With conference play in full swing throughout the NCAA, a few teams have emerged as real juggernauts capable of lasting until April’s first weekend. Of them, Kentucky boasts arguably the nation’s best, most explosive, coveted talent. That man is point guard John Wall, currently second in the country in assists per game and the apple of everyone’s eye. Yet, before he was a SportsCenter mainstay, Wall graced the cover of SLAM 128, and was featured in a story where Aggrey Sam artfully and accurately put the world on notice about what Wall is capable of. John’s covermate, Lance Stephenson, is also gearing his team towards success. In the tough Big East, Cincinnati is a respectable 11-6, hoping to continue towards the head of the pack with Stephenson’s help. And, while Lance has not had the immediate impact on the college game that many once believed he would, let’s just say you should watch yourself before sleeping on him. On the cover, we told you these two were “Ready to Rock the NCAA.” Now they’ve gotten the chance and…well…yeah.—Adam Fleischer
words Aggrey Sam
Watching them play in December at the City of Palms Classic in Florida, it’s easy to start thinking about the future, specifically June of 2010, when they’ll be on the podium at MSG, shaking hands with David Stern. Neither of their teams won this event, the best high school tourney this season, but it’s obvious—whether it’s the athletic point guard from Raleigh, NC, splitting defenders on a spin move and then splitting two more defenders with a 360 layup; or the rugged shooting guard from Brooklyn shaking a quick perimeter defender with a crossover, then taking a hard foul from a post player for an and one—these two senior guards are special. Not exciting-high-school-player-special or gonna-be-good-in college special, but special-in-the-League special.
Let’s stop being vague: Lance Stephenson and John Wall aren’t just the cream of the 2009 high school crop—they are poised to be the cream of the crop during expected pit stops on the college level and beyond.
A little premature? Maybe…if you haven’t seen them hoop. Start with Stephenson—after all, you were introduced to him in a feature in these very pages before he started his sophomore year. The next in line at Brooklyn’s famed Lincoln High School, the alma mater of Steph and Bassy, Lance was talked about as NYC’s next big thing since his now-legendary summer 2005 tete-á-tete with then-rising high school senior OJ Mayo at ABCD Camp. The hype has cooled since.
Perhaps it’s the fact that he’s been on the national scene so long, perhaps it’s the scrutiny he draws on and off the court, perhaps it’s his all-business, chip-on-his-shoulder, on-court disposition—but it seems lately some media, coaches and fans have soured on the kid they call “Born Ready.”
“It’s good that people know me, but now, whenever I play, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s Lance,’ so they play the hardest defense against me,” says Stephenson, who recently passed Bassy to become New York State’s all-time leading scorer and was on the verge of his fourth straight city championship as we went to press. “But I get ready for that in practice with my teammates. I tell them not to treat me any different.”
“What’s so special about it is that these goals were preset,” adds Lance Sr, Stephenson’s father and AAU coach, better known as “Stretch.” ”It’s good to see all the hard work pay off. As a parent, I just tell him to play hard and let his numbers and accomplishments speak for themselves.”
They don’t paint the complete picture, however. 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, honed by battling older, bigger players in his Coney Island neighborhood and during summer leagues throughout the Big Apple, is the epitome of a scorer.
“I just try to work on different things every game, but I play against older guys to get better,” says Stephenson. “When I play against my age group, I don’t think I’m as good sometimes because I might take bad shots.”
Are there more athletic players? Sure. Are there kids with more aesthetically-pleasing games out there? Without a doubt. Prospects with more long-term potential than him? It’s possible. But right now, if you need a kid in the prep ranks to get it done, Lance Stephenson is the guy you go to, hands down.
If you’re talking potential, Lance’s cover partner, John Wall, is probably your man. Read enough stories on ballplayers and the phrase “runs the floor like a gazelle” is sure to pop up. Well, Wall, a senior at Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, NC, is more like a cheetah. The kid simply moves at warp speed. The Carolina native is a 6-4, 190-pound point guard with playmaking ability that is born, not learned. With his video-game handle, exceptional length, uncanny court vision and kangaroo-type hops, he’s a highlight waiting to happen.
“He’s playing on a slightly different level than everyone around him,” says Brian Clifton, Wall’s AAU coach with D-One Sports. “When you look at all his physical attributes and that he understands that his job is to distribute the ball—there have been guys who have been as athletic as him, but not as tall, and guys as tall but not as athletic, and guys who have both, but they think their job is jacking up shots and lighting up the scoreboard. What makes John special is that he understands getting his teammates involved is what wins ballgames.”
Wall’s ankle-breaking crossovers, in-traffic windmills and three-quarter court bounce passes were unknown to the masses as little as two years ago. Invited to Chicago in ’07 to try out for what was then called Reebok’s All-American camp, Wall quickly won over the grassroots gatekeepers with his show-stopping play. A star was born.
