Player comparisons are a helpful tool to draw parallels between the familiar styles of play of former and current athletes. But when Warriors assistant coach Kenny Atkinson called Damion Lee "Golden State's Rod Carew" in the postgame coaches' meeting, the five-year guard said he'd have to turn to Google to find out what that meant.
Well, Carew was a baseball player back in the 1960-1980s who was known for coming into a game and always getting one or two hits just when the team needed them most. So far this season, that's exactly what Lee has done for the Warriors. He comes in and knocks down a few shots that end up changing the game.
In the Warriors' 106-98 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night, Lee was the momentum-shifter for Golden State.
Following a lackluster first half that saw the Warriors trailing one of the worst teams in the league by double-digits, the Warriors were looking for any sign of fight. Then, Lee checked in during the third quarter and knocked down two 3-pointers, breathing life back into the team.
That's when everything else started to fall in line.
"He’s just so rock solid in every way," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said after the game. "The ball moves when he's out there, he makes the right cut, he makes the right pass, he’s a big-time shooter and his defense has been solid. So Damion has been fantastic."
Lee's been a good player for the Warriors since he came up from the G League in 2019. But he has gotten better and better each year. Because of that, Kerr knew he was primed for his best year yet.
So far, Lee is delivering. He is averaging 14.3 points on 47.5 percent shooting from the field, including 47 percent from three, and has now scored at least 11 points in all four of the Warriors games -- equalling his longest streak of scoring double-digit points since the end of the 2019-20 season. This, of course, includes the 20 points he dropped on the Thunder, which is his 15th career 20-point game.
Kerr knew Lee was ready for big things during training camp.
"It’s not surprising given that he was fantastic every day of training camp," Kerr said. "Probably our most consistent player throughout."
But, to those on the outside of the Warriors camp, this may be a bit surprising.
Last season, Lee was a fringe rotation player and was expected to be the same this year, especially when Klay Thompson returns. But everything Lee did over the summer has allowed him to exceed expectations.
Lee prioritized altering his nutrition and working on his conditioning during the offseason. For the first time in his professional career, he wasn't working his way back from injury, and he needed to take advantage of the improved situation. He followed a mantra, "The best ability is availability," and did everything in his power to get his body as healthy, durable and energetic as possible.
Of course, while he wasn't rehabbing an injury, Lee did have to work his way back from a late-season bout with COVID-19 that Lee admitted wasn't easy.
"After my battle with COVID, it was about ramping up from there," Lee told NBC Sports Bay Area at practice last week. "I probably took a week off of not touching a basketball, and then just went really hard in the weight room trying to make sure I got my conditioning. It probably took me two and a half months, close to three, to really start to feel like myself again. So with that, it was just finding a balance between how hard to work on the court versus lifting, conditioning, things of that nature."
Whatever balance he struck has worked out immensely so far. Lee's contributions have made him a crucial part of the Warriors' bench, not just with scoring, but with help on the glass and reliable defense. Lee has become a staple in the Warriors' closing lineup, for reasons like what gave them Tuesday night.
In the final four minutes of the game, Lee hit his third 3-pointer -- a 26-foot shot from the top of the arc -- after Steph Curry found him following a slight relocation when Josh Giddey strayed a bit too far. Then, a few minutes later he made a dagger layup (also assisted by Curry when Giddey fell asleep on defense).
Lee has had several of these kinds of plays in all four of the Warriors' games thus far.
Against the Los Angeles Lakers on Opening Night, he gave the Warriors the lead in the fourth with a 26-foot 3-pointer. All three of his made buckets against the Los Angeles Clippers came in the fourth quarter. He tied the score in Sacramento with seven minutes left in the game with a cutting layup.
If he keeps this up, the Warriors will be forced to find time for him, even when their roster is at full strength.
"I just think he’s at the point of his career where he’s ready for a big year," Kerr said. "He’s got all the knowledge, his body is in peak shape, he’s feeling good. A lot of good things are going on in Damion’s life and he's a hell of a basketball player and a great teammate. So it’s all tee'd up for him."
So far, he's making the most of it by doing his best Carew impression: giving the Warriors the big hits in their time of need.