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How Damion Lee became an indispensable piece of the Phoenix Suns bench

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
November 29, 2022

By all accounts, Damion Lee wasn’t expected to be where he is right now.

Lee said as much when he told Suns.com that, due to oxygen problems, he came out of the womb purple, and doctors were concerned whether he’d be all right. After going undrafted, suffering two torn ACLs — one in college, the other in the G League — might have been an unscalable obstacle for some players. Even joining a title contender like the Phoenix Suns on a veteran minimum contract, expectations were tempered.

And yet, even through all of that adversity, Lee persevered, bringing him to this exact moment where he’s become an intrinsic piece of Phoenix’s second unit.

“Everybody says, ‘I’m blessed, I’m thankful to be in this position,’ but really knowing my story, like, I truly am,” Lee said. “I’ve been through a lot of hardships. Before, I’ve seen the valleys, no pun intended, and I’ve seen the mountaintop. But for me, it’s just trying to stay as even-keeled as possible and help out this team in whatever way I can.”

Lee has certainly been helping, but to understand how this fruitful partnership blossomed, it all goes back to a few phone calls over the summer.

Landing Damion Lee

Coming off a championship run with the Golden State Warriors, Lee’s first bout with free agency didn’t go as expected. His 3-point shooting had dipped to 33.7 percent, sure, but he’d provided steady, two-way minutes off the bench for the team that won the title.

The entire first day of free agency, though, Lee’s phone stayed silent. Hearing about all the other deals that were being signed around the league, he was itching to hear from someone.

“A little bit of pride, a little bit of ego, but everyone has a little bit of that,” he said.

On the second day, Lee’s agent told him a team was interested — the 64-win Phoenix Suns. After conversations with coach Monty Williams and general manager James Jones, he felt comfortable that this was where he could take the next step of his career. Despite it only being a one-year deal, he was fully invested in how he could help them get over the hump.

“One thing that I’m about is just honesty and transparency, and that’s exactly what they were,” Lee said. “I’m on the phone with them, talking about obviously the basketball side, a little bit about life, upbringing and just how those kind of resonate and the similarities between our upbringings. But it was really just a matter of like, ‘Okay, what can I do to help you guys out, and what can you do to help me out?’ And that was the biggest thing that coach Monty said: ‘We’re not signing you to bring you in. This is a partnership. How can we both help each other out throughout the long haul?'”

After spending four years with the Warriors, Lee prided himself on surrounding himself with winners. He wanted to go to a team he felt could contend. But that type of free-agency commitment is a two-way street, and the Suns were just as excited about what he could do for them.

“When we signed him, I thought, ‘Man, this guy comes from good stuff,'” Williams said. “A lot of trials, he’s had to persevere, and then he comes from a championship environment in Golden State.”

Coming from championship culture

Sometimes “culture” can be an overblown concept in the NBA. In Phoenix, though, it really has become a draw for stars and role players alike. Jones is selective about the player archetypes he targets, but that also applies to the types of people he brings in. By all accounts, Lee’s time with the Warriors made him a seamless fit for the Suns locker room.

“D-Lee is a champion, man,” Deandre Ayton said. “You can just see that competitive winning spirit in him. Nothing bothers that dude, and it’s so contagious. Just the way how he competes and his energy on the bench before his name is called up, that’s what winning is about.”

“He’s a pro, you know what I mean?” Chris Paul agreed. “Like, D-Lee is a pro. He gets it, and I think he’s gonna fit in just fine.”

Paul’s words came the day of Phoenix’s home opener, a narrow revenge win over the Dallas Mavericks where Lee hit the game-winning shot. Everyone remembers the play itself, and Stephen Curry’s viral reaction to his brother-in-law’s shot, but not many people remember what came right before: Lee fouling Luka Doncic for a 3-point play that tied up the game with 33 seconds to go.

Instead of pulling him or admonishing him, Williams took a different approach. It wound up paying dividends a few moments later.

“We called a timeout, and coach just looks at me, he says, ‘Hey, go make a play,'” Lee recalled. “And that’s what you want, a coach that’s always gonna instill that confidence in you no matter what happens. As long as there’s time left on the board, go on out there, try to make a positive impact and make a play.”

Devin Booker said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome either. As tough as that final shot was, Book fed Lee a few times in that fourth quarter off double-teams, and the trust of his new teammates meant just as much as the confidence of his coach.

“It just goes to show the kind of guys that we have on this team: guys that are confident, that no matter who’s out there on the floor, beginning of the game, end of game, he’s confident in me to be able to take that big shot and make that big shot,” Lee said. “And that’s something that I don’t want to say I pride myself on, but I’d never shy away from, is taking those big shots.”

Add Lee’s former coach, Steve Kerr, to the list of people who weren’t surprised. Kerr didn’t watch the first three quarters and was unaware that Lee hadn’t played much up to that point, but he still saw the professionalism and readiness from Lee’s time in Golden State.

“He made big shots for us same way, just staying prepared, understanding that he might not play a lot, but when he gets called upon, he’s always ready,” Kerr said. “So he’s a great pro.”

Dame Time in Phoenix

Of course, it’s not just intangibles that Lee brings to the table. His four years with the Dubs saw his 3-point percentage rise and fall with each passing season, but so far in the Valley, he’s been nothing short of tremendous on that front.

In a 122-117 win over the Sacramento Kings on Monday, Booker’s 44 points, 8 rebounds, 6 steals and 4 assists stole the spotlight, and rightfully so. But without Lee’s contributions — 15 points, 11 of which came in the fourth quarter — the Suns might have wasted Book’s exceptional performance. When they needed offense outside of Booker, the ball found Lee’s hands, and he cashed in like he has all season long.

