Ebenezer Samuel ,Daily News Sports Writer
Monday, January 3rd 2011, 4:46 PM
Sipkin/NewsLance Stephenson (c.) has had plenty of time to sit and smile on the Pacers' bench, as the former New York schoolboy star has yet to log a minute in the NBA.
Pace for NewsStephenson was allowed to wear the uniform during his days at Lincoln. He was back in Madison Square Garden, on the same hardwood floor that he once considered home.
Except Sunday, Lance Stephenson didn't even step onto the court. The former Lincoln HS star and two-time Daily News High School Basketball Player of the Year sat on the sideline in street clothes, watching as his Indiana Pacers fell to the Knicks, 98-92.
"I'm learning a lot and just trying to take it day by day," said Stephenson, who is not on the Pacers' active roster. "I'm just taking this year as a learning experience."
Not that Stephenson's had any other option. The leading scorer in New York state high school hoops history was chosen by the Pacers with the 40th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft - just one pick after the Knicks selected Landry Fields.
But while Fields has emerged as New York's starting shooting guard and drawn raves around the league, Stephenson hasn't even cracked the Pacers' rotation. He has yet to log a minute as he's struggled to learn the intricacies of NBA basketball.
O'Brien said Stephenson is "a product of numbers," trapped behind a trio of more experienced guards in Darren Collison, T.J. Ford and A.J. Price. But the player who earned the nickname "Born Ready" at Rucker Park is also further from a finished product than most people expected.
The Pacers thought they might have a draft-day steal when Stephenson fell to them in the second round after a solid but unspectacular freshman year at the University of Cincinnati. Instead, they've landed a player who admits that he doesn't understand the nuances of NBA defense.
Stephenson is also having trouble adjusting to being a playmaker after spending his entire high school career as a primary scorer at Lincoln HS.
In early December, Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird even suggested sending Stephenson down to the NBA Developmental League.
"He has to work on everything," Pacers coach Jim O'Brien said of Stephenson. "All our defensive schemes and everything."
Those shortcomings help explain why the Knicks steered clear of Stephenson in the Draft. He was projected by many as a late first-round pick, but slipped into the second round and was available for the Knicks, who owned the 38th and 39th picks. New York considered Stephenson, and GM Donnie Walsh met with the guard personally, but the team settled on Syracuse sharpshooter Andy Rautins at No. 38, then grabbed the underrated Fields at No. 39.
"He was definitely one of the guys we were looking at," Walsh said of Stephenson. "But we had a pecking order. (Fields) and Rautins were at the top of the pecking order.
"I personally think he's better off in Indiana," Walsh added. "He can start his NBA career not being in New York."
Stephenson carved his high school legacy in the Big Apple, but the city was also the site of most of his missteps. He had an altercation with a classmate midway through his junior year at Lincoln, and he was arrested for groping a 17-year-old girl at the school as a senior.
When he returned to New York in August, after he was drafted, he was arrested after allegedly pushing his girlfriend down the stairs of her Brooklyn apartment building.
Stephenson declined to comment on those charges, which are pending, but he also stayed away from Coney Island when the Pacers arrived in town late Saturday night, a sign that the Pacers believe he's beginning to mature.
"I certainly hope so," O'Brien said.
Stephenson hopes his NBA career will amount to more than a collection of DNPs and stints on the inactive list.
He said he's approaching his rookie campaign like a "redshirt year," and he understands that he's far from NBA-ready.
"This is another level of basketball," Stephenson said. "So I've just got to learn as much as possible."
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