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5 takeaways from Suns' decision to waive Duane Washington Jr., sign Saben Lee to two-way contract

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
February 2, 2023

On Wednesday, the Phoenix Suns announced that they had waived Duane Washington Jr. from his two-way contract and would be signing Saben Lee to that slot. The response from the fanbase seemed to be split down the middle.

On the one hand, Lee had been stealing Washington’s minutes since joining the team on two 10-day contracts. During a stretch where Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Cam Payne were all hurt, Phoenix badly needed steady guard play. Based on coach Monty Williams’ own words on the final day of Lee’s first 10-day, it was always trending in this direction.

“James [Jones] and I talked about it yesterday, we like him,” Williams said. “I’m hopeful to keep him around, just ’cause he brings something that we need.”

On the other hand, Washington’s sudden departure was still a tad surprising, given how much longer he had been in Phoenix, joining the team over the summer on a two-way deal.

It was also disappointing, because even casting aside Washington’s relationship with Booker, he’s only 22 years old, can clearly put the ball in the hoop, and represented the kind of developmental project the Suns have struggled with cultivating under the current regime. Perhaps most perplexing was the decision to cut D-Wash when they still had their 15th roster spot open.

So what should we make of this seemingly minor move from Duane Washington Jr. to Saben Lee? Here are the five biggest takeaways from that decision.

1. Why the Suns let Duane Washington Jr. go

By all accounts, Washington was a hard worker who wasn’t afraid to take shots. The injuries in Phoenix’s backcourt were his opportunity to shine, but it required him to play more on the ball as a floor general, rather than his typical comfort zone as an off-ball scorer.

The results were mixed, and as time went on, his defensive shortcomings, turnovers and a shorter leash started to negatively impact his natural abilities as a bucket-getter. Games like his 21-point detonation in 19 minutes against the Miami Heat, his 26-point, 8-assist night in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies, and his 25-point night on 5-of-6 shooting from deep against the Cleveland Cavaliers proved he could ignite at any given moment.

“He can score the ball — at the rim, in the midrange, shoot it from 3,” Williams said. “You don’t have to tell him to go score. You may have to tell them two or three other things, but you don’t have to tell him to score, and he’s not afraid.”

But as Williams alluded to, the peaks were matched by the valleys. Over the last six games where he saw the floor, Wash failed to crack double figures in the scoring column once, and during the stretch before Lee’s arrival, when he was still handling lead guard duties, he had four games with four turnovers and two more games with three turnovers.

Unfortunately, Washington wasn’t able to find the right balance between being himself and managing the team. It was a tough ask for a 22-year-old, who’d only been with the team since training camp and was playing on a two-way deal, to run the offense without CP3, Booker or Payne out there to help — especially for a guy who typically plays like a 2-guard.

Washington can clearly play, and by all rights, was well-liked during his time in Phoenix.

Unfortunately, there just weren’t many openings for playing time based on what the Suns needed during an injury-riddled stretch.

“They’re decisions that you have to make to what you think is good for the team,” Williams said Wednesday night. “At the same time, you understand that careers are affected when you make those decisions, and it was one of those days that you don’t necessarily care for, in these positions.”

From a practicality standpoint, Washington was also approaching the 50-game limit for two-way players to be listed on the active roster:

“That’s the part that you really think about: Somebody’s life, career has been changed just because of a decision you made, even though we think it helps the team and there’s other financial implications that I don’t want to speak on,” Williams said. “But it’s just part of the business we’re in.”

Those “financial implications” Williams alluded to likely refer to both Washington and Ish Wainright approaching the 50-game threshold that would either require them to be inactive for the rest of the season or be converted into a regular contract and fill the team’s 15th roster slot.

With Washington gone, Wainright is the frontrunner to have his contract converted soon, while Lee gets a somewhat fresh start in terms of how many games he can play on his two-way contract. Since about 60 percent of the season is over, he’s prorated the remaining 40 percent of the season against the normal 50-game limit. It shakes out to about 18 games he’s allowed to be active for, minus one for Wednesday’s horrific loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

Any team with minutes available in the backcourt and an open roster spot should be all over Washington, hopefully allowing him to play through mistakes and build confidence in his natural position off the ball.

2. What Saben Lee brings

As a Phoenix native who grew up playing basketball at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, Lee being able to play for the NBA team in his own city is a dream come true.

“It’s a great, great feeling,” Lee said. “It’s definitely a blessing to be in the NBA, but also on top of that, playing in your hometown is rare, so I’m grateful for it.”

His 6.9 points and 3.3 assists in 17.7 minutes per game hardly leap off the page, but he’s been surprisingly productive in spotty minutes, helping this team in a dire stretch. Lee has shot 44 percent overall, made six of his 12 3-pointers and has racked up 36 assists to only 12 turnovers.

“We needed him to come in and help us, and every time he’s stepped on the floor, he’s contributed,” Williams said. “Whether it’s his energy, defense, offensively, he’s been better than I thought.”

Lee spent time with the Suns as a training camp invite before getting cut, but Williams noted the team liked him then too. They believe he fits what Phoenix is trying to do, not just as a player, but as a person and competitor in general.

The 23-year-old point guard has lived up to preseason expectations and then some, providing the defense and playmaking that he’d shown during his first two years in the league. Gritty defense always helps carve out minutes, but Lee’s greatest asset so far has been his ability to get downhill.

