Pacers’ Stephenson: Born in Brooklyn, Blooming in Indiana
By HARVEY ARATON
Lance Stephenson prepped for his pre-Christmas return to Brooklyn, the borough of his youth, with a festive Sunday night in Indianapolis, where, as a basketball player, he has, by leaps and bounds, appeared to grow up.
In an Indiana Pacers rout of the Boston Celtics, Stephenson filled the box score with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, his third triple-double of what has been a breakout season for the player once celebrated on film as “Born Ready.”
This, of course, was high school hyperbole bordering on unwitting parody, and too often as applied to New York City basketball prodigies a self-immolating malady. Fortunately for Stephenson, who not long ago seemed on a fast track to failure, he has developed in a secure N.B.A. environment, antithetical to what currently exists in his native New York.
“He has totally reinvented himself,” said Tom Konchalski, the Queens-based scout and master of scholastic recruiting, who knows New York players better than most. “He plays more Indiana basketball than he does New York City basketball. He’s a Hoosier now.”
Stephenson came to Barclays Center for Monday night’s game against the reeling Nets as the 22-5 Pacers’ leader in assists (5.1 per game) while averaging 13 points and 6.7 rebounds a game. Not bad for a 6-foot-5, 23-year-old guard who until last season was a bench warmer best known for flashing LeBron James the choke sign
in the playoffs and taking a retaliatory forearm to the neck
by a former Miami scrub named Dexter Pittman.
A behavioral work in progress, Stephenson still arouses opponents — and his coach, Frank Vogel — with occasional look-at-me indulgences. Most recently, James seethed and promised the Pacers star Paul George that he would “remember that” after Stephenson dunked and preened in the final seconds of a victory over the Heat.
“He does some irritating things,” said Donnie Walsh, who subbed for Larry Bird as the Pacers’ president last season and has remained with the organization since Bird’s return. “But other than that, in the last two years there’s nothing I’ve seen from this kid that doesn’t make me think he can be really good.”
Strangely enough, it was Walsh, while running the Knicks, who helped Stephenson land in Indiana when he refused to take him in the 2010 draft — not once, but twice, with consecutive second-round selections. Do Andy Rautins (38th pick) and Landry Fields (39) ring a bell?
Bird took a chance on Stephenson with the 40th pick, and while Walsh would have to say oops on that, such was Stephenson’s reputation as a tempestuous court presence after one lukewarm college season (at Cincinnati) and after all the Born Ready hoopla at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn.
Coming behind Lincoln predecessors like Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair — both of whom were disappointing pros for different reasons — Stephenson was also dealing with the growing notion that New York City players were only legends in their own minds.
“One of the great obstacles of long-term success is the cancer of early success,” Konchalski said when Stephenson was 17, a warning to avoid standard Brooklyn bombast.
In a recent telephone interview, Konchalski said: “In high school, Lance’s whole focus was on scoring, on breaking Telfair’s state record, which he did. Now he’s one of the best rebounding and passing wings in the league, he guards multiple positions and his own scoring is almost secondary. I have a lot of respect for him for the way he’s adjusted, for realizing that was how he was going to stay in the league, much less become a very good player.”
Would that have happened with the Knicks, under the dropped ceiling and circus of Madison Square Garden? The answer might be the next question: When was the last time the Knicks nurtured a young player and reaped the benefits thereof?
Brooklyn, where the Nets are collapsing under the weight of expectations, may not have been a much different professional environment and possibly even worse given all the home borough distractions.
In Indianapolis, Stephenson has been joined by his parents and, Walsh said, is a protégé of the veteran, no-nonsense forward David West. When Stephenson makes a spectacle of himself, he will hear it from West, Vogel and even Bird, who was one of the great trash talkers but in a more clandestine way.
Bird once believed that Stephenson might have the most natural talent of anyone he drafted, probably a reach now that George has ascended to the league’s elite. Still, Stephenson, George and Roy Hibbert give the Pacers a nucleus of players presumably still getting better, perhaps making the recently activated former All-Star Danny Granger expendable in a trade.
“Everything he does is very efficient, instinctive,” Walsh said of Stephenson. “He can get past his man almost every time and he has a great knack for finding guys under the basket and out in the corners, which is what we do, spacing the floor.”
Off the court, in the locker room, Stephenson accentuates the “we,” crediting Sunday’s triple-double to the flow of the game. “It was easy because I know my teammates are going to knock down shots,” he said.
By next summer, entering free agency, Stephenson, who is now earning slightly less than $1 million, will no doubt become more of a self-promoter. Reluctant to pay revenue taxes, the Pacers will have to be creative to keep him. For his part, Stephenson may want to take a hard look at the state of the game in his home city and remember how much a stable workplace is worth to an emerging N.B.A. player, born ready or not.