‘21 Season Review: The unfinished tale of Damion Lee

After a strong season, Lee finds himself with plenty to prove - and an opportunity to do so

The Golden State Warriors are hoping to get lucky around the edges. In order to compete for another championship, they’ve already got an established core that can mostly get them there. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and the returning Klay Thompson account for the majority of this season’s good (or bad) fortunes.

But around that core exists a fringe of possibilities that will help or hinder the work of a team hoping to rediscover the upper realms of the NBA stratosphere after a couple of lost seasons. One of those players is Damion Lee, a fourth-year shooting guard who played in all but one of the Warriors’ first 58 games last season - before a breakthrough Covid case brought his season to a premature end.

Lee is back on a low-stakes contract for Golden State this season, and given the roster, he’s going to get plenty of opportunities to show that he can help.

How does Lee help?

Before getting into the specific lineups and usefulness, let’s spend some time looking at what Lee does well. Bottom line up front? Lee is a shooter. And a good one, at that. Here’s his career three-point shooting attempt rate, charted alongside his scoring efficiency numbers. The important thing to note here is that they’re both going up. Lee is getting more efficient as his career advances, while also upping the number of three-point attempts he takes.

For Golden State, this is all fantastic news, as they’re banking on some internal improvement. Well… '“banking on” might be overly stating it, but wherever you fall on the spectrum of contentment with the current Warriors rotation, I hope we can all agree that Lee is looking better and better.

Last season, the Warriors ranked 9th in three-point shooting percentage, hitting around 37.6% of their shots from deep as a team. Obviously the return of the other half of the Splash Brothers is the biggest change in this regard - though the departure of high-volume/low-efficiency poster child, Kelly Oubre is surely second - a full season of Lee should help bolster a team that heavily relies on spacing.

It’s this combination of good percentages and a discerning palate that made Lee a favorite of coach Steve Kerr last season. This is a team that prioritizes efficiency, so finding a player that can shoot like Lee, but doesn’t overwhelm the offensive flow by forcing action is a recipe for success on Kerr’s depth chart.

Here’s another chart. Note the drop off in scoring efficiency after Lee.

So, Lee can score. A critical role for any team, but even more so for a Golden State squad hoping to tread water until the mid-season return of Klay Thompson.

Will Lee be the starter?

This is going to be another weird season, and hopefully there will be a little more clarity after the Warriors complete their preseason games (recently announced as five games spanning October 4th through the 15th). But as it stands now, the Warriors have three established starters: Curry, Wiggins, and Green. Presumably, the center position will be covered by some combination of Kevon Looney and James Wiseman (with spot assistance from Bjelica); but the starting shooting guard positional battle is the most wide open.

On paper, it seems like either Lee, or Jordan Poole would be the easy answer. Whether it be Lee or Poole doesn’t matter a ton, in the grand scheme of things - since whoever comes off the bench will likely play something close to equal minutes. That said, the side-by-side comparison is interesting to look at. Here’s a basic summary (using statistics that have been pro-rated to reflect 100 possessions):

Lee is a better rebounder, and as was pointed out above, more efficient - but it’s the scoring output discrepancy that may sway the needle here. Would coach Kerr prefer to put the gunner Poole in alongside the starters? Or use him as the bench driver? Or is it that Lee (with his efficient, low demand game) seems to match closer to what will eventually be Thompson's role alongside Curry?

Don’t just take my (frequently wrong) word on it though, here’s Kerr recently on The Athletic, talking about this exact conundrum of ‘who will start, who will lead the bench”:

My gut reaction is Jordan Poole. But that’s without having seen anybody at camp, that’s without having seen our rookies or Otto Porter, (Mychal) MulderDamion Lee with the rest of the group. It could be any of those guys.

But Jordan played so well last year. He’s really on the rise. He’s having a great summer. Our coaches have raved about him and the work he’s putting in this summer. So I think he’s got a great chance to start. But one thing I love about both Damion and Mych — both really good spot starters because they understand how to play. They shoot the ball well. And they’re both good ball-movers. So it’s most likely going to be one of those three guys.

And obviously, when you make a decision on your starting lineup, you have to look at how that impacts the bench. If I feel like Jordan makes the most sense as our backup point to Steph, there’s a good chance I bring him off the bench and start Damion or Mych. So I think all of that is up in the air.

None of these players pencil in as plus defenders, but the Warriors may have learned some valuable lessons when they prioritized defensive specialists like Brad Wanamaker last season; which is supported by Kerr’s statements above.

Whether Lee comes off the bench, or slots in as the starter ahead of Klay Thompson’s return, this upcoming season will do a lot to cement Lee’s status in the NBA - one way or another. There’s an upward trend that everyone hopes will continue, and if he can keep getting better, then the sky’s the limit. Not bad for a player that is under contract for less than $2 million, and a very welcome bonus on the fringes of a roster that could really use some lift coming from outside of the core. Starting or not, Lee will be an important part of the edges of this roster - both before, and after Thompson’s return.