“Saben is a dude who’s always on the rim,” Deandre Ayton observed. “He’s been pushing our momentum and raising our tempo big-time ever since he got here, so we’ve just been feeding off of that.”

Eleven games is a small sample size, but Lee still ranks in the NBA’s 96th percentile in drives per 75 possessions, according to The BBall Index. He’s not an elite finisher at 6-foot-3, but he does rank in the 80th percentile in rim shot creation, which is a bonus for a team that needs to attack the basket more often.

For all his forays into the paint, however, Lee doesn’t suffer from tunnel vision like most young guards. His ability to find cutters on the interior or shooters on the perimeter makes him a natural fit for the Suns’ “paint to great” approach, which means getting into the lane and either generating easy looks around the basket or spraying it back out to shooters.

Lee ranks in the 76th percentile in drive assist rate, as well as the 88th percentile in high-value assists per 75 possessions.

“He defends, and then he’s able to get to the paint,” Williams said. “And he’s pretty poised down there. He’s not getting there to just shoot floaters or attack for himself; he gets to the paint and he’s under control and he can get to the free-throw line by drawing contact.”

Per Cleaning The Glass, Saben Lee leads the entire Suns roster in shooting fouled percentage (which measures the percentage of a player’s shots he was fouled on) at 26.1 percent. That ranks in the 100th percentile at his position, and the next-closest player on the Suns roster is Josh Okogie, at 17.9 percent.

As easy as it’d be to crowd the paint against a player like that, Lee is also making defenses pay for sagging too far off. Driving is what he does best, but he’s still willing to mix it up when necessary.

“That’s definitely my strength,” Lee said after scoring a season-high 15 points against the Brooklyn Nets. “But if the team’s gonna leave me open like they did tonight, I gotta shoot the ball and I’m gonna shoot it with confidence.”

That improved confidence is something Williams noticed compared to his training camp stint.

“One thing I’ve seen with him since he’s been back is he’s not hesitant to shoot the ball,” Williams said. “I thought he was hesitant to shoot it the first time we had him, and I think being here, he understands how we play, the let-it-fly mentality.”

But perhaps just as important is how quickly the Suns have embraced him as another one of the fellas.

“He just got here, and he’s seamlessly getting in and making a big impact in a game,” Cam Johnson said. “That’s impressive, and he’s quickly become one of us.”

Chris Paul helped Lee with defensive coverages and pointing out reads from the sidelines when he arrived for his first 10 days. Assistant coach Jarrett Jack has spent time going over film with Lee to help break things down.

And in typical Suns fashion, the guys have already given him nicknames, including “Sabon” from Mikal Bridges and “Sabeski” from Torrey Craig.

“I’m close to the guys, so I’m here for it,” Lee said with a smile. “I’m cool with all the nicknames and everything, so I know it’s all love.”

3. Should we be concerned about Cam Payne?

Lee earning a two-way slot begs another question: How much longer is Cam Payne going to be sidelined by the right foot soreness that’s held him out since Jan. 4?

The Suns’ backup point guard is averaging a career-high 12.1 points and a career-high 5.3 assists per game this season, shooting 41.2 percent overall and 37.8 percent shooting from 3. Those numbers have been boosted by starting in half of his 28 games, but as sporadic as he can be at times, he knows the Suns’ system and can be a difference-maker at his best.

Unfortunately, he’s missed 25 of the team’s 53 games this season and has only played in two games since Dec. 13. We’ve already passed the timeline for the next re-evaluation period without word on when he might be back:

Payne only just got the boot off his foot recently, and he hasn’t seen on the floor much during practices or shootarounds lately (or at least not during the time when the media is allowed into the gym for availability). It feels unlikely he’ll be back before the All-Star break, which would explain the immediate need for Saben Lee.

The bigger question is whether the Lee signing is just a temporary precaution to weather this storm without their backup point guard, or whether Payne is dealing with a serious injury that could jeopardize his ability to return and have an impact on a team that still has its sights set on title contention.

Lee only has 17 games left as a two-way contract, so if Payne’s injury is something more serious, this is just a short-term Band-Aid that will require a more surgical hand at the trade deadline.

4. Saben Lee helps Suns maintain trade flexibility

NBA teams are allowed 15 regular roster spots and two two-way contracts. The Suns have 14 players under contract (we still technically have to count Jae Crowder, even if he hasn’t shown up), as well as Ish Wainright and now Saben Lee in two-way slots.

That means the Suns preserved their final normal roster spot, giving them flexibility in any potential trade to take on an extra player.

Earlier this week, we covered some realistic, ambitious and last-resort trades for the Suns, as well as some out-of-the-box targets and downright crazy three-team deals. Suffice it to say a fair portion of them don’t work without keeping that roster spot open.

It’s a tough break for Washington, but this move maintains flexibility to make more ambitious maneuvers before the trade deadline.

5. Looking to the buyout market

It doesn’t only have to be through trade, however. Buyout season immediately follows the trade deadline, and a number of players could be looking for a new team to sign with soon.

Let’s say Eric Gordon or one of the guys below secures a buyout. Having that extra roster spot could come in handy pretty quickly!

Even better, the Suns would be able to offer more than most potential suitors. While most offers would be worth the veteran minimum, Phoenix still has its taxpayer mid-level exception available, which has a starting salary of up to $6.5 million.

If there’s a decent rotation player that becomes available, the Suns have a solid path to being one of the frontrunners on the buyout market.

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