The glow of the limelight is a familiar, perhaps even comforting feeling for Lance Stephenson. He grew up with it, as a prep phenom and playground legend in his native Brooklyn. He was "Born Ready," in both nickname and game.
After a forgettable year at the University of Cincinnati and three largely anonymous seasons to start his NBA career, Stephenson is back in the good graces of that aforementioned glow. He's the Indiana Pacers' "glue guy," a jack-of-all-trades on whose efforts and ability to fill in the blanks may well hinge the franchise's pursuit of its first championship since it left the ABA 40 years ago.
Stephenson's journey back to the top of the basketball world, though, has been an arduous one. He went from being the most decorated high schooler New York had ever seen (three city championships at Lincoln High School, New York State's all-time scoring record, New York's Mr. Basketball 2009, a McDonald's All-American) to being the 40th pick in the 2010 NBA draft, twice passed over by his hometown New York Knicks in the second round alone.
That experience clearly humbled the 23-year-old Stephenson, who moved his family to Indianapolis with him almost immediately after the Pacers picked him. So, too, have the years spent learning from Larry Bird and developing as both a player and a person alongside the likes of Roy Hibbert, Paul George, David West and George Hill.
Stephenson is still a New York City kid at heart, a physical specimen whose attitude and approach would've made him a perfect fit with Pat Riley's rough-and-tumble Knicks from the 1990s. He talks trash (unlike most of his peers, according to him), plays tough and relishes every opportunity to push the ball from end to end that comes his way.
But no longer does he taunt his opponents with silly gestures from the end of the bench—nor need he. Nowadays, it's Lance's game that's attracting attention. He ranks second on the Pacers in points (14.2) and rebounds (7.3) and leads his team in assists (5.1) while shooting 50 percent from the field. For his efforts, Stephenson may well walk away from the 2013-14 season as the NBA's Most Improved Player and, perhaps, as a champion.
Not to mention millions of dollars richer, with free agency right around the corner. By the looks of it, Stephenson's already comfortable with the concept of high finance.
Just moments before he stepped into the Pacers' film room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse for that league-mandated meeting on money management, Stephenson spoke to Bleacher Report about everything from his Coney Island roots and the growth of his game to his relationship with Larry Legend and the changes that have taken place in Indy over the past few weeks.
BR: What’s been the biggest difference for you this season as opposed to previous seasons? Is it just a matter of having a bigger role on the team, or is there something else at play with the way you’ve kind of stepped up your game this season?
LS: It’s just being consistent and bringing something to the table every night on the floor and having fun doing it. I just try to be that energy guy, make the game easy for my guys and make them look better at the same time.
BR: What would you say is your favorite aspect of the game?
LS: Getting a rebound and pushing it. Just having fun, trying to beat the defense and get the easy layup or the easy pass for my teammates.
BR: Has that always been your game, going back to your decorated prep career in New York? Was that always how your game was?
LS: No, I don’t know. I mean, it changed, but I just try to find easier ways to get points and get assists and get rebounds. But, at the same time, you could do everything at once when you get the rebound and push it, so I just watch film and try to find things to do to get me easier plays for my teammates and myself.
BR: How has playing on a defensive-minded team like the Pacers affected your development as a defensive player?
LS: It helped me a lot because we’ve got so many great defenders on our team. Just watching them and learning from them and trying to put it into my game and put a little twist into it, it helped me a lot on defense. It makes the game easier for us because if Roy (Hibbert) gets a blocked shot, it’s easier in transition for us. It makes the game easier for us.
BR: How do you feel about the “Born Ready” nickname these days? Do you think it still applies?
LS: Oh definitely. That’s the name that was given to me, and I’m going to always use that name. I feel like that name describes me.
BR: You don’t feel like at all like maybe it doesn’t apply as well today, considering all the work that you’ve put into your game? Maybe it should be something more like “Ready and Prepared” or something like that?
LS: [Laughs] I mean, I’m always ready. When I was young, I was playing with the older guys. I was always the youngest on the floor, so they decided to name me “Born Ready” because I was the youngest on the floor, playing with 20-year-olds already. That’s why I think I got that name.
I’m still doing it to this day. There’s older guys in front of me and I’m still doing what I have to do on the floor. I think that name’s always going to live.
BR: Considering your decorated prep career and the sort of legendary figure you already are in New York, do you ever feel any added pressure to live up to that billing now that you’re in the NBA?
LS: I think I’ve always had that pressure. Growing up, cameras were following me every day. Being young and having all that attention at a young age. You’re going to have people jealous and wanting to play their hardest against me.
I feel like, by me being in the NBA, I’m the underdog. Everybody’s criticizing me. They don’t believe in my game. I just try to prove them wrong. I don’t feel like I have that spotlight that I had back then on me now.
BR: Has not having that spotlight made the game easier for you?
LS: Definitely. It humbled me because I went from the top back to the bottom, and now I’m trying to work my way back up to the top. It definitely humbled me and it made me work harder every day.
BR: Do you ever feel that there are guys in the NBA that you go up against who come at you harder because of who you were in Coney Island?
LS: Definitely. I mean, everybody is competitive in this league. I try to bring it at everybody. My name and, I feel like, everybody’s name, whoever you play against, these are the best players in the world, so when you’re on the floor, you’ve got to be competitive and try to bring it every time you play them.
BR: What effect do you think it’s had on your growth, as both a player and a man, to have your family with you in Indianapolis?
LS: It’s a blessing to have my family here and help me out and be supportive for me and be there for me. Everyone needs that. I feel like being out here in Indiana, by myself, I’d be bored and wouldn’t know what to do. By me having my family here and being family-oriented and having them here to help me out, that helps me on the court also.
BR: How would you describe your relationship with Larry Bird these days?
