It's March 31st, 2009. Lance Stephenson is late. Again. To his own press conference, which he himself called. Rumor has it he missed his flight completely.
This is the McDonald's All American game week. The premier showcase for high school basketball talent in the entire country. Lance has been invited for a very good reason; he's arguably the best high school player in the country, if not the world. But he's not making a great impression....then again, no one's really surprised about that.
Stephenson is a prodigious talent. Always has been. In 2006...as a high school sophomore....Lance played in an adult all star tournament held at Rucker Park. He dominated. So much so, that Rucker announcer Bobbito Garcia coined a nickname for him. "I'd seen him go up against seasoned NBA veterans, seasoned college cats, high school kids two or three years older than him, and he was always reppin', so I just called it."
"He's Born Ready."
But it hasn't exactly been all smiles for Lance. Far from it, in fact. The Wolves nation is on fire debating the risk/reward of DeMarcus Cousins (whom the front office reportedly is down on). That's fine, that's appropriate. But if you want to take a flier on someone, Lance Stephenson makes Cousins' baggage look like a purse by comparison.
Once ranked as the #1 high school recruit in the nation...and considered John Wall's equal, if not better....Stephenson crashed and burned in the Spring of 2009. And that surprised no one.
Lance's troubles began early. In the summer of 2005, Stephenson vaulted onto the national stage when he out-dueled OJ Mayo at the annual ABCD camp. He then enrolled...."enrolled"....at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn, New York. He attended classes for a grand total of three days. At the end of his first week, Bishop lost in the championship game of the local youth tournament, and Stephenson was denied the MVP trophy.
By the next week, Stephenson was attending Lincoln High in Coney Island....the same high school that turned out former Wolves point guards Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair. Despite the sketchy circumstances that led him to attend the school in the first place, his new coach, Dwanye Morton, had nothing but praise for him. "He always talked about outdoing Sebastian, outdoing Stephon. He's the best I've ever had at Lincoln."
Lincoln High won back to back city titles his sophomore and junior years, winning back to back Player of the Year awards from New York Daily News. In 2008, he was named to USA Today's All-USA team...the only non-senior on the list. By 2009, he had passed Telfair for the all time New York scoring record, and had led his school to an unprecedented 4th consecutive PSAL title. His entire year was documented on the website Born Ready, a half web journal, half reality tv show that had a camera crew following Stephenson around every second of every day.
By the time college recruitment came to the front of Stephenson's life, Lance was considered the top high school player in the nation...even better than John Wall. The dynamic between the two was of production versus potential....Wall had glitz and glam looming, but Stephenson was already there.
Stephenson is a 6-6, 220-pound tank of a shooting guard, with a yo-yo handle, tremendous range on his jumper, and the moves to either go around or through any defender. Imagine a smaller, more skilled Ron Artest physically, but with the mentality Ron-Ron has on the defensive end transferred to the other side of the ball. His game...is the epitome of a scorer.
If you're talking potential, John Wall is your man. But if you need a kid to get it done right now, Lance Stephenson is the guy you go to, hands down.
As a player....and as a rising icon....Lance Stephenson was unmatched.
But even then, Stephenson was still mired in trouble on almost a constant basis.
His attitude problem was there even at an early age....in January 2008, Lance was suspended after an altercation with a teammate. Later that summer, he was cut from the US Nationals under-18 team due to "chemistry concerns". Then in October, he was arrested for sexually assaulting a classmate while at school. He capped off his high school career by stealing the ball from his own teammate for a dunk, in an attempt to impress Kansas assistant coach Danny Manning. His parents shut down Born Ready tv, and the fallout of his misbehavior became a major stumbling block as Lance tried to pick a college.
Despite his troubles, Stephenson was still highly thought of as a recruit...at least from a player perspective. As late as January 2009, He was ranked #7 by Scout, #9 by Rivals, and #8 by ESPN. A few places, like Clark Francis’ HoopScoop, still had him ranked #1....a testament to Lance's sheer ability as a player being able to overshadow (for some) his behavior problems.
