Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Sir Lance

By Robert Campbell

What a difference a year makes. Last May, Lance Stephenson of the Indiana Pacers became notorious for gesturing the choke sign toward LeBron James after a missed free throw. LeBron, of course, responded by leading Miami to three consecutive victories to eliminate the Pacers from the playoffs.

This wasn't the first time Stephenson was in the news, as he had been the center of attention for the wrong reasons all too often in his basketball career. Given the nickname "Born Ready" while in high school, Stephenson proved to be anything but in his first two seasons in the NBA. But as his performance demonstrated in last night's Game 6 win over the Knicks allowing the Pacers to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, Stephenson may has finally made the jump.

Having followed Stephenson since high school, I had always rooted for the guy. Anytime you are graced with the presence of someone so dominant at the high school level, as Stephenson was, you can't help but to do so. Stephenson attended Lincoln High School in Coney Island, New York, leading his team to the city championship in all four years, and becoming the all-time leading scorer in New York high school history. Still, despite all of his talent, Stephenson always found a way to draw criticism.

In 2008, he was charged with sexually abusing a female inside of Lincoln High School. He was also suspended from school and for two games for fighting with his teammate. The same year, he was cut from the Under-18 U.S. National Team because of chemistry and character concerns. He unofficially violated recruiting regulations on his official visit to the University of Maryland and chose to leave the University of Cincinnati after his freshman year, a choice that many called premature.

Stephenson was drafted in the second round and 40th overall by the Indiana Pacers, and warmed the bench for the majority of his first two seasons. He was then arrested in August 2010 for a physical altercation with his girlfriend. Finally, Frank Vogel notoriously and publicly demoted him to fourth string last season for disciplinary reasons.

The public called Stephenson a punk. A waste of talent. A bust.

This is the same guy who was New York Daily News' Player of the Year in back to back seasons in high school. The same guy who followed in the footsteps of Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair at Lincoln High School, and arguably outshined both of them. He was once the top pro prospect coming out of Lincoln, and now teams were passing over him in favor of Andy Rautins, Darington Hobson, Daniel Orton, and Armon Johnson.

What? You're telling me you don't have an Armon Johnson jersey?

Stephenson did struggle on the floor in his first two seasons, but impressed once he received a real opportunity. Remember, he's only 22, and is still developing and learning the intricacies of the NBA game. While I believe staying in college for an extra year would have benefited Stephenson, I can't blame him for wanting to support his family as soon as possible. Danny Granger's injury this season opened the door for Stephenson, and his stellar play and maturity development has helped him to become a regular starter and a viable asset of the Pacer's organization. His Game 6 performance against the Knicks epitomized how far he has truly come.

Game 6 wasn't his only impressive effort in the Eastern Conference semifinals. In Game 1, he scored 11 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, dished 3 assists, and had 3 steals. In Game 4, he had 13 points and 7 rebounds. Finally, in the Pacers series-clinching win, Stephenson had a career-high 25 points and 10 rebounds. Paul George and Roy Hibbert have gotten a lot of attention for the Pacers in their playoff run, and rightfully so, but who would have thought that Lance Stephenson may be their most important player.

He's still got a long way to go. He's an inconsistent shooter and his maturity is still a work in progress. But, if Stephenson is able to keep improving, then he has a great chance to be a starter in this league for many years to come.

If they want to have a chance at dethroning the defending champions, Stephenson will have to be the x-factor. The only real publicity he got in last year's playoff series against the Heat was his infamous choke gesture toward LeBron, and Dexter Pittman subsequently elbowing him in the throat in the following game. This year, Miami better come ready to play. They weren't especially impressive against the short-handed Chicago Bulls, and the Pacers are apt at playing just as physically as Chicago. Dwyane Wade, Stephenson's potential matchup, is banged up, as well, and Stephenson's aggressive motor may bother him. Besides, they were up 2-1 in the series last year before LeBron put his cape on.

I'm not saying the Pacers are going to win the series. I'm just saying Miami needs to take notice. The Pacers size could bother the Heat, and with the emergence of a guy like Stephenson, Miami may have their hands full.

Lance Stephenson may not have been "born ready." But he is sure as hell ready now.

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