“That’s when I started taking basketball more seriously,” Wall recalls. “I didn’t think the success would come that fast, but after the first couple of minutes of went by, I knew I could play with those guys.”
His upward plateau continued, and after destroying the camp and AAU circuit last summer, Wall became a consensus top-five senior prospect in the nation. It was a far cry from his days at Raleigh’s Broughton High School, where he was viewed as a selfish—albeit talented—malcontent, who was cut from the team (what is it with these Carolina high school coaches?), who would never get it together in time to reap the rewards of his vast abilities.
“Everything’s changed—my whole life. When I go places, everybody comes to see me play,” observes Wall. “I just try to keep my circle small.”
“I’m so proud of him…I’m pleased with John’s progress as a man, where he came from and where he was headed,” says Clifton. “It’s been a lot to come from virtual obscurity to where he is now. From when I first saw him play at 12 years old, he always had blinding speed, but now he has more confidence, he’s a better leader and a better teammate.”
Wall, raised by a single mother battling health issues, was always a talent, but what stood out more was his attitude, a critique Stephenson hears now. Yet, while Stephenson has been in the public eye for what seems like forever and Wall is just getting introduced to stardom, neither is a stranger to controversy.
Dwon Clifton, the younger brother of Brian, took a job on Baylor’s coaching staff last summer. With Baylor being one of the finalists to land Wall—along with Memphis, Kansas, Miami, Oregon, hometown North Carolina State and latecomers Duke and Wake Forest—speculation is that Baylor hired him strictly to land Wall. While it’s obvious that it doesn’t hurt—the younger Clifton did coach Wall—he is also a former college player (Clemson and UNC-Greensboro).
Stephenson’s recruitment has come under fire, as well. On a visit to Maryland, one of his final three choices—as of press time, Kansas and hometown St. John’s were the others; he’s expected to decide a day or two before this issue hits newsstands—he visited the Under Armour headquarters in nearby Baltimore. The president of Under Armour, Kevin Plank, is a Maryland grad, former Terps football player and a booster for the basketball program.
“It was just an honest part of the trip. They gave us a tour and basically that was it,” says Stretch. “They showed us how they make sneakers, we met with the academic people, the coaches…we just saw the itinerary. If it was a violation, we didn’t know anything about it.”
With all that being said, it’s unlikely either player hangs around a college campus long enough for people to keep their recruitment at the forefront of their minds. Remember the hullabaloo when OJ chose USC? Are you still reeling from Eric Gordon signing with Indiana? Wherever Wall and Stephenson decide to go, expect a major impact.
“I think they play harder defense in college…but I don’t think anybody in college can stop me from scoring,” says Stephenson. “Playing college is a different experience, especially with a good coach who gets you prepared for the pros.”
“I can’t say I’m one and done,” he continues, conservatively. “If I play well next year, then I’ll come out, but if I think I need another year, I’ll stay until I’m ready.”
Wall takes it a step further, stating, “After my first year in college, I wanna be one of the top Lottery picks. You might see Lance and a couple other players in my class, too.
“I see myself in the NBA in two years, playing on somebody’s team, trying to lead a franchise to a championship,” he continues. “I just wanna be compared to one of the best point guards—maybe the best point guard—that ever played in the NBA.”
Ambitious, but not unrealistic. Still, when projecting them at the pro level, there are aspects of their games that need improvement. Wall’s biggest weakness is his J. While it has definitely improved since he first burst on to the scene, now that he has that target on his back, opposing teams try to make him shoot from the outside. With Lance, critics question his aforementioned attitude.
“I come from a tough environment, where everybody plays hard and uses a lot of aggressiveness…a lot of people don’t understand that, so I try to fix my attitude,” acknowledges Stephenson. “It’s really hard because that’s where I get my game from…sometimes it seems like people want me to mess up, but I just block that stuff out. I just play the game.”
“I listen to my mom and my coaches. They say, ‘You don’t wanna step down to anybody’s level,’ so I just try to dominate everybody,” says Wall. “It’s kinda tough, but I like the pressure because you gotta perform every night.”
That’s why they’re kids.
“With all that Lance has done to this point, it pretty much speaks for itself,” observes Eric Bossi, a recruiting analyst for Scout.com. “When you watch John and what he can do physically, it sets him apart.”
“Wall, he’s a natural. He has a combination of speed, athleticism and skill that puts him in a unique class,” concurs a coach from a high-major college program. “With Lance, anytime a player has a great reputation and performs at a high level under scrutiny, everybody takes their best shot. I always have tremendous respect for a player who continues to perform at a high level under those circumstances.”
In other words, don’t bank on them failing. One thing both of these two young men have in common: They’re competitors—they both wake up at 5 a.m. daily to work on their games, in preparation for the present and future—something that can’t be measured in Wall’s athleticism or Stephenson’s scoring outputs.
And unlike this story, the rest of their careers still remain to be told. Stay tuned.