In the 2009 Hoophall Classic in January, DraftExpress' Jonothan Givony blogged the summary package that was Lance Stephenson:
The initial impression of Stevenson when he walked onto the court for warm-ups was extremely positive. He is a legitimate 6’6", over 200lbs, very well defined and fit (he has slimmed down considerably) – looking very much like a basketball player and nothing like a high school kid. In the 1st half however, Stevenson showed exactly why he has so many skeptics.
When he didn’t receive a pass where he wanted it, he demonstrated noticeable signs of frustration by rolling his eyes or throwing his arms up in disgust. He was totally out of sync as he was forcing up shots in the lane and driving hard at one speed into traffic committing offensive fouls or turning the ball over otherwise. He didn’t seem to have any interaction with his teammates as they were reluctant to even throw him the ball in several instances throughout the game. With that, he showed very little movement without the ball, but rather posted up on the perimeter, using his overwhelming strength and size to receive passes.
Defensively, at least in the first half, he was lazy getting back and gambled all over the court, hindering his team tremendously. It also got very testy between LeFlore (AL) High School’s star center DeMarcus Cousins and Stevenson – where several "unintentional" half-hearted blows were exchanged. Stevenson sat the final 4 minutes of the first half with 3 fouls.
In the 2nd half, we saw a different Lance Stevenson. He played with a sense of urgency and showed why he is one of the most talented players in the country. His mid-range game was deadly, pulling up both right and left, elevating high in the air and creating a lot of space in the process. He had one very quick right to left cross over into a jump shot that was more than impressive. He displayed the ability to change pace going to the basket, and was able to get where he wanted to go. He didn’t seem to have tremendous speed or athleticism, but he has a very hard almost violent dribble than enables him to beat most players off the dribble at the high school level.
With performances like this, Stephenson developed a not-entirely-undeserved reputation as a player who felt high school was beneath him. Recruiters, already leery of the looming sexual assault case, began to question Lance's heart, his focus, his discipline. Which Lance Stephenson was going to show up? The impending NBA all star who could singlehandedly win games at will? Or the troubled, unfocused, selfish player who could singlehandedly undermine team chemistry and sink a whole season?
Around the time of the Hoophall Classic, Stephenson said he had narrowed his college choices down to Kansas, St. John's (Ron Artest's alma mater), and Maryland. A month later, Maryland was ruled out after his visit allegedly broke NCAA recruitment rules. A month after that, following the PSAL title game, Stephenson canceled the first of what would be many canceled announcements about his college of choice. He canceled again on March 31, when he was expected to officially commit to Kansas, a few days before the McDonald's All American game, then proceeded to do everything humanly possible to turn away the scouts:
Player Evaluations, McDonald’s All-American Game (East Team)
April 4, 2009
This was a typical week from Stephenson (#7 Scout, #9 Rivals, #8 ESPN) from what we’ve come to expect over the past few years. First he missed his flight, arriving here late. Then he made a big fuss out his college announcement, canceling and rescheduling it multiple times, much to the chagrin of the organizers, until he eventually called a press conference to announce that he has nothing to announce.
On the court, it was much of the same: bad shots, selfish play, terrible body language, cheap shots to the opposition, plenty of turnovers, predictably followed by him visibly blaming others for his own mistakes. The more other members of this class continue to catch up as far as physical development is concerned, the less Stephenson’s ability to overpower his way to the basket works. He repeatedly tried to bulldozer his way into the lane over the course of this week, and only saw mixed results in the process, due to his inability to play above the rim. His jump-shot wasn’t falling, and he only seemed to pass as either a last resort or when he had a chance to make himself look good with a highlight reel caliber assist.
The talent is obviously there, as Stephenson showed from time to time, particularly on the pick and roll, but the question marks continue to grow.
