Long journey to NBA dream forged confidence in Damion Lee

The Hawks’ Damion Lee scores on a corner 3-pointer over the Hornets’ Nicolas Batum during Thursday’s game at Philips Arena.
The Hawks’ Damion Lee scores on a corner 3-pointer over the Hornets’ Nicolas Batum during Thursday’s game at Philips Arena.

The sense of urgency was readily apparent in the text message.

It read: Wake up Damion. I’ve got some good news for you but I need you to get to Atlanta.

The message came from the agent of Damion Lee. It was followed with a phone call from the Hawks. The team wanted to sign the 6-foot-6 combo guard to a 10-day contract. Lee was about to make the biggest step of a very long journey toward his NBA dream.

On Saturday, Lee was in Memphis playing for the Santa Cruz Warriors of the G League.

On Sunday, he was in Dallas getting ready for a game two days later, the latest in the minor-league grind.

On Monday, he was an Atlanta Hawk.

On Tuesday, he was officially an NBA player as he had 13 points, four rebounds, two assists and a steal in 17 minutes against the Thunder.

On Friday, he had 14 points, two rebounds and an assist against the Hornets.

“I feel like I have a story to tell,” Lee said in a quiet Hawks locker room Thursday after scoring 14 points in his second game. “My mom always tells me that my steps are ordered and God has a plan for me and that it’s just a matter of time until hard work, opportunity and timing all match up.”

Lee became the first Hawks player to score in double figures in his first two regular-season NBA games since Paul Graham in 1991. Graham scored in double figures in his first four games.

About that journey. Lee played four years at Drexel but his junior season was cut short to just five games after he torn the ACL in his right knee in 2013. He played at Louisville as a graduate transfer for the 2015-16 season and was part of the Cardinals team that missed the postseason and NCAA tournament due to school-imposed sanctions.

Lee went undrafted in 2016 but played two preseason games with the Celtics before joining Maine in the G League. He played 16 games before that season ended with another torn ACL. He was obtained by Santa Cruz in August and has excelled this season. In 38 games, Lee averaged 15.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 steals in 30 minutes.

Now, the 25-year old Lee is on a 10-day contract for which “I’m just thankful.”

In two games with the Hawks, Lee has 27 points on 9 of 16 shooting, including 5 of 9 from 3-point range, six rebounds and three assists. The Hawks can sign Lee to a second 10-day contract once the current deal expires. He has certainly made his presence known.

After the Hawks’ 129-117 loss to the Hornets Thursday, head coach Mike Budenholzer and teammates Dennis Schroder and Taurean Prince all used the word confidence to describe Lee.

Budenholzer: “There’s a confidence. He has the ability to shoot the 3 but also slashing behind shifts. Just a good feel for the game. Sticking his nose in there on rebounds and loose balls. Great first impression for him this week.”

Schroder: “He plays with confidence. My first year when I got here, I wasn’t like that. He comes in here and he’s ready.”

Prince: “He is not shy. He is fearless. He’s got some dog in him. Those are the type of guys I can relate with.”

There is more to Lee’s remarkable story. He is engaged to Sydel Curry, daughter of Dell and brother of the Warriors’ Stephen and the Mavericks’ Seth. Lee worked out with the NBA brothers during the offseason in preparation for the upcoming year. Dell, himself a prolific NBA scorer, serves as the color analyst for the Hornets’ television broadcast and was there courtside for Lee’s second NBA game. After his third 3-pointer, Curry let out a loud “Welcome to the family!”

Curry, who played for Team USA during FIBA World Cup qualifying, knows and appreciates the support of his new teammates.

“Everyone in this locker room wants everyone to succeed,” Lee said. “That’s contagious. Even if I miss a shot, (Prince), (Kent Bazemore) are like ‘Shoot it again. If you don’t shoot it again, then we are going to yell at you.’”

The dream becomes a reality.

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