Native Sun: How Saben Lee’s NBA dreams from Corona Del Sol days led to Arizona homecoming

Phoenix Suns guard Saben Lee attended Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, where he dedicated countless hours to his craft with the help of his father and became a two-time first-team All-State selection before signing to play at Vanderbilt. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – It was the summer of 2013 and inside Corona Del Sol High School’s gym, Sam Duane, the boys basketball coach, was beginning the journey to winning back-to-back state titles. He looked at returning and new talent, searching for the pieces that could help the Aztecs reach the mountaintop once again.

Among the field of Division I-level prospects stood a scrawny 6-foot freshman who caught Duane’s eyes immediately.

The guard “oozed athleticism” and had trampolines on the bottom of his shoes, with his freaky jumping ability that left many in awe. His raw athletic ability captured Duane’s attention, and he knew this kid could be special if developed correctly. That 14-year-old kid was none other than current Phoenix Suns guard Saben Lee.

Lee, now 23, played with the Suns in the 2022-23 preseason, then returned mid-year after the franchise endured a laundry list of injuries. His success on the court earned him a two-way deal on Feb. 1. In 23 games this season with the Suns, he is averaging 6.3 points and 2.8 assists per game. The Suns hope he will be a vital component off the bench when they host the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the best-of-seven Western Conference playoffs beginning Sunday.

“I was ecstatic,” Lee said of signing with the Suns. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be here in my hometown.”

His ability to be brought into a new environment and fill a team’s needs is astounding but not new for Lee, a Valley native.

Since Lee’s freshman season at Corona Del Sol, he has learned to stay ready whenever his team needs him, regardless of individual success. Lee’s time at the Tempe school proved vital for his eventual professional career as it matured the youngster and taught him how to conquer the trials and tribulations he’d face in the NBA.

“When I had him as a freshman and a sophomore, he wasn’t strong. He hadn’t matured into his body, but you could see he was going to get stronger,” Duane said. “We brought Saben along a little bit slower, but I think it was the best thing for him.”

Lee was delegated to the freshman team because of his slim physique, but Duane also wanted Lee to build his leadership skills. Duane, now the boys basketball coach at Perry High in Gilbert, saw how bright the future Suns’ guard potential was and knew to instill those qualities early.

Neil MacDonald, an Aztecs assistant coach who later became the head coach for Lee during his junior and senior years, shared the same assessment of the freshman. MacDonald first noticed Lee’s huge hands and big feet, physical indicators of the type of player the scrawny freshman could become.

While his body wasn’t fully formed, Lee’s confidence was sky-high as the 14-year-old shared with MacDonald his goal to play in the NBA, a tireless statement that every high school coach hears. However, not all players have a parent who happens to be a retired professional athlete.

Anthonea “Amp” Lee, Saben’s father, had a successful nine-year career in the NFL for various teams and played a huge role in preparing his son for what it takes to be a pro athlete. Saben accepted the role to play for the freshman team and dominated, but he and his father went to work that summer to make sure there was no question he deserved to be on varsity.

“He had a tremendous work ethic, I mean religiously. Having a dad who is a pro helps because he knew to get to the level that he’s at now, (Amp) knew what it would take. And he had someone there mentoring him that had been through it,” MacDonald said of the younger Lee.

“His approach to the weight room, his approach to practice, and his approach to everything was very mature for his age. He wanted to play in the NBA. That was his goal. He approached it in a very professional way for a 14-year-old kid in his freshman and sophomore year.”

Lee came in locked and loaded the following year, joining varsity as a sixth man and immediately impacting the program’s success. While he got injured partway through the season, Lee’s sophomore year was only the beginning – his desire to be great highlighted the fundamental differences between him and other high school recruits.

While his father was a professional athlete, the Corona Del Sol coaching staff felt no pressure from Lee to follow suit. Duane mentioned that Lee was going to “make his own path.” Fully supported by Amp and his mother, Natalie, Lee still had to give everything possible if he were to have even a shot at reaching the NBA.

“His dad was there, his dad was present, but it was a common goal. It looks like pressure when you see a kid who’s doing something that maybe he’s not 100 percent committed to, that he’s doing it for someone else. In Saben’s case, that wasn’t true,” MacDonald said. “Saben was 100 percent committed to what he was doing. He wanted to work. He embraced it.”

In Lee’s junior year, his first year under MacDonald, he was finally given the reins as a starter to unleash his freaky athleticism on opponents. The results came instantly, and that season earned him first-team All-State. Senior year was even better for the guard who was now 6-foot-3 as he again earned first-team All-State, garnering national recognition while averaging 20.6 points per game. The four-star recruit was ranked the second-best prospect in the state by 247Sports.

Despite losing in the 6A state title game to Basha, Lee had garnered national attention, finally fulfilling what Duane and MacDonald had envisioned for him when he first walked into their gym all those summers ago. The many accolades resulted in a recruitment flood from across the country, a process that made even MacDonald nauseated.