Stephenson's terrible showing at the All American game...both on and off the court...seemed to be the last straw for most of the top schools in the nation. His dalliance, questionable showcase performances, and ongoing legal trouble had turned off the other top schools to him. Florida, Memphis, USC, St. Johns and UCLA all withdrew their offers. UNC, Georgetown, and Louisville got tired of waiting and filled their rosters. What little interest Duke had to begin with completely died.
In a span of 6 months, Stephenson went from the nation's top recruit to virtually unwanted. Only Kansas kept its offer on the table.
But in early April 2009, Xavier Henry was released from his letter of intent to Memphis following the departure of John Calipari to Kentucky. Henry immediately committed to Kansas, putting the Jayhawks at the 13-scholarship limit, and closing the door on Stephenson's presumed first choice.
On May 20th....the NCAA's last day of signing for the basketball season....Stephenson still had not committed to a school. His father then told reporters that no decision would be made until the sexual assault case was closed at the end of June.
On June 30th, 2009, Lance Stephenson finally made a commitment to Cincinnati...an incredibly underwhelming finale for a player who had been sought after by every top school in the nation less than a year earlier. There's little question that the decision was less about where Stephenson wanted to be and more about who was willing to still take a flier on him. And even then, there were questions about his eligibility stemming from the Born Ready web documentaries. It wouldn't be until November that the NCAA would finally clear Stephenson to play.
College turned out to be comparatively quiet for Lance. No major noise off the court.....no major noise on it. Stephenson displayed his all around ability with the Bearcats, averaging 12 points, 5 rebounds and 2.5 assists in just under 30 minutes a game. But he hardly blew anyone away. He scored 20+ point only three times in 34 games. His assist-to-turnover ratio stuck at 1-to-1. He barely shot above 20% from three. Cincinnati didn't get any press, and Stephenson became a lost man in the hype surrounding his contemporary, John Wall. When Stephenson declared for the 2010 NBA draft, it was only notable because he had said he was returning to Cinci a week earlier.
Who cares, right? Lance's star has fallen already...he burned out his best work when he was 16 winning PSAL tournaments. It's over, it's done.
So why are we talking about him?
Because Lance Stephenson...the player at least....is exactly what the Wolves need.
Talent never disappears. It can be hidden, it can be misused, but it never just...goes away. Everything that made Lance Stephenson a star in high school is still there...the jumper, the handles, the strength. He measured out at a prototypical size for an NBA shooting guard at the combine. At 6'6" in shoes, 220 lbs, with a 6'10.5" wingspan and 8'7" reach, he's basically identical to Jason Richardson, Rodney Carney, and (get this)...Tyreke Evans.
His 12-5-2 statline isn't overwhelming in any one area, but it's broad. He has the ability to do virtually everything on the court; score, rebound, pass, defend. Scouts and scouting sites mix in the bad with the good when talking about Lance, but the mere fact there's any good at all is.....well, progress of sorts.
April 28, 2010
Physically speaking, Stephenson has solid height for an NBA shooting guard at 6-5 with good length and a strong frame. As was the case in high school, he relies on his strength to overpower weaker players and compensate for his lack of athleticism. From a conditioning standpoint, he did not appear to be in ideal shape this past season, likely carrying an extra 10-15 pounds on his thick frame. He is quick in the open floor, but lacks the explosiveness and lateral quickness expected from wings at the next level. While he will continue to work on his strength and conditioning, there is no doubt that Stephenson is a below average athlete in the NBA.
His offensive skill set, which is heavily reliant on isolations and muscling his way to the basket, will probably have to be adapted at the next level, given his lack of explosiveness and quickness. While Stephenson’s touch around the basket is not bad, his overall shooting during his freshman season was extremely poor. He shot a dismal 21.9% from beyond the arc, converted under 50% from inside the arc and made just 66% of his foul shots.
On film, his shooting motion with his feet set is not terrible. He has a fairly fluid motion and release. But he has issues with excess lower body movement, and when he shoots off the dribble, his mechanics are less consistent and he has a tendency to fade away while shooting.
