By Brian Spencer
Oh hi, Courtney Lee. Good to see you! We’ve been anxiously awaiting your arrival in New Jersey for, oh, damn near 4 months now. Better late than never, I suppose?
You might remember Lee as the only real asset the Nets received in last summer’s deal that shipped Vince Carter to the Orlando Magic (well, that and cap space to entice LeBron James but ultimately to overpay Amare Stoudemire in a few months here). A late first-round pick from Western Kentucky in ’08, Lee played a pivotal role in the Magic’s ascent to the top of the Eastern Conference during his rookie season, evolving into one of the team’s top perimeter defenders and flashing raw, intriguing offensive capability.
If anything, we learned he’s a smart player, even as a rookie, who did little to hurt his team and a lot to help it. On the season, Lee started 42 regular-season games, finishing with modest pers of 8.4 points (45% FG), 2.3 boards, 1.2 assists, 1 steal, and 1.1 triples in about 25 minutes a night. The Magic probably would have preferred to keep him, but they’re firmly in win-now mode and despite his considerable warts, Carter gives them a better chance. (Even though, you know, he’s sort of a loser.)
And so, much to his chagrin, Lee was dealt. Can’t imagine why he’d be less-than-psyched about going from a contender like Orlando to a bottom-feeder like New Jersey, but he eventually relented and seemed to recognize this as a golden opportunity to step right into a different kind of starting job than he’d had in Orlando. One where he’d be relied upon as a primary scoring option, not as a guy nibbling on scraps left over from Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson, etc.
What more could a young guy want? Yeah, playing for a functional franchise not pinning its future on ping-pong balls and the whims of in-demand megastars would be nice, but hey, you can’t everything.
And so it was that Courtney Lee was penciled in for 35+ minutes a night for the Nets and given the green light to do whatever it took to make it happen. One problem: it didn’t happen. Lee missed 7 of the team’s first 13 games due to injury, and shot a “blistering” 31% from the field in the 6 games he did play in. He’s since missed just 4 games, but until recently, it’s mostly been ugly, including an abyssmal January in which he averaged 10.3 points (41% FG, 33% 3PT), 2.9 boards, 2 assists, and 1.2 steals in 31:30 minutes per in 13 games. This is for the Nets, mind you.
But, suddenly, hardwood epiphany. Lee has scored at least 21 points in 6 of his last 10 games (let’s just ignore that 0-9 effort a few weeks ago against the Heat), has shot an even 50% during this stretch, and helped propel the Nets to three whole wins along the way, which has pushed their overall record to 7-56, a mere 41 games back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for top seed in the East. The 6-5 shooting guard capped it Monday night with a career-high 30 points (13-20 FG) along with 5 boards, 2 assists, and 2 steals in the Nets’ nailbiter of a loss 107-101 to the Grizzlies.
Fluke, or has Lee turned a corner? The kid received high praise from his Magic teammates after the trade, and is widely respected around the league. Shaquille O’Neal said Lee would “make the Magic pay”. Me, I’m not worried about Lee’s long-term future. For now, I’m just happy he finally showed up.
Courtney Lee Photo Credit: Icon SMI