The endless phone calls, emails, visits and more from prospective college coaches overwhelm many kids. However, the experience from Lee’s support system during the recruitment phase helped prepare the future pro to become a pro. It was a gratifying experience for MacDonald to see the success of one of his players, and the coach gives full credit to Lee for paving his own way.

“I never thought I would ever do that as a high school coach. It’s amazing the fact that he’s been wearing a Suns Jersey. I texted him the other day and was like, ‘It’s so cool for me as a Suns fan to see (you) wearing a Suns jersey.’ It’s just awesome,” MacDonald said. “It’s so nice to see a guy who comes in his freshman year and says, ‘I want to play in the NBA,’ They all say that but then (to) see a guy do it. It’s unbelievable. It’s so gratifying. He did it. He put in the work.”

Duane shares the same joy as his 20-year coaching partner over Lee’s success. While Duane only coached Lee during his first two years, the gratification of seeing a once naive kid with mile-high aspirations being able to jump up and reach them is heartwarming for Duane.

“He’s a wonderful kid. Seeing him on the Suns is awesome,” Duane said. “To watch him develop through high school and to where he is now is exciting and fun. When good things happen to good people, that makes it even better.”

After his impressive high school career, Lee went to Tennessee to attend Vanderbilt University, where he continued striving to achieve his dream of becoming a pro. A starter in his freshman and sophomore campaigns, he averaged 11.6 points per game. While successful, he wasn’t matching the level of play at Corona Del Sol.

To begin his junior year, Lee was benched but still tried to be a leader off the pine. After battling his way off the bench as a sophomore in high school, Lee found himself back where he started. David Grace, then Vanderbilt’s associate head coach, recalled how the junior guard wasn’t thrilled by the demotion from the starting lineup.

“Yeah, he didn’t like that,” said Grace, who is now the boys basketball coach at Centennial High in Peoria. “That’s one thing that he didn’t care for the whole year, but we’ve managed it. He was a professional about the whole thing. I was glad that I knew him already and was able to talk him through all of that stuff.”

A recruiter at UCLA when Lee was coming out of high school, Grace was heavily interested in bringing him to Los Angeles. Grace saw all of Lee’s physical tools, his athleticism and wingspan, but he also noticed Lee’s maturity. Then, when Grace arrived at Vanderbilt in 2019, he witnessed firsthand Lee’s commitment to winning.

Lee understood the road to the association wouldn’t always be smooth, so he accepted the move to the Commodores’ bench and had his best year yet. In 15 of the first 17 games in the 2019-20 season, Lee came off the bench and averaged 15.7 points and 4.8 assists.

“The mindset was keeping the main thing the main thing when I’m on the court, whether I’m starting or finishing games,” Lee said. “Whenever I’m out there, (I’m) just playing my game, being aggressive, and doing whatever I can to help the team win.”

Grace Added: “We had some great games where he scored 40 points in one game. (He) just did incredible things throughout the years. He gets it from himself, that desire to be really great. He works on his game. You either love this game, or you don’t. If you love it, and you’re blessed with those physical abilities, and you have a great mindset, you’re going to reach the NBA.”

Grace highlighted Lee’s desire to be great throughout the season, whether he was on the bench or starting, noting the junior’s 40-point game during the year. Grace and the other coaches realized Lee’s play was too impressive to have him come off the bench. Vanderbilt ended that year 11-21, but that didn’t stop Lee from working towards his childhood goal. Starting in the final 15 games of the same season, Lee averaged 21.8 points and started to believe the hype surrounding him that he could make the league.

“It was probably my last year in college,” Lee said. “I just felt like things progressed the way I wanted to kind of show up on a national stage.”

Lee achieved his boyhood dream when the Utah Jazz selected him with the 38th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, then subsequently traded him to the Detroit Pistons. After being delegated to the bench role in high school and college, Lee endured those setbacks to make the premier basketball league in the world.

Three years later, after stints with the Philadelphia 76ers and various trips to the NBA G League, Lee found his way home to Arizona. Grace noted the significance of a hometown kid playing for his hometown team, not just for how it affects the player but for the buzz it gives the city as a whole.

“It means a lot for the community,” Grace said. “The basketball community in Phoenix is becoming a well-known commodity. Phoenix is on the map now for basketball, and (Saben) is a part of that. Not only is he a part of that, but he went to Vanderbilt, and he went away from the city and came back. Now he’s on a team that everybody loves here in Phoenix with a chance to win a world championship.”

The former Aztecs traded an orange and yellow uniform for another in the Suns and again finds himself in a familiar position on the bench. However, if his time as a Sun is anything like it was at Corona Del Sol or Vanderbilt, Lee will continue to grind and chisel his own path toward being a part of bringing Phoenix its first NBA title.

“I’m confident in our squad,” Lee said. “Whatever happens happens, but I’ll take us against anybody for sure.”

Tanner Tortorella TAN-er tor-tor-RELL-uh
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Tanner Tortorella expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Tortorella, who is assigned to Cronkite News, has been a reporter for news organization incluging AZPreps365 and ASU student-ran club Cronkite Sports.