LS: Larry has a major impact on me and my success, me working hard. We talk all the time, and he gives me little tips to help me out and to motivate me and encourage me to get on the floor and go after people. That’s a blessing that I have, to have a guy with his championships, one of the best players to ever play the game...I mean, it’s a blessing to have him behind your back.
BR: Does he ever give you trash-talking tips?
LS: Oh, no [laughs]. It’s all about winning and just encouraging me to get better every day.
BR: Are you much of a trash talker on the court?
LS: Definitely. That’s the competitive nature in people. You’ve got to have it when people are trash talking you. It actually motivates me when you talk trash, and I talk trash to other people, because you’ve got to back it up. That motivates me.
BR: Who do you think is the best trash talker that you’ve encountered in the NBA, be he a teammate or an opponent?
LS: Everybody just plays the game the right way. I don’t think there’s anybody on the floor that really talks trash. I’m the only one that probably talks trash still. Everybody’s just playing the game and playing it quietly. No one is really talking trash these to each other anymore. I don’t really see that anymore.
BR: Do you think that gives you an edge over your opponents?
LS: Definitely, because you’ve got to back it up. You can’t talk trash and then play horrible. You’ve got to back it up. That motivates me that I’ve got to go hard because you’re talking trash and you’re trying to get under someone’s skin. You can’t get yourself out of the game doing that.
BR: What has Danny Granger meant to you and your career in the NBA?
LS: I mean, Danny had a major impact on our team and on me. His work ethic, his leadership. Him being there, it had a great impact on me and everybody in the locker room. He’s a great guy. Losing him hurt us in our heart. I wish all the success for him.
BR: What was your reaction when you first heard he was going to be traded?
LS: I mean, I was surprised. I really don’t know what to say about that, but I was definitely surprised.
BR: Have you thought at all about what it might be like going up against him in the playoffs if he joins a contender?
LS: Man, it would be crazy. He’d probably tell LeBron and Wade all our little tricks and secrets. I hope he doesn’t do that [laughs].
BR: What are your thoughts on Evan Turner since he joined the team?
LS: Evan Turner is basically the same kind of player as me. He’s a great creator, a smart player on the floor. He’s going to help us a lot. He actually brings defense to the table. I think he’s going to help us a lot, especially in the long run.
BR: How does having him on the bench now affect your role on the team? Or does it?
LS: I mean, it doesn’t. I still have the same role, and we just go and play hard and play together as a unit. As long as we play hard and together, I don’t think anyone on the floor can really handle us.
BR: What’s it been like so far having Andrew Bynum as part of the organization?
LS: I mean, that’s like having two Roys on the floor or two Bynums on the floor. It could go both ways. They’re both great players and Bynum is a great player and he has championships. He knows what it takes to get there and he knows how it feels and how hard you have to work to get there, so he can pass that on to us.
BR: Any idea as to when Bynum might be able to play with you guys?
LS: I really don’t know. I know he’s close. We’re working on it every day, trying to get him in shape. Hopefully, he can help us in the long run and get us to where we need to be.
BR: You seem to play with a chip on your shoulder a lot of times. Where do you think that comes from?
LS: It comes from New York. I mean, we’re competitive. We feel like we could take anybody’s shine. We don’t like to see other people shine. We like to take their shine. That’s my competitive nature. I feel like whoever’s on the floor with me, I’m going to make it tough on them and try to make how they play worse.
BR: Did getting passed over by your hometown Knicks in the draft give you any extra motivation once you got into the league?
LS: It doesn’t have to be the Knicks. I feel like by me just being the 40th pick, it gave me that edge where I needed to set an example and show everybody that I’m better than everybody who was in front of me in that class.
BR: Did that draft-day experience serve as a wake-up call to you?
LS: Definitely. It was definitely a wake-up call and it definitely made me work harder to prove my point and my work ethic and show everybody that I was better than the people that were in front of me.
BR: Would you say that this is a championship-or-bust season for you guys?
LS: I mean, with the pieces we have and the way we’ve been playing, I feel like we can get there. We can’t jinx ourselves. We have to keep playing hard and working hard every day, working on defense, working on offense. Getting better every day. Don’t let what the media say—”Oh, this is a championship team”—get to us. Stay humble and work hard and we could get there.
BR: Have you thought at all about your future after this season?
LS: No, I’m just worried about this season, man. During the summer, we’ll figure it out. Right now, I’m just worried about getting a championship and working hard to get as many wins as possible.
BR: What would it mean to you to win a championship in the NBA?
LS: That’d be a blessing. Growing up and watching the Lakers win it and Michael Jordan win it. I was that guy that was like, “Man, I want to see how that feels one day.” Just the celebration and everybody just happy. I just want to see how that feels. That’d be a blessing.
BR: What’s your relationship like with Paul George? Is there any fun, competitive banter between the two of you since he was the lottery pick and you were the second-round pick?
LS: No, we’re a team, man. I don’t really do that with my teammates. On my team, I feel like we’re a family and I don’t want to be competitive with my team. Only in practice. He was picked in front of me, but we’re on the same team. We work together as a unit, so I definitely don’t look at him like that.
BR: Have you talked to Roy Hibbert at all about getting you a guest spot on “Parks and Rec"?
LS: [Laughs] Oh, no.
BR: Would you have any interest in doing a cameo spot on a show? And, if so, what show would you want to be on?
LS: Definitely. I would like to do all that stuff. I feel like that’s fun stuff to do. I would love to do something like that. I don’t know what show, but I would definitely have fun doing that.
BR: At this moment, can you envision yourself playing with any team other than the Indiana Pacers?
LS: No. I’m just worried about right now and winning the championship with my teammates right now.
Twitter goes nuts for Lance. Trust me.