Stephenson does a good job of creating space off the dribble, showing solid ball-handling skills for his size. The effectiveness of his mid-range game suffers due to his poor shot selection, but he has shown an ability to find shots inside the arc and pull up off the dribble. Similarly, he was at his best last season when he attacked the basket both in transition and in half court situations, where he could use his size and strength to his advantage. He must improve his willingness to find the open man, though, as his tunnel vision often results in offensive fouls and untimely turnovers.
Though Cincinnati did not field the most competitive or disciplined team last season, Stephenson’s lack of offensive efficiency and selfish style of play have been omnipresent throughout his career. During workouts, he must somehow convince scouts that he is capable of playing team-oriented basketball and has the ability to produce efficiently in a smaller role. As we have written before, Stephenson possesses NBA-caliber scoring abilities.
On the defensive end, Stephenson did a decent job at Cinncinati, but his lack of lateral quickness limits his potential in this area at the next level. He will struggle to guard bigger and more athletic guards in the NBA, though his strength and length will likely work in his favor. His strong frame also helps him on the boards, where he averages 7.5 rebounds per 40 minutes, pace adjusted -- solid numbers for a wing player.
His behavior off of the court has also been a well-documented issue in recent years. He stayed out of trouble at Cincinnati, but he has accumulated quite a collection of red flags during his brief time as an amateur basketball player. Any NBA team that considers drafting him will have to do extensive research about his background, and decipher why he was in such a big rush to leave Cincinnati after such a sub-par freshman season.
While there are a tremendous amount of obstacles in his way, Stephenson still has the potential to be a contributor at the next level at some point down the road. While his lack of explosiveness and mediocre shot selection are areas of significant concern, he has good scoring instincts and a decent offensive repertoire. Stephenson is sure to be one of the most controversial players in the draft. There is no guarantee that he will even be picked, but he may be able to carve out a career for himself regardless, a la Stephen Jackson.
I've seen plenty of comparisons between Stephenson and other NBA headcases....Captain Jack, Ruben Patterson, Darius Miles. I've also seen player comparisons between Stephenson and Tyreke Evans. I think there's something there....but I also thing that undersells Lance's jump shooting ability. To me, as a player, Stephenson is a mirror image of one of the NBA's best.
I compare Stephenson most closely with Paul Pierce. Below-average athlete. Solid ball-handling that can create space off the dribble. Limited lateral quickness. Strong. Able to rebound. Able to use his size to his advantage. All things that can be said about The Truth, and in reality, their games line up pretty well....not just in terms of what they accomplish, but also in the way they play.
Paul Pierce is an amazing player. Something of a basketball anomaly really. Not athletic. Not even quick. Alligator arms, average handles, and a roly-poly body type....something of a Kerby Puckett in a world of Sammy Sosa's. And unquestionably one of the most difficult players in the league to guard one on one. So good that Tayshaun Prince said Pierce has "the best footwork at the small forward position in the entire league." He's the epitome of a player who knows his strengths, knows his weaknesses, and plays within those bounds.
Pierce doesn't go flying by anyone like Wade. He doesn't run over defenders like LeBron. He doesn't throw a million and two counterfakes out there like Kobe, or use crafty speed changes like Roy, or make impossible circus shots like Ginobili. He just gets the ball, gets to his spot, and hits his shots. Over and over and over.
There are differences here and there....Pierce lacks Stephenson's length and handles. Stephenson lack's Pierce's footwork and sharpness from three. But as a whole, they are very similar players...in body and in skill. And hopefully...someday...in mind. They both use their strength to get to their favorite spots on the floor. They both use their size to post up smaller players and shield the ball from defenders. They both use the same crossover-stepback jump shot from the right or left of the free throw line as their go-to moves.
They both have a long list of reasons why they shouldn't be successful NBA players. Paul Pierce threw his out the window. Can Lance Stephenson do the same?
It's all up to his mentality. Can he be a team player on the court? Can he behave himself off it? One big positive here in the pre-draft weeks is Lance is at least saying the right things....either he really is a changed man, or he at least knows he needs to be. He does interview surprisingly well.
