Before starting 36 games for the Warriors, before getting his first NBA contract, before becoming Stephen Curry’s brother-in-law, Damion Lee was a little-known G League player who stared at another lengthy injury rehab.
It was December 2016 and Lee had just torn up his left ACL in a game with the Maine Red Claws. This was his third major injury – including his second torn ACL – in a little over three years. To keep him focused during the recovery process, Lee decided to write in a notebook.
Not only did he rate how productive each day was on a scale of 1 to 5, but he also noted, “I AM AN NBA PLAYER.” 28-year-old Lee still rereads these notes from time to time. Although his two-way contract was converted to a standard NBA deal in January, he wants to maintain the same underdog mentality that has been a driving force behind his emergence as a valued rotation player for the Warriors.
“I’m coming into this season like I’ve signed a two-way deal,” said Lee, who is married to Curry’s younger sister, Sydel. “Sure, I’ve signed a contract but I’m still this hungry and I still want to be a better player than last year.”
Lee’s deal for the 2020-21 season isn’t fully guaranteed until February 27th. A team source told The Chronicle that Lee’s squad spot is safe, but Lee has enough experience to understand that circumstances can easily change. A bad game rash or other injury could force Golden State to forego him without owing him more than the $ 600,000 he already owed from his $ 1.8 million salary this season.
After Klay Thompson is out with a torn right Achilles tendon this season, Golden State opens practice on Monday in the hopes that Lee will play about 15 minutes per game, again shoot over 35% out of 3-point range and life on one The highest scores in the league can make scoring guards difficult.
Even before Thompson missed last season with a torn ACL, the Warriors had long struggled with the wing chord. They cycled through second string shooters like Patrick McCaw, Ian Clark, Nick Young and Jacob Evans to make Shaun Livingston or Andre Iguodala Thompson’s primary backup in high stakes situations.
Thompson’s status as one of the league’s most consistent players – missing an average of three games a year in his first eight NBA seasons – made the Warriors’ lack of depth of fire a problem. Once Curry broke his left hand in the fourth game last season, Golden State began prioritizing player development over wins.
In 29 minutes per game, Lee averaged 12.7 points at 41.7% shooting (35.6% from 3-point range), 4.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1 steal. So high on him was the Warriors that they passed on Center Marquese Chriss – a 22-year-old former lottery poll who impressed in a rotating role – to put Lee on the 15-man list. Even though Chriss came back with Golden State, another team could have picked him up on the waiver wire.
The question now is whether Lee’s breakthrough last season was merely the result of extended minutes on a squad with few scoring options. He scored at least 20 points five times and could be used defensively against several positions. However, can he be productive for a playoff team in less playing time?
By acting for Kelly Oubre Jr. just a day after news of Thompson’s Achilles injury and raising their luxury tax to nearly $ 135 million, the Warriors showed that they are still serious about winning – even if a title may not be in range. A vocal contingent of Golden State fans has been wondering on social media for the past few weeks whether Lee is able to provide reliable postseason logs.
Lee has noticed such chatter and uses it to advance his training at training camp. This is someone who is used to being questioned.
Lee, who is just beginning his fourth NBA season, still sometimes ponders the coach at Mount Saint Joseph High School in Baltimore who told him in his sophomore year that he would be lucky enough to receive a Division II scholarship . “No white flags” is tattooed on Lee’s right bicep to remind him of the stamina he needed during a trip, the two torn ACLs, a broken hand that was not withdrawn, two 10-day contracts, two two- Way contracts and numerous sleepless nights.
As Lee predicted in this notebook four years ago, he’s an NBA player. To keep this feel-good story going, he must prove he can help replace a future Hall of Famer at Thompson.
“I just come in and attack every day,” said Lee, who was near tears when he learned that Thompson had torn his Achilles apart. “It’s just about coming in and playing with the modest confidence I have. I just go out and try to compete every night. “
Connor Letourneau covers the warriors for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @Con_Chron