I was wrong about Lance Stephenson.
I’m sure I have lots of company, there.
When the Indiana Pacers took him in the second round of the 2010 draft — and gave him a guaranteed contract — I thought Larry Bird was hitting the liquor cabinet. Stephenson was a too-typical New York City schoolboy who thought the world revolved around his very being. He was Mr. “Born Ready,” an immature kid who not only didn’t listen to coaches but got into some ugly skirmishes off the court.
He didn’t seem to fit, especially with a franchise that was still trying to dust off the debris from The Brawl and other misdemeanors. At the very least, it was a leap of faith, a huge risk, even in the second round. Deemed untouchable and uncoachable, then-team President Larry Bird fell in love with Stephenson’s raw — emphasis on raw — talent.
Early on, it was a disaster. He never played. “Born Ready” was born to sit. There were off-the-court problems, and he didn’t fit in the locker room with grown men. Roy Hibbert recently described Stephenson as an “(expletive)” in those early years, and there were altercations involving Stephenson and teammates.
But now, this season and in this postseason, Stephenson is emerging as a glue guy, a do-it-all shooting guard who can defend, rebound, make plays slashing to the rim and push the ball up the floor.
I was wrong. A lot of us were wrong.
It took awhile, the better part of three years, but Stephenson has, after some fits and starts, become a pro. Still rough around the edges, still capable of exploding at a moment’s notice, but he’s grown.
“He’s allowing himself to be coached now; that’s the biggest thing,” said assistant coach Brian Shaw, who works closely with Stephenson among others. “Up until he got to this level, I’m pretty sure he was able to do whatever he wanted to do. Coaches just wanted to please him. He was so physically gifted, he had his way all the time. So he was defiant in a lot of ways, which isn’t completely uncommon with a young player.
“... But now he’s finally showing he’s soaked things in and getting it, and he’s having success and liking it. He’s figuring out where he fits with this team.”
Where he fits, more than anywhere, is on the boards and on the defensive end. Stephenson has now had double-digit rebounds in three straight playoff games, but even more, the Knicks shot 39 percent when he was on the floor in Game 1 and 69 percent when he wasn’t, according to ESPN Stats and Info. When second-leading scorer J.R. Smith was in the game, Stephenson was his responsibility.
It goes beyond the X’s and O’s, though, the fact Stephenson is hitting the defensive boards and learning to do all the little things. It’s the larger picture, the growth into becoming something resembling a professional.
“He’s night and day from where he used to be,” Frank Vogel said. “Talking about being on time, the demeanor you have to have in practice, how to carry yourself in the locker room, being respectful to teammates. He’s grown a lot in those areas.”
You’re never going to get Stephenson to wax philosophical on any subject. He’s obliging enough — he looks you in the eye now, something he never used to do — but doesn’t really have very much to say. But give him credit: He was smart enough Monday to avoid falling into the tabloid trap a New York reporter was setting for him.
“What would it say about this series if you guys are able to get a 2-0 lead Tuesday?” the Post guy asked Stephenson and several other Pacers players.
Stephenson, a native New Yorker, smiled. He knew what the man wanted. A headline.
Stevenson: “If we win Game 2, it’s over.”
He addressed the question, but never gave in. Nor did any of his teammates. There would be no back-page tabloid fodder today. Not from the Pacers, anyway.
This is not to suggest that Stephenson is a finished product, that all the rough edges have been smoothed over. The Pacers thought they saw a lot of progress last year until Stephenson foolishly flashed the choke sign at LeBron James, which is a red cape to a snorting bull. A few games later, Stephenson ended up on his backside, courtesy of Dexter Pittman.
“We’ve taken off some of the rough edges,” Shaw said with a smile. “But not all of them.”
The good thing about Stephenson is, he’s got a lot of dog in him.
The bad thing about Stephenson is, he’s got a lot of dog in him.
It’s just a matter of knowing how to use that edge, that manic energy, and use it to the team’s best advantage. He is absolutely fearless, a true product of the Brooklyn schoolyards. He also can’t quite leave the schoolyard style completely behind, occasionally lapsing and acting like he’s in the middle of an “And 1” tape.
But give the kid credit: After all those years of dominating the basketball and being the primary scorer for his high school team and, to a lesser extent, the University of Cincinnati, Stephenson has learned to embrace being a fifth option.
I was wrong about him.
There. I said it.