There are two kinds of big acquisitions a sports team can make.
A team can add a player who brings a dynamic that it’s been sorely lacking; who obliterates a weakness the organization has long been plagued by; who adds a wholly new look or attitude for a group whose way of doing things has grown stale.
Then there’s the player who’s a perfect schematic fit—who makes sense with that organization precisely because the things that make him very good, or great, are the very things that make the franchise in question hum.
Stephenson made an enormous leap last season for the Indiana Pacers. According to Basketball-Reference, he scored 20.4 points per 100 possessions to go along with 10.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists—all career highs. He also posted a .130 win shares per 48 minutes, a mark that’s 30 points above league average.
Stephenson drew substantial criticism in the second half of the season while the Pacers slipped into a deep funk, but he was an effective offensive player for Indiana nonetheless.
Though many charged that he was too aggressively looking for his own shot late in games, he actually led the woebegone Pacers’ attack in true shooting percentage (.564), according to Basketball-Reference, posting a mark that’s three percentage points better than the average shooting guard.
Most importantly, he was a defensive menace. The Pacers hung their hat on defense, and Stephenson was among the most energetic hat-hangers. Take it from Grantland’s Zach Lowe:
He’s a strong one-on-one defender, both in the post and in space. Attack him from those places, and you’re likely to end up taking a contested jump shot or difficult floater with Stephenson’s arms in your shooting window.
There’s also this. In the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat, he asked to guard LeBron James. According to Chris Tomasson of Fox Sports (h/t Grantland's Andrew Sharp), the then 22-year-old guard, before the biggest game of his life, told coach Frank Vogel he wanted the responsibility of stopping the best player on the planet:
“He asked to guard him. He asked to guard him,’’ said Vogel, seemingly really wanting to really emphasize that. “He’s a competitor. We know Paul (George) is getting worn out a little bit guarding LeBron the whole game that he’s in there. Lance said, ‘Let me share some of the load.’’
Let the record show that Stephenson scored 20 points that night, held LeBron to 8-of-18 shooting and the Pacers won 99-92.
Which brings us to the Hornets. Under coach Steve Clifford last season, the then-Bobcats developed a richly deserved reputation for tenacious defense. En route to their first playoff appearance since 2009-10 (which seems way too recent), the team posted the sixth-best defensive efficiency in basketball, according to ESPN. This came a season after Charlotte finished dead last by that measure.
In this sense, Stephenson, 23, is a tremendous addition to this culture. Gasoline on the proverbial fire. The notion of he and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, 20, playing alongside one another is tantalizing. Two young, shutdown perimeter defenders coming of age together. That’s an embarrassment of riches for a franchise that’s spent a lot of time collecting food stamps.
And while the Stephenson we saw in 2013-14 would be a capital-G great fit in Charlotte, the team will probably get an even better version. The guard is clearly ascendant. He’s improved across the board statistically in each season he’s been in the NBA. He won’t turn 24 until September.
It’s not difficult, mapping Stephenson’s trajectory, to imagine him posting something like 16 points, eight rebounds and five assists per night for the Hornets in 2014-15, along with a field-goal percentage that hovers around 50 percent.
With that caliber of contribution from Stephenson, coupled with the continued steady play of Al Jefferson and improvements from Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker, Charlotte should better its 43-39 record last season and could even contend for a top-four spot in the still shoddy East.
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