Through 20 games, Lee is now 22-for-36 from 3-point range in the fourth quarter. Not only is that the third-most 3-point makes in fourth quarters in the entire league (trailing only Steph Curry and Malik Beasley), but his 61.1 percent shooting from downtown in the final period is the highest percentage among all players with at least 20 attempts. The next-closest player? Klay Thompson, at 52.9 percent.

Damion Lee has also made the second-most fourth-quarter field goals on the roster with 29, trailing only Devin Booker (31) and ahead of Deandre Ayton (25), Cam Payne (24) and Mikal Bridges (22). He’s currently shooting 59.2 percent overall and is a +19 in 162 fourth-quarter minutes.

In other words, he’s been one of the Suns’ most reliable weapons when games get tight. Whether it’s spacing the floor out of double-teams like he did Monday night, firing off quick-trigger 3s from the corner to put the Suns ahead in crunch-time, or simply making backbreaking 3s to extend leads and keep games out of reach, D-Lee has been borderline automatic:

“I just think guys who’ve been in those situations, who’ve been in those environments like he was in in Golden State, not much fazes a guy like that,” Williams said. “If it does faze him, he knows how to deal with it, and he’s been around guys who’ve walked through those situations before. I think that rubs off on you.”

For his part, Lee doesn’t care about what his fourth-quarter numbers say. In fact, he doesn’t even want to know them.

“I’m gonna act like I didn’t hear it,” he said. “I just go out there and just play. Whenever the shots are around, whenever everything’s presented, just take the open ones. [If] I’m not open, try to find the next guy, but it’s just about going out there and shooting with confidence. I feel like when I’m out there, any time I shoot it, I feel like it’s going in, just because of the work that I put in every single day with the coaching staff, video people.”

The work is certainly paying off. Lee’s shooting 48.8 percent from long range so far this season, which ranks fourth in the NBA. That percentage probably isn’t sustainable for a full season, but so far, it’s made him an unfair advantage that Phoenix enjoys exploiting.

Williams grew familiar with that particular problem against the Dubs last year. After game-planning for the main options like the Steph, Klay and Draymond Green, Lee would come in as the eighth or ninth guy and slash to the basket, get a deflection or knock down a corner 3.

“You’re like, ‘Man, he wasn’t even in the top eight or nine guys that we talked about, and then he comes in and has an impact,'” Williams said. “So I hope teams undervalue him, because we played against Golden State enough, and you undervalue him before the game, but then afterward, you’re like, ‘Sheesh, man.’ And that was one of the reasons why we felt he would be a good fit for us.”

Earning trust

That’s not to say Lee arrived and just started receiving minutes because he played for the Warriors. Injuries to Cam Johnson and Chris Paul obviously impacted Phoenix’s depth, but even as early as preseason, Lee quickly established himself as one of the first subs to check in every night.

“It’s funny when you think about it, right?” Lee said of how quickly he earned crunch-time reps. “You go to a new situation, they know about you from what people have said or what they’ve seen on film, but it’s really how you integrate yourself into a new situation. And for me, I feel like the main thing I’ve done is just show that I’m a worker.”

If practice is at 10 a.m., Lee says he’s in the gym or the weight room no later than 8:15. He’ll get some shooting in before practice, cool down after practice, and then get up more shots. He lifts before and after games, making him a welcome addition to the running “winners work” theme.

Although he couldn’t really envision what his role would be when he arrived in Phoenix, Lee displayed an awareness of what he brought to the table and where he fit on a roster that already had Booker, Paul, Ayton, Bridges and Johnson.

“I pride myself on having an IQ and an understanding of the game, whether that’s getting to the corner, slashing, floater, knocking down open shots, playmaking, just the ability to know how to play the game and be in the right spots and understanding who I’m playing with,” he explained. “If you look at where I just came from, I played with a decent amount of Hall-of-Famers over my career there. And I’ll be playing with some also future Hall-of-Famers during my career here. So just understanding of that, and doing whatever it takes to win.”

Williams says Lee also did something that sounds obvious, but isn’t always the case for newcomers trying to learn an entirely new system: He asked good questions.

“We’ve had some really good conversations where he’ll pick my brain on something and he’ll be like, ‘Coach, what do you think about this?’ and I’m like, ‘Okay, do it,’ you know, it’s really smart,” Williams said. “But I just trust his experience, and we’ve said it time and time again that we have so much respect for Golden State and how they handle their business. When you get a guy from that program like that, you want to try to learn as much as you can from ’em.”

Lee refers to himself as a “seeker,” which is based in loving what he does and wanting to be able to give back to the game when his playing days are over, whether it’s as a coach, front office executive or in player development. It didn’t take long for him to get on a first-name basis with the video coordinators, his player development coach in Patrick Mutombo, and the team’s other assistant coaches, so he could pepper them with questions about the Suns’ terminology and concepts when they went over things in practice.

“I try to be a learner in whatever I’m invested in,” he said. “Obviously, this is my day job, this is what I love to do. So just trying to learn as much as possible, asking a lot of questions trying to get a crash course.

“I mean, I love it here. It’s obviously different from where I’ve been the last four years of my career, but everything here has been a seamless transition.”

For a guy who wasn’t expected be part of such a seamless transition, or expected to be here at all, it sure feels like Damion Lee is right where he’s supposed be.

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