Dime: How would you evaluate your season at Cincinnati?
Lance Stephenson: I feel I had a great freshman season individually. But basketball is a team sport; I would trade in the (Big East) Rookie of the Year for a Big East ‘chip all day.
Dime: Basketball-wise, did you get what you were looking for?
LS: Yes. I got to play in the toughest league in college basketball. That’s what I was looking for more than anything.
Dime: Off the court, what the experience like being away from home, away from New York, being on your own for the first time?
LS: My experience in college was fun and exciting. I got to meet new people. Being on my own gave me a sense of responsibility.
Dime: What was the best thing you picked up during your freshman year?
LS: I learned a lot about how to prepare for the game in a way I hadn’t before. The amount of preparation it takes to compete against a competitive team. Coach (Mick) Cronin showed me how to break down game film. He taught me to pay a lot of attention to detail.
Dime: You had played in Madison Square Garden a lot in high school. Was it different playing there in college, especially in the Big East Tournament?
LS: Playing in MSG is always exciting. The difference between high school and college was that the competition was tougher and the stakes were higher.
Dime: What, if anything, do you think has changed about your game since high school?
LS: Playing on the college level made me stronger and faster. More important, it made me smarter on the court.
Dime: What position do you see yourself playing in the pros?
LS: The one or the two.
Dime: What would you bring to an NBA team?
LS: I’m a versatile player who can play multiple positions. I’m willing to listen to do whatever it takes to help a team win. Like I said earlier, I’m stronger, faster and smarter on the court — all of those things will make me a difference-maker in the pros.
Dime: What do you think you’re going to have to show NBA scouts during your workouts?
LS: I want to show my versatility and that I’m more than willing to put the work in to get better.
Dime: When we first posted the news of your Draft announcement, it seemed the majority of the response was negative. What would you say to people who think you aren’t ready for this yet?
LS: I know people are concerned about me. This is a major move. But this is something I’ve been preparing for my whole life. I want the people out there to know that I’m gonna work extremely hard to make my dream come true.
So there's plenty of reasons why we should draft Lance Stephenson. And plenty why we shouldn't. You've just read most of them, and to that, I'll only add this.
The 2010 Draft class is exceptionally weak on the wings. If you want a shooting guard or small forward with legitimate size and skill, you're talking only three players in the end: Evan Turner, Xavier Henry, and Lance Stephenson.
Turner is the most productive, and "safest". Henry is the best shooter. But of the three, Stephenson has the most potential. Turner can do everything, but doesn't have the best scoring ability. Henry can shoot, but doesn't do much else. There are reasons Stephenson was ranked up with John Wall once upon a time, and those reasons are still there.
Whether getting Turner is worth what the 76ers will want us to give up/take back is a debate for a different thread. What I'm saying here is if we can't get him, Stephenson is the next best option. Baggage and all.
The Wolves have had headcases who have blown up. Stephon Marbury. Ricky Davis. Rashad McCants. Isaiah Rider. Latrell Sprewell. And even, to a certain extent, Kevin Garnett. And at the same time, those players were all parts of successful teams here. Rider almost singlehandedly kept us relevant in the early 1990s. Garnett and Marbury were hailed as the next Stockton and Malone. Garnett and Sprewell nearly made the Finals.
In all cases of this team doing something meaningful, it's been the "head cases" leading the way. Our collections of ordinary nice guys....the Wally Szczerbiaks and Terrell Brandons, the Joe Smiths and.....I hate to say it....Sam Mitchells...ended up being just that. Ordinary. And the current team? Can't really say there's any fire to it, can you? Unless we count Kevin Love's sometimes-misdirected complaining.
I have as many reservations about Stephenson's character defects as anyone. But I also believe this team is in desperate need of a productive wing player and potential star, and Stephenson can be both. Draft junkies like to talk about the "best player available"....well, Stephenson could be the best of the best.
Think about it.