The Curious Case of Lance Stephenson
Should Stephenson be written off because of his struggles?
by Colin Powers
Lance Stephenson, the prodigious schoolboy talent, the kid who took on the biggest post-LeBron prep star when he was only an 8th grader at ABCD and held his own, the all-time New York State scoring leader, the savior of the slipping NYC hoops scene, the focus of his own full-length Doc while still plying his trade at Lincoln High, the Lincoln guard finally blessed with the body to do work in the League, has somehow quietly drifted from the collective hoop consciousness.
His talented peers, fortunate enough to be competing at the biggest of the big-time programs, constantly promoted by the Worldwide Leader, and to their credit doing their best to match the hype with nightly performances, have managed to push Lance to the periphery and make him the forgotten man in this year’s freshmen class.
His NBA prospects have taken a similar hit, his Bearcats have floundered in mediocrity, and the young man once sent to right the national hoop hierarchy and return the city MJ always referred to as “the Mecca of basketball” to its rightful place of prominence, has seemingly lost his way. How did we get here?
Primary to understanding Lance’s newfound obscurity in the college ranks is the recruiting process gone wrong leading to his arrival at Cincinnati. A number of factors coalesced in determining Stephenson’s place at the University.
Firstly, the inherent skepticism and nitpicking of any high school player under the microscope as long as Stephenson was led to the eventual downgrade of his stature amongst the fellow graduates of 2009. A household name in recruiting circles since Middle School, there was simply too much time for critics to pull Lance down from his throne.
Secondly, with the recent underachievement and accompanying “character issue” PR disasters of fellow Lincoln alumni Sebastian Telfair and Stephon Marbury, detractors could now point to Stephenson’s pedigree and hoops ancestry as a character default for Lance in its own right. Sins of the father falling down to the son. NYC corrupting another talent. “Whom the Gods wish to curse they first call promising.”
And thirdly, the whispers of academic ineligibility, inadequate test-scores, etc, provided the cherry on top, scaring off enough coaches so that the teen with the grown man game was left without his pick of the litter in college choices when it came to the Spring of 2009.
There was chatter of a jump to Europe, the D-League, etc., but nothing with real weight. As folks were forced to wait for the McDonald’s All-American game to hear Stephenson’s public announcement, we were led to believe he was picking between St. John’s, Kansas, and Maryland…
Then, nothing but white noise and static as the anticipated announcement that might very well shift the balance of power in college hoops never came. Finally, very late in the day (almost summer time), word comes that Lance will take his game to Cincinnati.
Not to take anything away from the Bearcats, but they have not been a major power since the days of Bob Huggins and Conference USA. They are a solid, solid program. But fit for someone of Lance’s stature?
Who knows the exact details of what derailed Stephenson’s recruitment, whether it was grades, attitude, the legal blip from 2008, the larger than life New York persona, coaches prophesying his future along the Vasoline-eating road of Stephon. Whatever the reason, come November, Lance was suited up in the red and black of Cinci, eligible, and ready to force his way back into the conversation. If his game was right, nothing else would matter and he could scrap his way back to the top. As always, actions speak louder than words.
What happened next? Well, redemption for Lance hasn’t been quite as easy as Lance might have hoped. No doubt, he has had his moments. Lance still has all the tools that once so accurately inspired the Tyreke Evans comparisons (another player, by the way, who didn’t exactly blow us out of the water in college).
He’s got great size, power and finishing ability in attacking the basket. The handle is as silky as ever, and the yo-yo crossover continues to wrongfoot defenders game in and game out. Though he is not John Wall-athletic, Stephenson has plenty of bounce in his step, and his creativity with the ball is straight city game, more than enough to make up for any alleged shortcomings in foot speed. He can get where he wants on the court just about any time he wants.
The game-winning FTs against UConn gave testament to Stephenson’s steely resolve, and in both success and failure, the Bearcats have routinely trusted the ball and decision-making responsibilities at the end of the game to Stephenson throughout the season. That speaks to their faith in the young man and the self-confidence he has to shoulder the burden of end game.
What has most impressed me, however, and why I still value him so highly as a pro prospect, is his court vision. Lance sees angles and can deliver passes because of his size that very few other players can, no matter what the level. Though perhaps blasphemy, there are times when the needle-threading looks coming from this oversized PG remind me of none other than King James himself.
Indeed, when Lance stays in control and focused and realizes that everyone on the court in the Big East (and in the NBA) is a great athlete, that he cannot simply overpower them or subject them completely to his will, he has played great. When he has attempted to stick with the solely mano-e-mano tactics which made him such a star against weaker competition in high school and AAU ball, when he has dribbled too deep into the lane only to find himself surrounded by defenders, and when he has opted for another step-back 3 instead of letting the game come to him, that is when he has struggled.
There certainly have been times this season when Stephenson’s shot selection has been nothing short of awful. He’s only shooting 20 percent from three, and 46 percent overall. Furthermore, he has nearly a 1:1 assist to turnover ratio, which just does not cut it for someone with his vision and ability. If you’re going to be one of the caretakers of the ball for he team (along with the gritty Deonta Vaughn), you need to do better.
Still, I think some of his struggles this year can find their origin in that drawn-out recruiting process I discussed before. Perhaps his arrival at a program that so desperately needed him to be the man right away worked against him. Perhaps immediately stepping into the role of alpha-male with less than stellar teammates magnified his mistakes (when the team lost, it was Lance’s team that lost, and so his fault) and made finding success more difficult.
Instead of dishing to Damion James or DeMarcus Cousins or having the privilege of coming along slowly (a la Xavier Henry at Kansas; you know Collins, Aldrich and co. will take care of business when push comes to shove and it won’t all be heaped on Henry), Lance is relied on to carry the team. And at the times when the Bearcats struggle and fall behind, Lance tends to regress to his High School days and tries to win the game on his own, the wrong answer to a very challenging question.
But people, these are the mistakes of a young man, of a young basketball player still learning his craft and maturing and improving (even the immaculate, infallible John Wall has struggled a good bit recently). Though the body language in the face of adversity isn’t always the best from Lance, he’s still just a kid growing up and evolving, quietly and subtly adapting to the new set of challenges sitting in front of him right now. He just happens to be growing up in front of all of us (in reality, that’s sadly been the case since he was 13).
In general, we need to keep some perspective and understand the different circumstances this year’s freshmen find themselves in before we start talking in absolutes and deigning this player better than that one, this kid a star and that one a flop. Nobody performs in a vacuum and everyone is subject to the context of teammates, conference opponents, coaching styles, and opportunities.
Of course, a young guard playing in the freedom of Calipari’s dribble drive motion is going to have more of a stage to show his stuff than a similar player playing under the more confining systems of Bo Ryan or Tom Izzo. Evaluation needs to be more nuanced then merely looking at stats and highlights. Thus, to dismiss Lance so quickly or anoint another as his superior based only on a few months of one season is both shortsighted and foolish.
Should he go back for another year of school and the refinement of his game, both physical and mental? I think so. Will I write him off for good because of his struggles this year? No sir, not a chance.