After two obstacle-laden years to begin his NBA career, Lance Stephenson reversed course over the past two seasons, going from nearly out of a job to now earning $9 million annually. The Coney Island native—and personal favorite of mine—finally established his footing in the League and is sprinting toward an All-Star career.
The casual fan—and, sadly, many media types—recognizes Stephenson only for his antics on national television, particularly in the Eastern Conference finals vs Miami. But few examine Stephenson from a “bigger picture” standpoint—his young but already up-and-down career, and how his past experiences will help shape the player he’ll grow into. So before we look ahead to next season, let’s briefly recap how we arrived here.
Drafted by Indiana with the 40th pick in 2010—directly after Andy Rautins and L–La-Landry Fields—Stephenson totaled a measly 115 minutes as a rookie. His NBA career was hanging in the balance, playing on a non-guaranteed deal and going through a serious legal dispute. If convicted, the Pacers would’ve cut him and his NBA career would’ve gone up in flames. While fellow rookies John Wall, Evan Turner and Paul George were getting acclimated to the League, Stephenson could only hope for a chance to check in at the scorer’s table. He finally got that chance in late February, but it came at a point in the season when the team’s rotation was firmly established. Barely playing as a rookie and without much support inside the locker room, Stephenson’s future was—to put it generously—in limbo.
Stephenson’s second season was no more auspicious that his first. He logged just 442 minutes, riding the bench behind the likes of Dahntay Jones, Darren Collison and AJ Price.
Then, in 2012-13, it finally clicked. The Pacers gave Lance a real opportunity in his third season, and the rest has been history.
Over the last two seasons, Stephenson has emerged from the depths of the NBA to play a featured role on a team that has achieved consecutive Eastern Conference finals appearances. He’s played 2,278 and 2,752 minutes in the last two seasons, respectively, and started 150 of a possible 164 games. Stephenson has learned how to bully defenders using a strong upper body, improved his court sense and vision, and developed the ancillary skills to become a borderline All-Star.
If you dig deeper into his production last season, the numbers suggest Stephenson is only flirting with his prime, and he could emerge as a top-tier NBA guard as early as next season.
Stephenson’s versatility was put on front street last season. Capable of initiating and facilitating offense, he produced averages of 13.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg and 4.6 apg. Since 2000, only 10 players have averaged at least 13/7/4 on 49% shooting. Only LeBron James, Josh Smith, Kevin Durant and Stephenson have done so in the last five years. And despite his penchant for over-dribbling/committing careless turnovers, Stephenson was still super-efficient overall. Among all guards/forwards who played at least 30 mpg last season, Stephenson’s 54% effective field goal percentage ranked eighth in the NBA.
Now, at only 24 years old, Stephenson will take Larry Bird’s wisdom and his own extensive post-season experience and try to impart it in Buzz City.
From my perspective, things look bright. He’ll be a primary playmaker in Charlotte, reuniting with fellow New Yorker and defensive menace Kemba Walker in the backcourt, surrounded by shooters in PJ Hairston, Gary Neal and Gerald Henderson on the wings, and will have the luxury of playing with maybe the best offensive center in the NBA, Al Jefferson.
The Hornets will afford Stephenson certain freedoms the Pacers never did. They’ll give him the rock and let him make decisions, no questions asked. They’ll give him a wide margin of error, and trust that even though he’ll make some mistakes along the way, the totality of his impact will be a plus for the team. He’ll be both a primary and secondary ball handler, able to spell Walker at PG but also spot up on the wing. He can push the ball on the break, run the pick-and-roll with Jefferson in the half court, and get others involved with ease. Stephenson is exactly the type of shot-creating spark-plug Charlotte needs. The signing makes sense from a career evolution standpoint for Stephenson, and a roster construction standpoint for the Hornets.
Let’s take a deeper look at some of Lance’s offensive strengths, as well as areas of improvement heading into next season.
