Lance Stephenson’s NBA career has not gone the way many told him it would.
The 26-year-old is preparing to play for his seventh NBA season, and after recently inking a one-year deal with the New Orleans Pelicans, he will suit up for his fifth team. At this point, the expectation was that Stephenson would have evolved into one of the league’s premiere players, continuing a run of excellence that started when he dominated for Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, New York.
Stephenson won city basketball championships in each of his four high school seasons and is New York State’s all-time leading scorer with 2,946 points. However, in seven-year NBA career with the Indiana Pacers, Clippers, and Memphis Grizzlies, the former 40th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft has career averages of 8.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.0 assists.
“When you come into the NBA as a youngster, you got babied all your life,” Stephenson said to Justin Verrier of ESPN.com. “Everybody from when you were younger saying, ‘You’re gonna be in the NBA. You’re this and that.’ But once you get in the NBA, there are a lot of guys similar to you, so you have to learn how to do different things to keep developing.”
Playing in just 54 combined games for the Pacers in his first two seasons due to immaturity issues, Stephenson’s career seemed to be derailing before it even got on track. ESPN reporter Mike Wells joined JMV (via SB Nation’s Indy Corn Rows) to discuss how the young guard was a heat magnet in the Pacers’ locker room.
“He's very immature still,” Wells said.
“I've mentioned that to a number of people about his maturity problems and a lot of people say, well he's only 20 years old, but my response to that is, you may be 20 years old but at the same time there's a difference between acting 19 or 20 and acting 15 or 16 and I feel like Lance is more in that 15 to 16 range and again, where the leadership lacks, he thinks he can get away with that.”
After showing improvement in 2012-13, and becoming a full-time starter due to an injury to Danny Granger, Stephenson seemed to figure it out. He played the best game of his career in the NBA Playoffs, notching 25 points and 10 rebounds against the New York Knicks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The following year, Stephenson recorded the best season of his career, averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 4.6 assists in 35.3 minutes per game through 78 games.
“Playing with guys that are actually good and know how to play their role. Playing with [David West], playing with Roy Hibbert, Paul George,George Hill. Those guys helped me throughout the season, and Coach Frank [Vogel] put me in position where I’d been with them so long that they figured out my game and knew that when I drive where I’m gonna pass it to,” Stephenson said on his standout 2013-14 season which included three triple-doubles.
However, the immaturity reared its ugly head once more when Stephenson drew criticism for blowing in LeBron James’ ear during a playoff game. He was called unprofessional and it came at a poor time since he was set to hit free agency. But his improvements made him a desired man in Indiana.
"I always want him back,” Pacers team president Larry Bird said. “You just don't let talent like that walk away if you can help it," but added, "There's going to be a price and we're not going to go over that.”
Stephenson reportedly rejected a five-year, $44 million contract offer believing he was worth more. He ended up signing a three-year, $27 million deal with the Hornets.
Strongly scrutinized for turning down that lucrative offer, Stephenson told Verrier that he personally did not reject that offer.
“I don’t think I really chose not to go there. I don’t want to get into that, but it goes with the business,” Stephenson said.
“We never came to an agreement. I’m not going to say I turned it down -- I didn’t do that. But I don’t want to dwell on the past. I’m happy with the position I’m in now. I’m just gonna move forward and work hard and get back to that elite basketball player that I was.”
Since leaving Indiana, Stephenson regressed back into a bench player, much like the start of his career. But in a 26-game cameo with the Grizzlies last season, Stephenson averaged 14.2 points and 4.4 rebounds. In total 69 games in 2015-2016 between the Clippers and Grizzlies, he averaged 8.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in 19.9 minutes per outing.
Viewed as a reclamation project of sorts on this year's free agent market, Stephenson’s name was attached to several teams. He chose to sign with the Pelicans after Jrue Holiday’s injury created an opening. Now he wants to prove the Pelicans’ decision to sign him correct.
“I liked this team, and I see a couple young guys that I could potentially help and show all the other stuff that I learned from other places, from guys like Chris Paul, Paul George, Paul Pierce,” Stephenson said. “Just teach them, and help them believe and show them the right way to work out there and what it takes to make it to the conference finals, and getting that work in every day.”
Still just 26 years old, Stephenson has time to prove the people who told him he’d be an NBA success right.