 games as a freshman last season, leading the Commodores in steals (39) and assists (99) while also scoring in double-figures 17 times.
Lee played off the ball as a freshman while then-senior Riley LaChance handled point-guard duties. This season, Lee’s role remained with the arrival of Garland, a five-star playmaker who shined at point guard through Vanderbilt’s first few games. But Garland’s meniscus injury suffered during the Kent State game on Nov. 23 threw a wrench in the Commodores’ offensive philosophy. Perhaps no player saw a bigger change than Lee, who took over at point guard for head coach Bryce Drew.
"Offensive-wise, [Garland] definitely was a big help, so we definitely had to make some adjustment offensively with our sets and stuff," Lee said. "I played the 2 before, so definitely all the point guard responsibilities, I definitely had to adjust. At the 2, it’s really just, you score when you catch the ball, or you attack when they close out. So now, I just have to do a lot more things."
The recipe has worked for Lee. Counting the Kent State game in which Garland was injured, Lee has scored in double figures in six of the last eight games. He has dished out 29 assists against just 18 turnovers and leads the team with 45 assists on the year. Against Tennessee State on Dec. 29, Lee scored a season-high 23 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the floor.
Oh, and this happened.
— Vandy MBB (@VandyMBB) December 29, 2018
Saben’s transition to floor general has been a bright spot as Vanderbilt’s identity continues to evolve, Drew said.
"Saben was fantastic in the beginning of the year," Drew said. "I thought he and Darius really fed off each other and played well. All he had to be concerned with his defending and getting out in transition and finishing from other people assisting him. Now, he’s had to go into the facilitator, having to decide when to shoot and when to pass. His decision-making has had to go up a lot in a very short amount of time. He’s getting better, but I think we’ll see improvement continually as the season goes on."
As Vanderbilt embarks on SEC play, it will lean on Lee’s experience. The sophomore is one of just four players from last season’s roster with SEC experience, joining junior Clevon Brown, sophomore Max Evans and senior Joe Toye. But Lee has thrived against SEC foes; last season against Texas A&M, the freshman flirted with a triple-double (19 points, nine rebounds, nine assists) in a home loss.
This time around, Lee is ready to lead the Dores into SEC play.
"That’s why I came here," Lee said. "We play the best of the best. It’s definitely exciting to play against the SEC. It helps to have someone who has played SEC ball, because you can give advice to young guys. You can tell them that it’s going to be amped up — it’s not like nonconference play."
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.