Size and Finishing Ability
Stephenson has a mini-LeBron James type of build, able to bulldoze his way into the paint, absorb contact and finish at the cup. He converted an excellent 62% of his attempts around the basket last season, and his 1.23 points per attempt ranked in the top 13th percentile of all NBA players, per Synergy Sports.
Stephenson can absorb contact in mid-air and still finish with grace. He recorded 36 and-ones last season on 1,090 field-goal attempts. By comparison, Paul George finished 44 and-ones on 1,677 attempts.
The pick-and-roll is Stephenson’s favorite set in the half court. He operated out of the P-n-R on 23 percent of his offensive plays last season, and converted an excellent 59% of his driving attempts off screens. He’s simply too strong when he has a head of steam going to the basket.
In Charlotte, with floor-spacing shooters on the wings and Jefferson commanding the paint, these driving lanes will only get wider for Stephenson next season.
Despite finishing only 54% of his transition attempts last season, Stephenson has become an effective open court player when you watch the tape. He’s an excellent ball handler, and can change speed and direction as quick as anyone in the League. When he picks up momentum, it’s nearly impossible to stop him.
Court Vision (Passing)
Stephenson has developed elite-level court vision since entering the NBA. He was never a particularly crisp passer in high school or at Cincinnati, but Stephenson put in the work and commitment in Indiana to embrace his role as the Pacers’ primary (only?) facilitator, and is now an excellent passer.
Stephenson can read the floor from any spot, hit moving cutters, and feed the post. When he attacks off the dribble and gets into the lane, Born Ready can drop it to a big man, or kick it out to an open shooter. He constantly puts pressure on the defense, and can hit open teammates in the blink of an eye.
Weaknesses/Areas of Improvement
Turnovers/Out of Control
Turnovers are my biggest concern with Stephenson. With increased usage in Charlotte next season, there’s a chance he could become even more turnover prone. Last season, he turned the ball over on 26% of his transition possessions, ranking dead last among 75 players with a minimum 150 TRAN possessions. He also coughed up the rock on 24% of his pick-and-roll possessions, ranking 81st out of 88 players with a minimum of 150 Pick-and-Roll possessions.
Stephenson has a penchant to waste dribbles and try to do too much. There’s give-and-take with him, but as Lance steps into a leadership role with the Hornets, he must improve his composure and decision making in the painted area. Too often he loses control in the paint, resulting in an off-balance shot or ill-advised pass.
Shaky Jump Shot
Stephenson has improved his shooting every year since entering the League. As of right now, though, he’s still not a “knockdown shooter.”
2011-12: 27% on all jump shots, 40% mid-range, 13% three-point, 15% catch and shoot, 42% off the dribble
2012-13: 32% on all jump shots, 29% mid-range, 33% three-point, 36% catch and shoot, 27% off the dribble
2013-14: 37% on all jump shots, 35% mid-range, 35% three-point, 35% catch and shoot, 39% off the dribble
Stephenson can shoot off the catch or the bounce, but his mechanics are wacky. His release point is inconsistent, particularly from mid-range where he angles his body left and right. Stephenson has done a good job of playing within the flow of the offense and not jacking up shots, but he could still be more patient to set his feet and square his body on the release. He’s capable but he needs to be more consistent.
Mid-Range Makes (capable)
As a longtime Stephenson supporter, it’s gratifying to see him finally sitting comfortably inside the #SLAMTop50.
But the irony is that you can’t rank, categorize or even really understand Lance Stephenson at this point of his career. He’s too young, too volatile and still unproven in his new role. Right now, any effort to paint a picture that accurately captures his essence or quantifies his impact is futile. He’s heading into year 5 and only 24 years old. Stephenson must to continue to prove himself and improve his game, with a new team and contract.
Considering where he started, though, I think Born Ready is only beginning his ascent within the NBA. I’m just glad I hopped on the bandwagon while there was still room.
|#SLAMTop50 Players 2014|
Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’14-15—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.