With so much potential and all of the hype that comes along with it, it’s interesting to see how Lance Stephenson’s wayward basketball journey has progressed over time. Since his amateur days as a widely heralded prospect, Stephenson has always possessed lottery level talent that many believed would carry him to the NBA stage (he’s currently New York’s all time leading scorer for HS basketball). However, for all the scoring, intangibles, and accolades on his resume, his reputation has always proven to be an issue at every turn. Questions about his maturity, decision making and rep as a coach’s headache hindered his college recruiting process, regardless of being a star athlete in 2009’s loaded class. Similar sentiments would go on to affect his draft stock, as the projected 1st rounder saw his name drop all the way to Indiana’s selection with the 40th pick in the 2010 draft.
While initially being an ego bruising event having fallen from the pedestal that he’d been placed on for most of his youth, it didn’t take long for Indiana’s gamble to show signs of a huge pay off. After receiving sparing minutes initially in his first two seasons, Stephenson finally got his chance for meaningful playing time by the 2012-13 season, due to an injury to Indiana’s star forward, Danny Granger. With a starting role up for grabs, ‘Born Ready’ lived up to his nickname from then on with impressive development as well as becoming an integral part of the Pacers lineup due to scrappy play and his entertaining style. Indiana diehards rallied behind Lance’s brash NY flavor and his status as a crowd favorite would soon be cemented. The Pacers squad as a whole was nearing its peak as well, having made memorable back to back Eastern Conference Finals appearances against a Lebron led Miami Heat super team (losing 4-3 in 2013 & 4-2 in 2014 seasons). Looking back at 2013-14 in particular is interesting when you consider the fact that Lance was almost an All-Star selection, and even led the league in triple doubles that season with 5!
Then, with all of these positive factors coming into form, something got in the way: NBA Free Agency. The Pacers wanted Lance back on a 5 year, $44 million deal which would’ve paid handsomely compared to the 2nd rounder salary he’d been making previously, but it wasn’t enough. With projections of the NBA salary cap increasing dramatically within 2 years, it was the right call to not want to be committed before the ‘big time’ contracts we’re seeing tossed around the league today started trickling in. So instead, he gambled on himself, by taking a ‘show me’ deal for less years with the Charlotte Hornets. Indiana was hurt, but having a superstar player in Paul George helped minimize this loss as they continued to build around him. On the other hand, Stephenson’s previous meteoric rise would soon die out with the change of scenery.
Many remember Lance from this point on as being nothing but a joke. It was like night and day how he was as a Pacer compared to the clearly regressed scrub he had become onward. He couldn’t shoot to save his life, having immediately dropped from a serviceable shooting spread of 49/35/71 to an abysmal 38/17/63 the following year! Instead of continuing his path to becoming an all star, he quickly found himself falling out of favor in Charlotte. Within a year he would be traded to the LA Clippers, a team lacking quality wing depth since forever, while still being unable to make a lasting impact. Quickly becoming an afterthought in terms of playtime, even his sideline antics proved deserving of scrutiny, as DNP’s became practice opportunities for slap boxing…
The fall from grace didn’t stop there, having been traded soon after this incident to Memphis as a half season rental. While seeing a considerable uptick in production and minutes, his growing status as a fuck up seemed to ruin any chances of a long term offer. He’d eventually go into the 2016-17 season a free agent labeled as damaged goods. After just 12 games, injury issues and unsuccessful stints with two separate franchises, Stephenson’s once promising career looked as if it had seen its premature demise. However, as the regular season has winded down to the final stretch, a familiar city rallied behind its fledgling hero. Indiana’s prodigal son has finally returned.
Even on this vastly different Pacers squad, it’s almost like he hadn’t ever left. The city’s admiration for Lance hadn’t died with his decision to leave and a standing ovation during his first home game back is evidence of this. In return, Lance has shown flashes of the game that once had him on the edge of stardom. Two weeks ago, there was uncertainty over whether or not Indiana would even make the playoffs, but with Stephenson there to bolster the bench rotation, they’ve gained control of the 7th seed with 2 games left to play. Something that people may be forgetting is that it’s not like Lance has little tread left on his tires either… he’s only 26 years old! With a multi year deal in place and his journey having come full circle, it’ll be interesting to see what Born Ready will have in store for the postseason. If nothing else, it’s yet another dramatic twist to such an enigmatic career.