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Damion Lee Has Scoring Touch for Deep 1st-Round Steal

Louisville's Damion Lee (0) attempts a shot between the defense of Kennesaw State's Nick Masterson (21) and Jordan Jones (2) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015, in Louisville, Ky. Louisville won 94-57. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Louisville swingman Damion Lee was one of my biggest risers during the nonconference portion of the schedule, moving from 56 to 37 in my most recent Big Board, and with good reason. He’s been the star of the Cardinals early on, as the Drexel transfer has turned into the number one option on a team in desperate need of one heading into the season. Trey Lewis, Louisville’s other transfer from Cleveland State, has brought a promising second option to the Cards’ roster but isn’t quite the NBA prospect of Lee’s caliber.

Lee had a number of issues prior to the season when projecting his NBA outlook, like his age (23), questionable ball-handling ability and how his defense would translate to the high major level. At Drexel, Lee was an All-Conference defender, stealing 1.5 times per game his redshirt junior year and showed a high basketball IQ with the ball in his hands averaging over 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio during his final two seasons.

Damion Lee Shot Chart

But at Louisville, he’s had the ball in his hands a lot less at Louisville playing alongside true point guard Quentin Snider. It’s been a blessing in disguise for Lee, who’s having his most productive season yet nearing the 40/50/90 plateau at 49.3 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from 3 and 89.2 percent from the free throw line. Lee can do a lot with the ball in his hands, but he’s really grown as an off the ball threat for the Cardinals. Check out his highlights of his performance against current number one Michigan State and a quality defender like Denzel Valentine.

Lee showed his defensive tenacity and awareness that helped him finish with 24 points and five steals, allowing him to show off his athleticism in transition. At 6-6 and what looks like pretty good length, Lee has the physical frame that should allow him to defend at the NBA level. He showed the ability to create against a good defender in Valentine, displaying a spin move and the basketball IQ to utilize screens to create space for himself. At 23 years old, Lee’s offensive game is pretty refined and efficient across the board. Lee also went off for 27 points against Kentucky just this last Saturday.

At 35 seconds in, Lee shows off his quick trigger and the respect the defense gives his quickness with the space after his jab step. At 1:10, Lee uses his strength and lefty dribble to overpower the smaller Dominique Hawkins for a finger roll at the rim. Throughout the game, Lee smartly cut off the ball in the halfcourt to produce good looks on offense, which bodes well to his transition playing more off the ball in the NBA. Calipari took a lot of time to congratulate Lee after the game and said post game he’ll be playing in “the league” next season.

But there remain concerns for the offensively talented swingman. Although he’s shown aggression in passing lanes, a lot of that is in part of Louisville’s full court, pressing style of play. They place Lee on the backline in their matchup zone, which doesn’t help scouts project his 1-on-1 defense to the NBA as easily. Lee’s age (he’ll be 24 to start his rookie season after getting a medical redshirt his junior year at Drexel after breaking his right hand) also hurts his outlook with a perceived lack of upside than other prospects.

Lee has taken full advantage of the graduate transfer rule to play out his fifth year at a more prominent university to help his draft stock. He had every right to do so after being overlooked in high school, and it looks like he could slip into the end of the first round come June. Lee still has to prove he can do what it takes defensively in isolation situations, but draft workouts should show his growth in that area as well.

The nice thing is, regardless of where Lee is drafted, that team will know they’re getting a mature, versatile offensive threat capable of knocking down shots and playing aggressively in the passing lanes. Lee should become a productive NBA player down the line with his offensive ability; the question will come down to his defense and lateral quickness defending NBA-level athletes.

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