Marcus Sasser is one of the last purveyors of a dying art in the NBA: the rookie chews gum while playing.
“It helps settle my nerves,” Sasser said with a smile when asked about his gum routine following his 21-point performance in 20 minutes against the LA Clippers on Friday.
Marcus Sasser? Nerves? The guy who has played in Sweet Sixteens, Elite Eights and the Final Four? The guy who hit multiple big shots in all of those rounds? The generously-listed 6-foot-2 Detroit Pistons guard who plays with the confidence and tenacity of someone eight inches taller? He gets nervous?
“I never would have guessed that,” Detroit head coach Monty Williams said when it was revealed to him why his rookie guard chomps on gum while playing. “He’s steady, rock-hard tough and I’ve said it before that he’s tough as an old wallet. I never would have guessed … he’s not afraid to take a shot, he’s not afraid to mix it up. I think those nerves that he feels are because he’s passionate and he cares.”
In a troubled developmental season for the Pistons, Sasser has been one of few very bright spots. His playing time has been sporadic at times due to Detroit’s guard depth, his status in the NBA and, at times, his size. But when Sasser plays, good things have happened more often than not. The shooting, the ballhandling and the willingness to be a bulldog on the defensive end all reveal themselves when given an opportunity.
At his core, though, Sasser is a scorer. He’s handed out buckets like business cards since he first picked up a basketball. Sasser’s three-level scoring at Houston was a big factor in the Pistons trading back into the first round during the 2023 NBA Draft to take the undersized, four-year guard out of the University of Houston, despite the fact Detroit drafted guards in the first round of the previous three drafts.
Sasser isn’t just a scorer, though. The lack of descriptors would be doing him a disservice. He’s an efficient scorer. Always has been. That hasn’t changed in the NBA even though he’s going up against taller, bigger, faster and stronger players every night.
Listen to this: Sasser has a legitimate chance to become the first rookie in NBA history and only the 10th player in league history to be part of the 50-40-90 club — a fictitious but celebrated institution for a few of the game’s most efficient scorers. Sasser is currently shooting 48.4 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from 3 and 90.6 percent from the charity stripe.
Now, Sasser doesn’t have the volume of other names on this list, He’s no Kevin Durant, Larry Bird or Stephen Curry. However, by the time his rookie season is over, he’ll likely have played well over 1,000 minutes and have attempted more than 500 field goals and over 250 3-pointers.
That’s not nothing.
“The more and more I play … I’m starting to feel comfortable,” said Sasser, who has four 20-plus-point games to his name as a rookie. “I’m learning when to take my shots, learn to look for my teammates and create.”
Sasser is a man of few words. He appears shy at times. Sasser the player and Sasser the person couldn’t be any different. It’s a fascinating dichotomy. An average person could walk past him on the street and might not know he’s an NBA player, even if he is wearing his team-issued gear. On the court, it’s impossible not to notice Sasser. His snatchback crossover often draws oohs and aahs from both opposing and home fans. His jumpers rarely touch the rim. He likes to mix it up defensively. These aren’t the same people. They can’t be.
It’s almost as if Sasser the player is the alter ego of Sasser the person.
“He’ll play in a game and still come (to the practice facility) after to get work in,” Williams said. “It’s just who he is. The guys put the work in that way generally get better. You just don’t imagine a rookie shooting it like that.”
Sasser has slowly but surely become a staple in Williams’ rotation now. The head coach is playing five guards just because of what Sasser provides on a nightly basis. If it weren’t for injuries to the Pistons’ backcourt to begin the year, the 23-year-old Sasser likely would have spent a good portion of this season in the G League. Can you imagine the types of numbers he’d put up down there?
Yet, while Sasser hasn’t been perfect as a rookie, the experience he’s gotten has helped mold him more as a primary ballhandler and point guard. He’s getting more comfortable making more complex reads with each passing game. He’ll always be a bucket-getter first and foremost, and that should help him have a long NBA career, but he also has the ability to lead an NBA offense.
Sasser is a combo guard in an old-school point guard’s body. They really don’t make players like him anymore. His size doesn’t appear to hinder him offensively. He’s added a floater and other quirky push shots from the paint to help avoid the trees waiting for him at the basket. He was a complex scorer who has found ways to become even more complex at the sport’s toughest level.
Sasser hasn’t even fully been unleashed yet. With time and more responsibilities, it’s hard not to not eventually see a Lou Williams- or Terry Rozier-type scorer for a decade-plus. He’s got all the tools.
The Pistons haven’t gotten a lot of things right over the last year, but Sasser appears to be a real gem going forward.
“I don’t expect anything less from him,” Jaden Ivey said of his rookie teammate. “He works, along with myself and all the guys, really hard. It’s good to see him be aggressive for us. He’s just got to keep doing it.”
(Photo of Sasser: Nic Antaya / Getty Images)